In this time of stay-at-home orders, if there is one train Mister B has been on frequently, it’s the nostalgia train. It may have been a long, strange trip, but boomers are so incredibly privileged to have such a rich pop culture history, to serve as the backdrop for our personal Wayback machines.
This latest excursion for Mister B involved yet another piece of our musical history. For some unknown reason, a song popped into his head and has been stuck there as an ear worm for a week. When Mister B thought about it, he realized that this particular song was among the earliest he had heard, often enough on his transistor radio, to be able to sing along when it was played:
Does your chewing gum lose its flavor
On the bedpost overnight?
If your mother says, don’t chew it
Do you swallow it in spite?
Can you catch it on your tonsils?
Can you heave it left and right?
Does your chewing gum lose it’s flavor
On the bedpost overnight?
Were you hearing the tune while reading the lyrics? That was Lonnie Donegan’s novelty hit, Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavor (on the Bedpost Overnight)? from 1961. So, if you are like Mister B, you are recalling lyrics to a song that is 59 years old, and you may not have heard it in decades.
To a preteen boomer like Mister B, it was silly, yet memorable. Mister Boomer didn’t know anyone who had bedposts, but could imagine some kids might want to try to save their chewing gum one way or another. Mister B would not be among them, not only because he wasn’t an avid chewing gum fan to begin with, but he’d also experienced enough wads of chewing gum beneath diner tables to dissuade any thoughts of recycling one’s own previously-chewed material. Consequently, it was funny, but not realistic.
An examination of the song and its lyrics, however, bring into question the whole purpose behind the novelty hit. It was a reworking of a song from 1924, Does The Spearmint Lose Its Flavor On The Bedpost Overnight? An American song, it would have been part of the pre-Depression landscape of an economic boom that ushered Calvin Coolidge into the White House in that year’s presidential election.
Lonnie Donegan was known as the King of Skiffle in the UK at the time of the song’s U.S. release. Skiffle was a musical genre that held references to American folk music, jazz and blues. Many bands from the British Invasion named skiffle as a major influence for their music. John Lennon’s first band was a skiffle band. Lonnie Donegan was a major star in Great Britain, releasing 24 consecutive Top 30 hits. He was the first male star from the UK to have two U.S. Top 10 hits before Chewing Gum was released. So it begs the question, why a novelty song in 1961?
That year, the U.S. was listening to the Shirelles, Chubby Checker, Patsy Cline, Connie Francis, Roy Orbison and Ricky Nelson, among others. Donegan’s music was unlike any of them, but referenced the same influences of American music. Perhaps it was a way to introduce skiffle back to the country that spawned its influences?
There is another possible strange connection that could help to answer the question, and it had to do with the 1960 presidential election. The lyrics to the song travel around like the performers in a Vaudeville show, stopping only for a punchline. There are stanzas about grandmothers looking to get lucky with prowlers who got stuck on the bedpost, newlyweds on their honeymoon, big brothers taking your chewing gum, and several others. Among them is a decidedly political stanza that Donegan kept from the 1924 original:
Now the nation rise as one
To send their only son
Up to the White House
Yes, the nation’s only White House
To voice their discontent
Unto the President
They pawn the burning question
What has swept this continent?
When the song was written, Calvin Coolidge had won a massive victory over his Democratic rival, and an independent candidate. Coolidge became president when Warren Harding was assassinated, then won a full term in the election of 1924. He was hardly a reform candidate, nor was the country in great distress, so it is unclear as to what the original satirical intent of the lyrics might allude. Forty years later, why did Lonegan choose to include the stanza when he altered others? John Kennedy had won the 1960 presidential election and was inaugurated as president in January of 1961, just seven months before the release of the song. However, Donegan had released the song in the UK in 1957, a time of Recession in the U.S. under then President Dwight Eisenhower. Is it possible that Donegan, an Englishman, was commenting on American politics? Was he a Kennedy fan? Was his song saying that the staleness of gum on a bedpost — a stand-in for the previous administration — was now apparent for all to see, and it was time for change? Or is that reading too much into a silly novelty song?
What do you think, boomers? In your youth, do you recall singing along to Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavor (on the Bedpost Overnight)? Do you still have a copy of the 45 RPM?