Friday, March 12, 2004

Naughty Words, Gilbert & Sullivan, and Prohibition in England

My music randomizer just gave me Henry Lytton's "Little List" song from the 1926 D'Oyly Carte Mikado. Two things stuck out in my mind (besides his terrible voice). One was no surprise, but still jarring -- the 1926 DOC did not choose to take the 'banjo serenader' alternative that we almost always here these days, and gave us the original 'nigger' version:
There's the nigger serenader and the others of his race... I'm sure he won't be missed!
This made me wonder when 'banjo serenader' became standard. I found the answer: from Martyn Green's Treasury, quoted here:
It was not until 1947 that any form of criticism was leveled at the use of this word, yet the D'Oyly Carte had played in the United States many times from 1934 on. However, serious objections were expressed in 1947. Rupert D'Oyly Carte approached Sir Alan P. Herbert, a contemporary lyricist, to provide alternatives to the word, both in this song and in the Mikado's song. There was no difficulty over this one -- the word was simply changed to "banjo player," basing the change on Gilbert's meaning of the word when he wrote it, viz., the itinerant street singer who, in imitation of the Negro minstrel, a craze that had come over from the United States, was using burnt cork and twanging away on a banjo at virtually every street corner.
The other thing I found notable and surprising in the 1926 recording was a lyric change that I had not encountered before: a reference to 'that singular anomaly, the prohibitionist' as something that never would be missed. Prohibition lasted from 1920 to 1933 in the United States. I'm woefully ignorant about the history of the rest of the world (product of American public schools...) -- was there a British or English equivalent?

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