Ed Cray’s The Erotic Muse: American Bawdy Songs

cover art for The Erotic MuseBrendan Foreman wrote this review.

Anyone who remembers anything of their childhood will recall how important those dirty words and dirty jokes were to their very existence. Without the ability to transgress society’s boundaries simply by uttering a phrase like “Fuck you!” or “Shit!” or “Goddamn it!” life would have been a dreary succession of bus rides and school days. I personally remember the first day I heard the F-word: a friend of mine took me aside to tell me that “they invented a new curse word: ‘fuck.’ ” Neither of us had any idea of what it meant (we were in first grade at the time), and I really don’t know whether I had heard the word before or not, but the thrill of learning that there was one more word that I wasn’t allowed to say was delicious.

Ed Cray recaptures that thrill in The Erotic Muse: American Bawdy Songs, a compendium of American “dirty” songs that he’s collected over the past four decades. These are the folk songs that usually don’t get into the standard collections; or, if they do, usually in extremely censured form. Moving from songs that came over from the British Isles to those that were purely American inventions, and ending with more colloquial songs originating from college campuses and the military, this book is sure to please anyone who still cracks a smile when she or he recalls “Milk, milk, lemonade…” or the diarrhea song from her or his youth. However, much more important than that, these songs represent the sizable amount of fascination that the scatological and sexual sides of life have always generated for humanity.

Be warned, though, if you are in the least offended by words like “cunt,” “prick,” “fuck,” or “pubic,” or the various sentences that usually contain these words, then do not read this book.

Although the subject matter may seem a bit “low grade” for such a treatment, Cray devotes real scholarship to the research of these songs. The source, lyrics, and tune of each song is listed along with variations and the sources of those variations. When possible, he describes the history and lineage of each piece. For example, in the “Casey Jones” section, we learn that there were two distinct versions of this song: one version detailing the historic train wreck of 1900 and another detailing the sexual prowess of the eponymous hero:

Casey Jones mounted to his cabin.
Casey Jones had his pecker in his hand.
Casey Jones mounted to his cabin,
Said, “Look out, ladies, I’m a railroad man.”

It is also unclear where the bawdy version really came from; Cray theorizes that it grew over time out of a few off-color stanzas that were added to the original.

The first chapter, “Old, New, Borrowed, Blue” consists of bawdy songs that migrated to the States from the British Isles. Given such British imports as “The Sea Crab,” a song about the inherent problems of putting a sea crab in a chamber pot for safe-keeping, and “The Wayward Boy,” which quite graphically depicts not only the sexual act but the subsequent venereal disease and pregnancy, it is really hard not to appreciate the British contribution to our civilization.

Other notable borrowings from across the Atlantic include the Irish “Sam MacColl’s Song,” whose hero just can’t seem to stop:

If the girls want no more, want no more,
Or they say they’re very sore, very sore,
If the girls moan and weep,
Or they say they want to sleep,
I try horses, cows, and sheep, cows and sheep.

And the very lovely “Blinded by Shit,” which warns beat cops against looking up too much during their watch, especially in the direction of windows whose owners took too many laxatives before going to bed. From Scotland, we get the play-by-play description of an orgy at “The Ball of Kirriemuir”:

“And when the ball was over,
The opinion was expressed:
Although they liked the music
The fuckin’ was the best.”

In “American As Mom’s Apple Pie,” the second chapter, Cray lists the songs that are truly American. There are quite a few famous songs here: “Frankie and Johnny,” “Stackolee” (also known as “Stagger Lee”), the aforementioned “Casey Jones,” and of course “Charlotte the Harlot” (in four versions, no less).

Americans apparently have always found physical deformity humorous, particularly when related to genitalia. In “No Balls at All,” we witness the difficulties that arise from such an unfortunate situation:

The night of the wedding she leaped into bed.
Her breasts were a-heaving; her legs were well spread;
reached for his penis; his penis was small.
She reached for his balls; he had no balls at all.

But don’t worry; our heroine learns some valuable advice from her mother:

“Oh daughter, oh daughter, now don’t feel so sad;
I had the same trouble with your dear old dad.
There are lots of young men who will answer the call
Of the wife of a man who has no balls at all.”

Imagine my shock when I discovered that the sweet, innocent square-dancing standard “Red Wing,” which I’ve been playing with my contra dance band, can be sung in verses dedicated to an unfortunate Native American prostitute who “[f]or a dime at a whack,/[would] lie on her back/And let the cowboys shove it up her crack.” I really don’t know if I’ll be able to play this tune again.

Sometimes, these lyrics can be quite clever, as this line from “Kathusalem”: “When the Jewish army came to town, the price went up and she went down.” Other times, they’re just plain weird:

Oh, if I had the wings of an angel
And the ass of a hairy baboon,
I would fly to the end of creation
And cornhole the man in the moon.

Easily the most hilarious of the chapters is “The Second-Hand Muse,” wherein Cray details the many bawdy parodies of well-known songs that he has encountered. Very few songs are exempt from this kind of treatment:

“These Foolish Things”:
Ten pounds of boobies in a loose brassiere,
A twat that twitches like a moose’s ear,
A dried up cum drop in my bottle of beer,
These foolish things remind me of you.

That old stand-by, “Mother”:

M is for the many times you made me.
O is for the other times you’ve tried.
T is for the tourist cabin weekends.
H is for the hell you raised inside.
E is for the everlasting passion.
R is for the ‘reck you made of me.
Put them all together, they spell “Mother,”
And that is what you made of me.

And, my particular favorite, “Baby Face”:

Pubic hair.
You’ve got the cutest little pubic hair.
There is no finer anywhere, pubic hair.
Penis or vagina, nothing could be finer. Pubic hair.
I’m in heaven when I’m in your underwear.
I don’t need a shove;
I got a taste of love From your pretty pubic hair.

Imagine Darla from the Little Rascals singing that to Alfalfa!

Let’s not forget “On Top of Old Smoky” (“On top of old Sophie, all covered with sweat…”), “The Object of My Affection” (“The object of my affection makes my erection/Turn from pink to rosy red…”). Need I go on? The last two chapters, “Undergraduates Coarse” and “Bless ‘Em All,” about bawdy songs found in colleges and the military, respectively, are the smallest of the chapters. Yet they contain such gems as “Last Night I Stayed Up Late to Masturbate,” “Do Your Balls Hang Low?” and the classic going-off-to-war rage song “Fuck ‘Em All”:

Fuck ’em all, fuck ’em all,
the long and the short and the tall.
Fuck all the corporals and W.O. Ones,
‘Cause we’re sayin’ goodbye to them all…

The only thing that would add to this book is a chapter dealing with children’s songs. This seems to me to be a vast source of bawdy material that has as yet been inadequately compiled. It would be a tough research topic, though: what parent is going to admit to the researcher that their child curses worse than a sailor when unsupervised? (Do see our review of Josepha Sherman and E.K.F. Weisskopf’s Greasy Grimy Gopher Guts: The Subversive Folklore of Childhood for the scatological side of childhood. And our review of Alison Lurie’s Don’t Tell the Grown-Ups will give you a glimpse of the role of sex in children’s literature.)

This aside, this book is an excellent peek into the seamier side of folk music, and there deserve to be many more like it. I end this review with this gem from “The Second-Hand Muse” (sung to the tune of “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing”):

Life Presents a Dismal Picture

Life presents a dismal picture.
Life is full of tears and gloom.
Father has a penile stricture.
Mother has a fallen womb.
In the corner sits my sister,
Never laughs and never smiles.
What a dismal occupation:
Cracking ice for father’s piles.

Brother Bill has been deported
For a homosexual crime.
Sister Sue has been aborted
For the sixth or seventh time.
Little Luke is slowly dying
For he’s always having fits.
Everytime he laughs, he vomits;
Every time he farts, he shits.

(University of Illinois, 1999)

Gary Whitehouse

Gary has been reviewing music, books and more at the Green Man Review since sometime in the previous Millennium. He lives in a mostly hipster-free part of Oregon, where he enjoys dogs, books, music, the outdoors, and craft beer, cider, and coffee.

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