Popular Music Perspectives: Ideas, Themes, and Patterns in Contemporary Lyrics

By B. Lee Cooper | Go to book overview

Chapter Ten

Answer Songs and Sequel Recordings

Answer songs * are tunes that respond to direct questions or continue to develop specific ideas and themes from earlier songs. They are as old as the multiple verse lyric poems performed by medieval troubadours. In the American oral entertainment tradition, they are rooted in the verbal one-upsmanship practiced by storytellers in barbershops, brothels, and bars along the coast of Mark Twain's fabled waterway. Answer songs are invariably linked to the mutual interests of performers and audiences in perpetuating and elaborating upon a humorous situation. Many songs were recorded during the first half of the twentieth century about the exploits of John Henry, Frankie and Johnny, and Stagger Lee. The heroics of the mythic steel-drivin' man echoed into the 1950s thanks to Lonnie Donegan and His Skiffle Group; the classic tale of alienated affection which prompted a homicide also transcended the Depression and World War II in recordings by Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and others; and the gambling and shooting incident involving the mysterious Stagger Lee and his ill-fated companion Billy found rebirth from its pre-1940 blues roots by Lloyd Price, Wilson Pickett, and Tommy Roe.

This chapter is not concerned with either traditional European or pre-Cold War American answer songs. The purpose of this investigation is to identify various American recordings from the 1950-1985 period which comprise the contemporary answer song system. Although the majority of songs which trigger recorded responses are themselves highly popular, the same can not be said of most offshoot tunes. For this reason answer discs are highly prized by most record collectors. Small pressings and limited sales of answer songs make them immediate rarities in the vinyl trade market. Beyond collecting, though, these recordings offer valuable illustrations of several American cultural traits. They are usually humorous, poking fun at a particular statement or a series of less‐ than-honorable activities; they invariably provide contrasting positions—both personal and political—to strongly stated viewpoints; they offer interesting,

____________________
*
Throughout this study an "answer song" is broadly defined as a commercial recording that is directly related to a previously released record either by title, by lyrical content, or by melody. Although generally issued only weeks after an original tune has achieved popularity, response recordings occasionally appear months or even years later. The answer song, usually regarded as a novelty item by most singers, promoters, and record buyers, has provided initial public visibility for a few major artists (Smokey Robinson and The Miracles) and remains a continuing vehicle for the social satire of others (Ben Colder and Weird Al Yankovic).

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Popular Music Perspectives: Ideas, Themes, and Patterns in Contemporary Lyrics
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Popular Music Perspectives - Ideas, Themes, and Patterns in Contemporary Lyrics *
  • Contents *
  • Acknowledgments 1
  • Introduction 4
  • Ideas *
  • Chapter One - Education (i) 9
  • Chapter Two - Railroads 25
  • Chapter Three - Rebels and Outsiders 37
  • Chapter Four - Education (ii) 48
  • Themes *
  • Chapter Five - Automobiles 59
  • Chapter Six - Christmas 68
  • Chapter Seven - Death 82
  • Chapter Eight - Food and Drink 94
  • Chapter Nine - Telephones 111
  • Patterns *
  • Chapter Ten - Answer Songs and Sequel Recordings 121
  • Chapter Eleven - Cover Records and Song Revivals 140
  • Chapter Twelve - Nursery Rhymes and Fairy Tales 155
  • Chapter Thirteen - Social Trends and Audio Chronology 172
  • Selected Bibliography 193
  • Index 210
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