buckling their knickerbockers BELOW the knee
September 21, 2014 3:48 AM   Subscribe

A lot of folks are familiar with the "trouble right here in River City" refrain of the song, but when you look at this double echo of cultural fretting — 50 years plus 50 years on — it serves as an impressive reminder that nothing, nothing, is new about the raising of alarms about the decline and fall of culture.
Kids, Pants, Booze, Music: Trouble In River City And Always.
posted by MartinWisse (47 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
 
But things did go to shit in river city. Just not anywhere else.

River City suffers for us, always.
posted by clvrmnky at 5:10 AM on September 21, 2014 [1 favorite]




I just spent went down a rabbit-hole tracing the development of pocketless billiard/carom tables their games, ( straightrail, and balkline ) and pocketed pool tables.
posted by mikelieman at 5:24 AM on September 21, 2014 [1 favorite]


He goes on to list the "telltale signs of corruption," which include rebuckling knickerbockers below the knee (How Kids Wear Pants: A Cultural Nightmare), dime novels (The Trash Kids Read: A Cultural Swamp), and the use of words like "swell" (The Way Kids Talk: A Cultural Disaster).
It's amazing how consistent these three things are in moral panics. See also: pegged jeans, comic books, groovy, sagging, Twilight, txtspeak, etc.
posted by Rock Steady at 5:26 AM on September 21, 2014 [7 favorites]


Nice article, thanks for posting it. The same fears, and the same techniques for manipulating them.
posted by still_wears_a_hat at 5:44 AM on September 21, 2014


I liked this observation: "Moreover, as much as flattery, it's guilt: if you want to continue to be the right kind of parents, you must appropriately freak out over this, because that's what good and decent people who care about their children would do."

Current paradigm of American parenthood in a nutshell: "You'll panic, if you're moral!"
posted by MonkeyToes at 5:51 AM on September 21, 2014 [8 favorites]


Well we all know who to call when there's trouble in River City.
posted by Pope Guilty at 5:59 AM on September 21, 2014 [6 favorites]


Also as much true in 1912, 1957 and today, most of the real trouble coming out of the things adults are doing for money and power.
posted by nanojath at 6:21 AM on September 21, 2014 [6 favorites]


Way to explain a joke, NPR.
posted by unknowncommand at 6:23 AM on September 21, 2014 [6 favorites]


Capt. Billy's Whiz Bang...
posted by jim in austin at 6:28 AM on September 21, 2014 [1 favorite]


It's true that most moral panics are ridiculous, but it was a little jarring how the article skimmed over cigarettes as just another silly, trivial thing to be worried about. Some trends are actually dangerous, even if they're not the trends that get most attention. (Though perhaps the incitement there was just wanted over a difference in brand or style; I don't know a whole lot about early 20th century attitudes towards cigarettes.)
posted by Kilter at 6:43 AM on September 21, 2014 [1 favorite]


Kilter, at the time the show was written, people thought cigarettes were totally fine, and at the time it took place, they were even sometimes prescribed as medicine.
posted by chaiminda at 6:52 AM on September 21, 2014 [4 favorites]


Imagine how awesome the lawns must have been then.
posted by briank at 6:53 AM on September 21, 2014 [7 favorites]


pretty much all of human civilization since the year forever
posted by Foci for Analysis at 6:55 AM on September 21, 2014


Monorail!
posted by gingerbeer at 7:20 AM on September 21, 2014 [15 favorites]


Until 1950 there were no scientific studies demonstrating a relationship between smoking and lung cancer. Smoking was ubiquitous in North America and Europe and mostly considered harmless. There were many different groups who discouraged smoking, but generally on moral grounds. The wikipedia article on tobacco smoking tells more.
posted by blob at 7:22 AM on September 21, 2014


Reactionaries gonna react. It's in our nature. What I find interesting is that the playbook never seems to change. This past week, I watched the excellent Ken Burns' biography of the Roosevelts. One thing that stood out was that the charges the right threw at FDR were the EXACT SAME THINGS that have been hurled at Obama. Everything old is new again, ad nauseum.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 7:28 AM on September 21, 2014


Oh great.

Now I have Robert Preston and Shirley Jones singing in my head, and probably will all day.

It's okay when TCM does this to me, because at least the movie flows through and has an end... But just having the songs running through my head means I probably won't get rid of them today at all.

*goes into a corner and sings the Green Acres theme song to myself until it all stops*
posted by hippybear at 7:39 AM on September 21, 2014 [5 favorites]


One thing that stood out was that the charges the right threw at FDR were the EXACT SAME THINGS that have been hurled at Obama.

They said FDR was a Nazi Communist Atheist Muslim from Kenya?
posted by Faint of Butt at 7:42 AM on September 21, 2014 [5 favorites]


One thing that stood out was that the charges the right threw at FDR were the EXACT SAME THINGS that have been hurled at Obama.

Historical narratives say a lot about current preoccupations. Funny how that works. /declineandfall
posted by MonkeyToes at 7:50 AM on September 21, 2014 [1 favorite]


We got Lindas? creepin right into our Holmes?
posted by Potomac Avenue at 8:33 AM on September 21, 2014




at the time the show was written, people thought cigarettes were totally fine,


Come on, they called them coffin nails as far back as the 1800s. Sure, there was advertising that claimed health benefits, but there were anti-smoking campaigns as well. I really have to question how many people actually believed it was a good habit rather than a mild vice. Not my great generation parents, not in 1957, and not their parents in 1912.

Anyway, sometimes things really do get worse. I leave it to the individual to decide when and where.
posted by IndigoJones at 8:56 AM on September 21, 2014 [1 favorite]


Mono...DOH!
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 8:58 AM on September 21, 2014 [8 favorites]


However and also though. Cultures do actually change, and losses to things like dignity often come with those changes. It's totally true that moral-panic-inducing reactionaries hijack every conversation about these changes to line their pockets and try to inflict fascism on everyone, but it doesn't change the fact that they are pointing at something real. Whatever the modern version of ragtime and/or pool is (tweeting? Twerking? Molly? All 3 at once?) it does have a downside. There are negative results of change, and nostalgia for the positive aspects of previous eras can even inspire innovations in art or social progress.

So what I'm saying is, just because change shouldn't make anyone freak out, doesn't mean there is not, actually, a bit of trouble.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 8:59 AM on September 21, 2014


Right here in etc
posted by Potomac Avenue at 9:02 AM on September 21, 2014 [1 favorite]


> "They said FDR was a Nazi Communist Atheist Muslim from Kenya?"

Well ... Hoover called FDR's policies "a disguise for the totalitarian state." Hearst newspapers said FDR was surrounded by a "communist entourage". The Chicago Tribune said that an FDR victory would "put Moscow in the White House" and had a headline stating that "Moscow Orders Reds in U.S. to Back Roosevelt".

But I'm fairly sure he was not accused of being an Atheist Muslim from Kenya, that is true.
posted by kyrademon at 9:13 AM on September 21, 2014 [4 favorites]


I remember when the idle kids in Hattusa began cross-tying their sandal laces. everyone said it was the end of civilization! Of course, the Bronze Age Collapse was just around the corner, and they were right in a way, but I'm pretty sure the sandals weren't the main factor....
posted by GenjiandProust at 9:59 AM on September 21, 2014 [3 favorites]


Way to explain a joke, NPR.

Seriously. I love the Music Man (played the barbershop bass in a high-school production and still sing Lida Rose), and now I feel a bit stupider for reading that. It's a bit like explaining the chicken-crossing-the-road joke.

Can we talk instead about whether or not it's appropriate for kids in this day and age to perform "Shipoopi"?
posted by mrgrimm at 10:28 AM on September 21, 2014 [2 favorites]


Lordy, do I ever love this musical, and this has long been one of my favorite parts of it. (My other being that the leitmotifs for Hill (76 Trombones) and Marian the Librarian (Good-night My Someone) are the SAME SONG WITH DIFFERENT TEMPOS!) I'm glad that Holmes picked up the dog-whistle racism, but there are some other great subtleties in the song and the scene:

* Making fun of the "out-of-town jasper" is a really weird and clever inversion, since that's _exactly_ what Hill is. And the only people who care are the school board (the delightful Buffalo Bills barbershop quartet) and Marian the Librarian.

* When the song hits the points of slang, the mothers' chorus rises on the confirmation of each dirty, vulgar word. The Broadway recording does not have this aspect, and it's lacking. The rise of the chorus so neatly parallels the rise of the town's hysteria.

* He doesn't wear a hat for the entire song. Almost every other male does. Certainly, this helps distinguish him visually, but also, a hatless man is someone who has removed the distance of standard society to implore, to beg, to plead with you. He is in your home, he has removed the armor of the street to bare his head and, dare I say, his very heart to you on this matter of utmost importance!

* At the end of the song, he strikes the pose of the statue and says "I pass this way but once". This is a light nod to the Quaker missionary Stephen Grellet. The full quote is usually rendered as "I expect to pass through this world but once. Any good, therefore, that I can do or any kindness I can show to any fellow creature, let me do it now. Let me not defer or neglect it for I shall not pass this way again."

Don't you see? Harold Hill is doing this out of moral cause? He'll only pass this way but once, yet he is commanded, compelled, even, to tell the people, as a kindness, of the moral depredations their children are vulnerable to!

Yes, I do love this show and the movie so very, very much.
posted by aureliobuendia at 10:31 AM on September 21, 2014 [23 favorites]


It is like nobody has seen the movie. The "Trouble with a capital T" comes in the first scene of the movie.

Why it's the Model T Ford made the trouble,
Made the people wanna go, wanna get, wanna get,
Wanna get up and go seven, eight, nine, ten, twelve,
fourteen, twenty-two, twenty-three miles to the County Seat


The movie is not about a moral panic incited by Harold Hill. It is about the fear of change. Going to the County Seat is a reference to the population shifting from rural to urban.

Gone with the hogshead, cask, and demijohn,
Gone with the sugar barrel, pickle barrel, milk pan
Gone with the tub and the pail and the tierce


Hogshead, cask and demijohn are units of measure. This is an almost explicit reference to long established standards being discarded.

All this happens before Hill is ever mentioned. Hill merely comes along and takes advantage of these fears. In fact, his first line in the movie thanks the other salesmen for telling him about their fears, "Gentlemen, you intrigue me. I think I'll have to give Iowa a try."
posted by charlie don't surf at 11:19 AM on September 21, 2014 [6 favorites]


Well shit. Now I have to re-watch this confounded musical.
posted by sandettie light vessel automatic at 12:04 PM on September 21, 2014


I agree with the "way to explain the joke, NPR!" sentiment. History repeats itself, and though Music Man certainly illustrates that fact, it's not particularly novel or enlightening in repacking that most universal of tropes.

If there's a song in the Music Man worthy of analysis in a historical context, it's absolutely "Gary, Indiana". Give it a thought: in a musical set in 1912, the song is a fawning account of an idyllic town that was founded in 1906 by the U.S. Steel Corporation. Don't worry about the conspicuous lack of details in our catchy ditty about the town, just move here to pursue your dreams!

"Here" being, of course, the ultimate company town, a 20th century setting for robber-baron sanctioned indentured servitude.

That said, I did learn one thing from this NPR article -- that Music Man was written in 1957. Me and my cynical self had assumed it was written closer to 1912 itself, and the writers were in cahoots with US Steel, offering advertising of a sort with their song. The fact that it's a 1950s reflection of that early 20th century zeitgeist makes me, actually, quite interested to view the musical once again.
posted by Theophrastus Johnson at 12:23 PM on September 21, 2014 [1 favorite]


The article doesn't say anything about whether cigarettes are worthwhile to be concerned about, it's showing how the song satirizes the practice of perennial realities (youths experimenting with sex drugs and rock-n-roll, adjust particulars for period), conflating them with mainstream adult anxiety over social change and using it all to induce moral panic in order to manipulate people. It doesn't matter whether or to what degree any individual facet of Harold Hill's list of hazards was genuinely dangerous, or to what degree that danger might have been recognized in the time period the song was written about, the time period in which it was written, or now - the point is that cigarettes have nothing to do with pool and neither of them have anything to do with whether the town needs a boys band.
posted by nanojath at 12:38 PM on September 21, 2014 [1 favorite]


I love The Music Man. I first saw it on TV at Christmas at least 45 years ago, and listened to the Broadway OCR a lot when I was a child, so it's burned into my brain.

One of the most extraordinary things about The Music Man, for me is that it's completely original - I long assumed that it was taken from one of those classic American novels, and it's all Meredith Willson. He would have been exactly the same age as Winthrop, of course.

The Think System isn't, actually, that bad a way to learn a musical instrument, though not in isolation and not, possibly, the trumpet.

The other moral panic (which is equally alive in the modern world) is the townswomen's looking down on Marian for befriending the the local philanthropist Miser Madison and corrupting the youth with dirty books like Chaucer and Balzac.

It's also on my list of things which were shot to conceal the leading actress's pregnancy (it's not, I hasten to add, squeamishness over pregnancy, so much as admiration of what is often a terrific conjuring trick).
posted by Grangousier at 12:39 PM on September 21, 2014 [1 favorite]


Give it a thought: in a musical set in 1912, the song is a fawning account of an idyllic town that was founded in 1906 by the U.S. Steel Corporation. Don't worry about the conspicuous lack of details in our catchy ditty about the town, just move here to pursue your dreams!

It is like people haven't even watched the movie. That is one of the central plot points, Harold tells Marian that he was "Gary Conservatory of Music, gold medal class of '05." Later on, Marian specifically says the town wasn't built until '06.
posted by charlie don't surf at 12:56 PM on September 21, 2014 [3 favorites]


I don't like most musicals - I prefer outright dramas or comedies on the stage - but I love The Music Man. Thanks for the FPP.
posted by mosk at 1:34 PM on September 21, 2014


Thanks, Martin, and thanks, Linda. Such a great musical, such a great song.

I frequently make a nuisance of myself by launchng it on the slightest provocation, such as almost any time I hear "May I have your attention, please?" Or "Please excuse me." Why, just last week I managed to bust it out in a meeting because someone said "The next thing you know...".

(Also, that troubling line? I always heard it as "arms in a jumble.")
posted by tangerine at 4:27 PM on September 21, 2014


"Gary, Indiana" turns out to be a little dark for another reason:
Winthrop is excited because Harold has taught him a song with "hardly any Ss in it," presumably so that Winthrop can be less conscious of his lisp. But when Winthrop starts singing, we realize the song is absolutely loaded with Ss. ... In context, it seems very innocent, but the bottom line is that Harold will lie to anyone for any reason.
Scott Miller, Deconstructing Harold Hill.
posted by kristi at 5:36 PM on September 21, 2014 [2 favorites]


I saw "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" at the ripe age of 12. I still pretend to be the first one in and the last one out of the office be emailing early and late. Love those time stamps!
posted by breadbox at 5:37 PM on September 21, 2014


Grew up with the LP, know every note and every word of every song. Saw the film quite recently. It's a complete one-off isn't it? I can't think of another musical like it. And when Hill disembarks in River City and the camera pans across, catching a single horse tethered in the street, that's a pointed visual snark, yes?

Winthrop. Little Ronnie Howard. So touched when I twigged who he was.
posted by glasseyes at 6:14 PM on September 21, 2014 [1 favorite]


Monorail

I'll see your Monorail and raise you a Flim Flam Brothers' Super Speedy Cider Squeezy 6000.
posted by radwolf76 at 9:08 PM on September 21, 2014 [2 favorites]


something about the plot of this musical struck me years later when I learned that the Gibson company's classic line of beautiful mandolins first marketed in the teens and twenties were a product of specific marketing strategy.

the company introduced mandolin-analogues for every one of the classical orchestra's string section, from the mando-bass through the mandolin, which is tuned to the same scale as the violin. The idea was to introduce a *new kind of orchestra*, which could play the easily available classical canon, but whose instruments were a) uniquely produced by gibson b) cheaper to build, use, and buy than violins, viola, etc and c) which would appeal to the families of the great wave of working-class emigrants to the United States from Europe which begins in the 1880s.

the instruments were sold en masse by subscription to working-class immigrant community organizations, in *exactly* the manner Mr. Hill is aping. His sales patter is a fair, if satirical, iteration of Gibson's sales pamphlets directed in support of these sales.

naturally, because mandolins are notoriously prone to falling out of tune (eight strings doubles your chances of a string slip); because these non-professional orchestras had varying degrees of player ability, commitment, and resultant skill; and because the performers were working-class people of non-WASP ethnicity, bashing the performances of mandolin orchestras was a popular way for your average lickspittle music critic to prove their devotion to the spat-wearers that signed their paychecks. it's fascinating stuff.

Gibson made out doing this, as well, at least until the depression. my understanding is that the sales success and subsequent high rate of abandonment of the instrument by the original purchaser helped to create the latter-day collectors market for the instruments - there were a whole lotta dusty mandolins coming out of closets and estate sales in the late 1960s and 70s. or so i have heard.

we now return you to your regularly scheduled thread. Apologies for not plopping a couple links in, i'm on an ipad and it is a hassle to grab a link or two and paste it in.
posted by mwhybark at 10:46 PM on September 21, 2014 [13 favorites]


the instruments were sold en masse by subscription to working-class immigrant community organizations, in *exactly* the manner Mr. Hill is aping. His sales patter is a fair, if satirical, iteration of Gibson's sales pamphlets directed in support of these sales.

Why, it is almost as if Meredith Willson, who actually played in a marching band in the period in which the film is set, was writing social commentary about the marketing of musical instruments to marching bands.
posted by charlie don't surf at 8:02 AM on September 22, 2014 [3 favorites]


the bottom line is that Harold will lie to anyone for any reason.

No, it was for the lulz. And he's still laughing. At us. For having to listen to that song.
posted by mrgrimm at 11:52 AM on September 23, 2014


the bottom line is that Harold will lie to anyone for any reason.

I think the point of the story contained in the musical is that he starts out as someone who will lie to anyone for any reason, usually to make himself a few bucks and then move along to another town. But his involvement with Marion and her family, specifically seeing Winthrop blossom out of his shyness and Marion's and her mother's delight at this, plus seeing some other effects the false promises he's gotten the town to buy into are having a positive effect on the community in ways he had not necessarily witnessed before, cause him to have a change of heart. He's certainly still willing to flee the town if given the chance, but once he realizes how much the band means to all concerned, and is himself amazed at how well his "Think System" as worked despite it being against all musical pedagogy, he ends up actually settling down with Marion, who has risked what remains of whatever possible good reputation in the town she has despite knowing the truth to defend him, in River City and ends his crooked ways.

Or, at least, decades of being enamored with the film and having it basically memorized have led me to believe that.

In some odd way, it's the story of how even crooked liars selling snake oil can affect positive social change given the right set of circumstances, coupled with a redemption story about how a crooked liar can come to realize that there are more important things in life than having a new flock of sheep to fleece.
posted by hippybear at 1:13 AM on September 24, 2014


So: The Broadway Musical as Social Satire - there's The Music Man, How To Succeed in Business... and Anyone Can Whistle. Promises, Promises, perhaps. Anything else, or am I overthinking it?

(That would be classic Broadway Musical - pre-1970. After 1970, and especially after 1980, the rules change a bit. Over the last few years they've tried all sorts of thing to see what will work, but during the 50s and 60s Broadway seems like a mighty, and solidly mainstream, entertainment engine, and it's interesting that satire arises within that context).
posted by Grangousier at 1:48 AM on September 24, 2014


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