They Don’t Make ‘Em Like They Used To

“The Alfabet Song” is track 17 on the CD Songs for Well-Behaved Children, written and recorded by Barry Louis Polisar. My brother and I received this album as a gift when it first came out; I recently purchased it on CD when for my own children and those of my friends. The lyrics are delightfully naughty:

A is for armpit, acne, and alchemy.
Au naturel and alcohol, albatross and atrophy.
Athlete’s foot and atom bomb,asthma and autopsy.
B is for bombshell, bacteria, and me.

C is for cantankerous, canker sore, and candy.
D is for dumbbell, doody balls, and dandy.
E is for egghead, ego, and electrocute.
F is for a dirty word, Filet O’Fish and Fu Manchu.

G is for grotesque, gross, and genocide.
H is for hernia, hemorrhoids, and high rise.
I is for idiot, imbecile, and Iroquois.
J is for jugular vein, junkie, and joy.

K is for kangaroo, kick, and kootie.
L is for lavatory, lick, and loony.
M is for mayonnaise, mayhem, and misogynist.
N is for nonsense, nudity, and nit.

Oh, O is for oatmeal, Oreos, and oleo.
P is for politics, pat, and Edgar Allen Poe.
Q is for quadruple and R is for rude.
S is for shiftless and T is for two.

Oh, U is for underwear and V is for villainy.
W is too hard and so is X, Y, and Z.

Autopsy. A dirty word. Genocide. Junkie. Misogynist. Shiftless. I mean it when I say they don’t make ’em like they did in 1979. Not even the artist makes ’em like he used to–he’s been recording new stuff and rerecording old stuff, and although the production quality has improved (by his own assessment–we emailed once or twice, not lately and not about this song) he has cleaned up the lyrics. It makes me sad. F is for follicle. U is for ululate. Fun words to spell and say, but they lack that certain indescribable something that I like to think of as subversiveness.

I wonder what motivated this change? Was it to increase the number of elementary schools that would let him perform there? (I doubt many principals appreciated having the word “mayhem” introduced to their student body.) Was it a nod in the general direction of the political correctness movement? Was it because he first wrote the song when he was an arrogant punk kid in his early twenties, and changed his mind about what he thought children should know when his first kid turned five? I believe Matt Groening apologized years later–after his kid was born–for Bart Simpson’s language. Considering that the Little Fella repeats every word he hears, I can sympathize with this concern. But the ornery streak in me doesn’t mind if my children throw words like “cantankerous” and “alchemy” around. “Alchemy” is worth like 18 points in Scrabble, and that’s before the 50-point bonus or any special tile assessment.

Polisar has all the old stuff for sale as archival recordings at his website: http://www.barrylou.com/originalCDs.html. I should probably stock up on them now before all the other rabid fans get them. I have this feeling that children’s recording artists who sing the lyrics “tie a rope around his mouth and lock him in a box” are few and far between.

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Comments

  • Mike Kohan  On January 25, 2008 at 8:52 pm

    Every weekend, my mom dragged me to the local library as a youngster in the late 70’s/early 80’s. Some of the stuff she’d get for me was crap, some stays with me to this day. Barry Louis Polisar is at the top of that second category. I remember listening to his albums and borrowing them over and over to play on my Fisher-Price record player and sing along to.

    Then I grew up and had kids of my own. My oldest boy is ready for Polisar, but not the current incarnation. He’ll be getting the original albums in all their glory. His re-recording of “Shut up in the Library” for example has stripped ALL the mischevious fun out of the original, by far my favorite track of his. But fortunately they’re all available on iTunes or direct from Polisar himself.

    One correction though… L is for LAVATORY, lick and loony…

    -Mike

  • karenm77  On January 26, 2008 at 12:33 am

    Correction noted and applied. Thanks for the catch. A girl likes to be accurate.

    Yeah, I guess I better get all the albums.

  • Barry Louis Polisar  On March 3, 2009 at 7:38 am

    I was pleased to catch up with this older blog posting (a year later) and it made me think about what you wrote. I even put something up on my web site about the changes in my old songs, so thanks for igniting that spark.

    I was twenty one years old when I began writing and recording songs for kids and though most of the songs I wrote back then have held up pretty well, some songs have not.

    I have not pulled my older recordings from circulation despite all the rough spots and off-key notes; they are still available for anyone to listen to and purchase and to share.

    I’d like to think I’ve grown as a writer and musician over the last three decades and when I had the chance to re-record my old songs, I wanted to have a good time doing it. I felt like I was given the chance to do covers of my own songs; I changed some of the melodies and tinkered with a few of the lyrics.

    In re-recording the songs, I wasn’t self-censoring or removing potentially offensive lyrics, but I did have an interest in keeping the songs I had written alive for a whole new generation of listeners. There were a few songs I had stopped singing because what was funny thirty-five years ago was no longer funny and I thought some of my songs could benefit from a more musical accompaniment.

    Some of my older songs were about to become relegated to being relics of a past era–appreciated by those who listened to them growing up–but rejected by new listeners because of a few outdated lyrics that did not resonate with the times or music that seemed too rough and unpolished.

    In tinkering with my original songs there were a few compromises along the way. The original Our Dog Bernard is probably funnier than the current one. But who knows what a milk-man is anymore? In 1975, when I sang about the parent in Early Sunday Morning “getting the strap,” it was taken as a metaphor for punishment. Now people think child abuse.

    When I wrote many of my early songs, I was writing from the voice of a child; after becoming a father, I realized that “getting the strap” may have reflected my experiences growing up in the fifties–but would never be a way that I would discipline my own children. The new line reflects that change.

    Sometimes, the songs grew into completely new works. The original Shut up in the Library was raw, rough and unvarnished just like the singer who sang it. The newer version is really a different song; more subtle and metaphorical.
    I talk about the changes in the liner notes of my “Old Enough to Know Better” album and mention how I used the tune of an old coal mining disaster song called “Shut up in the mines of coal creek.”

    I like the original “Alfabet Song.” I think the newer version is better written and had fun adding words that weren’t even around when I wrote the original.

    I didn’t make these changes for political correctness. I’ve never censored myself based on what I thought others would think, but have always tried to write what I think is smart and funny. Some of the songs are different from the original versions–but still very different than anything else you’ll discover for kids–even now.

    Of course the joke was on me when one of those old songs from 1977 was used to open the film Juno and chosen over the more polished newer recording.

    Life is funny like that.

    Barry Louis Polisar
    February, 2009

  • Karen  On March 3, 2009 at 8:47 am

    Of course I was mostly compelled by nostalgia when I wrote all that! I am so pleased that you stopped by and left a note; I want to thank you for being around and recording new music and releasing old ones! You and I had a brief but entertaining (for me–it was perfectly businesslike for you, I’m sure) email correspondence when I was ordering some CDs from you a long time ago, and you invited me to catch a show if I was ever in the area. I am still hoping to be.

    I was shocked the other day to meet a parent who didn’t recognize “The Safety Dance,” so I can appreciate why songs would be updated for newer generations–some members of which will be getting your CDs from me as soon as they are old enough to sing along. I’m glad you took the chance to explain yourself to a crabby fan. Crabby about other things, of course. Not you!

    (Was that ingratiating enough?)

  • Barry Louis Polisar  On March 3, 2009 at 12:39 pm

    Hi Karen,

    You weren’t crabby at all…and I honestly loved getting the feedback from you and Mike. Ever since my kids showed me the South Park episode where the kids try to stop George Lucas and Steven Speilberg from re-editing their films, I’ve thought about my own revisiting of my old songs…

    I may have told you this when we emailed, but one of my favorite albums as a kid was a collection of songs by Rolf Harris. To this day I can still sing every line of his songs–in the same order they were on that old scratchy album. I’ve bought some of his new albums with some of those songs, but man do I miss the ones he left off. In fact, after having experienced that, I made sure my original albums would stay in print.

    Of course now, my songs are getting a whole new re-invention. A former fan in LA is organizing a bunch of musicians into doing covers of my songs for a new 2-CD Tribute album. Many of the musicians had my albums growing up and it is such a treat for me to hear my songs re-invented–again. Take a listen to some of the samples I’ve put on my web site:
    http://www.barrylou.com/tributeAlbum.html

    Best wishes to a great fan,

    Barry

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