Rock Me With a Steady Roll

Is the flute too exciting? Does the waltz corrupt? Is jazz indecent? And what about Madonna?…Stay tuned for the latest episode of "Ban That Tune"!


Rock music is a purveyor of drugs, alcoholism, fornication, adultery, necrophilia, bestiality [sic], homosexuality and every other debilitating influence.…It is satanic.…In a more subtle way, country music is just as bad.
—Evangelist Jimmy Swaggart

Music hath more than the power to charm wild beasts; according to some people, it can drive the beast in you wild.

After Jimmy Swaggart denounced Wal-Mart stores in a televised sermon condemning rock music, Wal-Mart leaped on the bluenose bandwagon. Just days later—and less than two weeks after the Meese pornography commission's call for a porn purge—Wal-Mart ordered the removal of certain records and rock-oriented magazines (including Rolling Stone) from its 900 stores.

Wal-Mart spokesmen later said Swaggart had nothing to do with the decision, though the company did ask for a copy of the sermon and Swaggart relishes taking responsibility for this moral enlightenment. (As in the case of 7-Eleven and other convenience stores being browbeaten into removing Playboy and Penthouse from their racks, intimidation tactics often reveal deep reservoirs of timidity among the nation's retailers.)

The current knee-jerk, overreactive surge of antimusic mania, fueled by preachers, "concerned parents," and exploitative politicians, may seem like something dreadfully new, a threat unparalleled in world history. In fact, the hysteria is as old as music itself. As Tolstoy said: "The older generation almost always fails to understand the younger one—they think their own immutable values the only ones.…And so the older generation barks like a dog at what they don't understand." The barking has been going on a long time.

In the fourth century before Christ, Greek historian Ephorus warned, "Music was invented to deceive and delude mankind." This suspicion is reflected in the works of Aristotle ("The flute is not an instrument which has a good moral effect; it is too exciting") and Plato ("Musical innovation is full of danger to the State, for when modes of music change, the laws of the State always change with them"). The centuries that followed featured variations on those themes.

In 1572 a Vienna ordinance on public dancing laid down the law: "Ladies and maidens are to compose themselves with chastity and modesty and the male persons are to refrain from whirling and other such frivolities."

By 1595 "voluptuous turning, jumping, or running hither and yon" were also banned. (Apparently, "hither" was snuggling somewhere beneath the bandstand while "yon" was out in the dark Vienna woods.) A sermon of the time denounced dancers for "letting themselves be swung around and allowing themselves to be kissed and mauled about.…They cannot be honest while each entices the other to harlotry and offers a sop to the devil."

In A Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage, Jeremy Collier (1650–1726) decreed that "Musick is almost as dangerous as Gunpowder; and it may be requires looking after.…'Tis possible a publick Regulation might not be amiss."

And in An Irreverent and Thoroughly Incomplete Social History of Almost Everything, Frank Muir describes the effect of the waltz when it was introduced into England from Germany in 1812: "Guardians of public morality immediately pronounced the waltz to be 'will-corrupting,' 'disgusting,' 'immodest'; an 'outright romp in which the couples not only embrace throughout the dance but, flushed and palpitating, whirl about in the posture of copulation.'"

In 1957, Meredith Wilson's The Music Man had Professor Harold Hill warning the people of River City, Iowa, about the evils inherent in ragtime (but you'll have to go listen to the record; permission to quote the passage was denied). Contemporary audiences laughed, but in fact, ragtime—perhaps because of its origins in bawdyhouse parlors, performed by itinerant black musicians like Jelly Roll Morton and Scott Joplin—was no joke at the turn of the century.

The Musical Courier exclaimed in 1899: "A wave of vulgar, filthy and suggestive music has inundated the land. Nothing but ragtime prevails, and the cake-walk with its obscene posturings, its lewd gestures.…Our children, our young men and women are continually exposed to its contiguity, to the monotonous attrition of this vulgarizing music. It is artistically and morally depressing and should be suppressed by press and pulpit."

I am heartily in favor of a board of censorship for the unspeakably depraved modern popular song. Its effect on young folk is shocking.
The vicious song is allowed in the home by parents, who, no doubt, have not troubled themselves to look at the words.
As a result, the suggestive meanings are allowed to play upon immature minds at a dangerous age.
It is from the popular song that the popular suggestive dances spring. Together and apart, they are a menace to the social fabric.

Pop Quiz: The above quote was delivered by:
(a) Jimmy Swaggart
(b) Jerry Falwell
(c) Jesse Helms
(d) Tipper Gore

To would-be censors, the social fabric is always on the brink of unraveling. The answer to the pop quiz is: (e) None of the above. That hysterical call for musical censorship came from violinist Maude Powell, speaking before the National Federation of Musical Clubs in Chicago—in 1913. A whole lot of unraveling hasn't happened yet.

Four years later, the New Orleans Times-Picayune editorialized against what is now a trademark of its city. Jazz, said the paper's June 17 issue, "is the indecent story syncopated and counterpointed," a form of "musical vice" with no value, "and its possibilities of harm are great."

Meanwhile, back on the Continent, things weren't going too well either. Friedrich Nietzsche wrote of the music of Richard Wagner: "He contaminates everything he touches—he had made music sick."

In Degeneration, critic Max Nordau accused Wagner's music of things Jimmy Swaggart might only imagine while in the throes of religious ecstasy: "The lovers of his pieces behave like tom-cats gone mad, rolling in contortions and convulsions over a root of valerian. They reflect a state of mind which is…a form of Sadism. It is the love of those degenerates who, in sexual transport become like wild beasts…which leads coarse nature to murder and lust."

Morris L. Ernst advanced the appropriate defense against such attacks. Fighting censorship of a play in 1930 which had been banned for its E-flat background music, Ernst asked: "Was there such a thing as a special gonadic key? Or did each person have a special key? Or were extroverts susceptible to one key and introverts to another?" The music was approved.

In 1986 the parents of a teenage boy who killed himself while listening to heavymetal rocker Ozzy Osbourne's "Suicide Solution" sued the singer. They argued that a low-noise hum on the record had a disturbing influence on the boy and made him lyrically pliable. The courts recently dismissed the suit, giving First Amendment protection to the song. Thanks to the ruling, listeners are now responsible for their own behavior.

The Osbourne case was not the first time music has been said to cause suicide. There was a trend, of a sort, in "death rock" in the early '60s, epitomized by morbid teen songs like "Deadman's Curve" and "Last Kiss."

But before death rock came "Gloomy Sunday." According to David Ewen's All the Years of American Popular Music, the song was "promoted by its publishers as a 'suicide song' because it was reputed to have encouraged the suicidal tendencies of the tormented and the harassed of the early thirties." Written by Rezso Seress and translated by Sam M. Lewis, "Gloomy Sunday" was an import from equally gloomy Hungary. Billie Holiday recorded it in 1936 after it had been widely sung in concerts by Paul Robeson.

From that somber dirge of the Great Depression, America leaped into the "swing" era—and that too was roundly condemned. On October 25, 1938, the Archbishop of Dubuque, the Most Reverend Francis J.L. Beckman, labeled the swing music of Benny Goodman and others "a degenerated and demoralizing musical system" that had been "turned loose to gnaw away the moral fiber of young people." William E. Miles reports in Damn It! that the cleric told his flock that "jam sessions, jitterbugs and cannibalistic rhythmic orgies are wooing our youth along the primrose path to Hell!"

One of the most actively banned composers of the modern age was Cole Porter. From his first 1928 hits, "Let's Do It" and "Let's Misbehave," Porter's saucy lyrics have been deleted and banned with amazing consistency. "I get no kick from champagne" was originally "I get no kick from cocaine," but that was deemed too strong for the mass audience. "I'm a Gigolo," "You've Got That Thing," "My Heart Belongs to Daddy," and "Love for Sale" were often attacked and kept off the airwaves.

Rodgers and Hammerstein also came in for Hollywood cleansing. In the 1956 version of Carousel, "My Boy Bill" was sanitized and its impact lessened when "damn" was changed to "darn" and "skinny-lipped virgin" to "skinny-lipped lady."

When Porter's Out of This World opened in Boston in 1950, the licensing division of the mayor's office sent a letter to the theater demanding the removal of "all irreverent use of 'God,'" various costume changes to render them "less suggestive," and the dropping of a lyric line that went, "saving my urgin's for vestal virgins." Also, the "ballet at end of Act 1 to be greatly modified" and the song lyric "goosing me" eliminated. The letter ended with a thanks for the theater's "past cooperation."

But at a congressional debate in 1957 about network censoring of Stephen Foster songs ("darkies" and other such terms being by then seen as racial slurs), Rep. Frank Chelf left his old Kentucky home to remind his colleagues: "Whenever any group of people in this nation, or any other nation, take it upon themselves to set up rules and regulations by and through which they can arbitrarily control what songs shall or shall not be heard—and get away with it—then they can censor speech, censor religion, censor or even control the press."

When rock and roll burst upon the scene, it almost immediately became the censors' prime target. Elvis and his twitching, pumping pelvis; almost anything by the Rolling Stones; even the insipid "Puff, the Magic Dragon" by Peter, Paul, and Mary became the focus of conservative outrage.

"Puff," the 1963 flip side of "Blowin' in the Wind," was interpreted as a metaphorical celebration of pot smoking. As late as 1972 this was still a live issue—a radio station I worked for received angry letters when we played an instrumental version of the song. Ironically, ol' Puff is now a cartoon dragon seen on Saturday morning television.

Those who think that contemporary rock has gone "too far" along whatever personal highway to hell they're monitoring ought to look back 20 years—to the heyday of The Fugs. The name came from Norman Mailer's euphemism "Fug you" in The Naked and the Dead. Lillian Roxon's Rock Encyclopedia describes the group as "freaky-looking poets" from New York's East Village who "went out of their way to be 'offensive.'" She calls them "comics and satirists" and likens them to Lenny Bruce. It was, she notes, "like Henry Miller's novels set to music."

The Fugs's titles included: "Boobs a Lot," "Group Grope," "Dirty Old Man," "Kill For Peace," "New Amphet Amine Shriek," "I Command the House of the Devil," "Coca Cola Douche," "Wet Dream," "I Saw the Best Minds of My Generation Rot," and "Exorcising the Evil Spirits from the Pentagon." All prior to 1970.

It could probably be argued that Richard Nixon's Watergate exploits had a more disastrous influence on public ethics and morality in the '70s than did the music of The Fugs in the '60s or AC/DC in the '80s. And will be remembered longer.

Still, as Jimmy Swaggart's ministry has proven, some people will believe anything if it's screeched at them from a pulpit. In April 1986, according to the American Library Association's Newsletter on Intellectual Freedom, the Reverends Steven W. Timmons of Beloit, Wisconsin, and William A. Riedel, pastor of the Westwood United Pentecostal Church in Jackson, Michigan, spoke hell-raising sermons against "satanic" rock groups. Named as part of Lucifer's legion were such innocuous songsmiths as Abba, The Eagles, Stevie Nicks, and "probably the most powerful figure in this," John Denver.

Timmons told a flock of young people that "Rocky Mountain High" teaches "witchcraft." (But wasn't it Sinatra who recorded "Witchcraft"? Or maybe it was "That Old Black Magic"? Or "That Old Devil Moon"?) The parishioners, worked up to a lather, buried a batch of rock records (and some Harlequin romance novels) under a tombstone that reads, "Never to rise again."

That same month, down in Ohio, a South Point evangelist named Jim Brown told his congregation that the theme song of TV's "Mr. Ed" contains hidden messages from Satan. He says he played the song backwards and heard, "the source is Satan." While singing "Oh, How I Love Jesus," the sappy psalmsters set about burning rock and country records and tapes. (If you want to check out the devil in Mr. Ed without rewiring your $1,200 Mitsubishi, use a reel-to-reel tape deck. Record the suspect song on the tape and then, without rewinding, take off the reels and place them on the opposite spindles. Then hit "Play.")

You hear what you listen for, of course. But it's a certainty that if it was possible to put backwards messages on records and have them subliminally influence forward thinking listeners, people like Swaggart would be loading gospel records with injunctions to "Praise the Lord" and "Send the Money."

In 1985 there emerged a new group of neopuritans enraged by song lyrics and album art—the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC). All of its founders were mothers (in the biological sense, of course), and all were well connected to powerful politicians—even to the unseemly extreme of sleeping with them (though only in the Meese pornography commission's preferred state of conjugal bliss).

Like the porn commission's emphasis on the most shocking kinds of smut, the record molesters circulate copies of the most explicit rock lyrics in order to work people up to a froth of indignation. While it's certainly true that "offensive," as Vladimir Nabokov said, "is frequently but a synonym for 'unusual,'" this stuff is as warped as a disk left in the trunk on a hot summer day. Just look at this filth:

I'm wild about that thing,
It makes me to laugh and sing.
Give it to me, papa,
I'm wild about that thing.

Give ev'ry bit of it else I'll die,
I'm wild about that thing.

What's the matter, papa?
Please don't stall!
Don't you know I love it
And I wants it all!

Yes, give my bell a ring,
You press my button,
I'm wild about that thing.
Mmmmm, if you want to satisfy my soul,
Come on and rock me with a steady roll,
I'm wild about that thing.

And what about this one from the same depraved singer:

Lovin' is the thing I crave
For your love I'd be your slave,
You gotta give me some.…
Said Mrs. Jones to ol' Butcher Pete,
I want a piece of your good ol' meat…
I crave your round steak,
You gotta give me some.

Why, if that song reached the tender ears of our young people, our whole value system would collapse like…uh, just a second…I'm sorry, those aren't on the PMRC list. They were recorded by Bessie Smith in 1929.

Okay, this one's a rocker, and one feminists hate: "Honey, come in this house and stop all that yakety-yak./Don't make me nervous cause I'm holdin' a baseball bat."* Clearly a call for female degradation and violent wife abuse! Has this singer no shame? Your guess is as good as mine: it was recorded in the late 1950s by Pat Boone, who now spends much of his time lobbying for prayer in the public schools.

Speaking of violent imagery in oft-heard songs, sample this lyric: "The havoc of war and the battle's confusion…their blood has washed out their foul footsteps' pollution." That's verse three; you might be more familiar with verse one, which includes: "And the rocket's red glare, the bombs bursting in air."

It's bad enough that our national anthem is set to the tune of a rowdy beer-drinking song—such a bad example for impressionable youth—but to encourage them to sing of such violent goings-on might inspire them to who-knows-what murderous actions!

It becomes obvious that if you really want to shield kids from sex and violence—from life itself—everything better have a warning label on it. And if music is going to be blamed for antisocial behavior, you'd better ban the Bible too. On August 22, 1986, an 18-year-old Miami high-school student named Alejandro Martinez stabbed his grandmother to death. He told police she interrupted him while he was reading the Bible and he thought she was the devil. For the well-being of the world's grandmothers, better prohibit sales of that book to minors.

But there's at least one cry common to all would-be censors, the PMRC being no exception: they all claim they are not censors. In a letter to Film Comment, Tipper Gore, cofounder of PMRC and the wife of Sen. Albert Gore (D–Tenn.), responded to the charge of advocating censorship by flatly claiming, "We are doing just the opposite." All PMRC wants, she wrote, is lyrics printed on the outside of albums that will allow "consumers to know what they are getting before they buy it." (Given the nature of kids, the dirtiest albums will thus be assured of brisk sales.)

Despite Mrs. Gore's protests to the contrary, though, PMRC actions suggest a desire for censorship. For one thing, she was successful in getting the Senate Commerce Committee to hold a widely publicized hearing on rock lyrics, at which rockers Frank Zappa, Dee Snider of the band Twisted Sister, and John Denver defended the First Amendment against a horde of outraged senators. That's called government intimidation of artists.

Mrs. Gore later told Newsweek, "We're determined to wipe out the pervasive message in music that to be hip and cool you have to have sex." Wipe out, as in eradicate, as in throttle and suppress that idea before anyone can express or hear it. That's called censorship.

Another thing would-be censors have in common is that they never stop at the most lurid examples of what they find offensive but keep redrawing their line (like Libya's "Line of Death") ever backwards, from satanism to heavy petting. "Consider Madonna," wrote syndicated columnist Michael J. McManus in August 1985. "She mocks virginity and Christianity!" As if she doesn't have a right to! Shakespeare mocked virginity (All's Well That Ends Well); should he too be censored?

And in America, a Catholic-oriented magazine, Richard W. Chilson quoted a Bob Dylan lyric that "praised his savior as 'a shot of love.' Anyone who knows and loves the man from Galilee," wrote Chilson (who obviously neither knows nor loves poetic vision) "should find this image scandalous and obscene." Obscenity, according to the Supreme Court, can be legally banned. Bye bye, Dylan.

Lewd and obscene waltzes; scandalous ragtime and jazz; showtunes and blues redpenciled by bluenoses; Mr. Ed an agent of Satan; John Denver a warlock. Truly, it's a depressing catalog of narrow-minded boobery at work. Censors are people disturbed by what they perceive around them, who either don't understand the problem or who have manufactured a problem where none exists. They don't know what else to do but feel they have to do something. And censorship (no matter what other name they give it) of what they find offensive seems so quick, so easy. Out of sight, out of mind. You might just as well ban cars because some people drive drunk.

Calls for banning this or that seem to occur in cycles. There are clots of oversensitive, overreactive people in every generation, people resistant to and scared by change. Instead of thinking for themselves, they'll let their self-appointed leaders do it for them.

Thinking for yourself is dangerous. It carries with it the possibility of error as well as the weight of personal responsibility. For some people, that's too heavy a burden. They certainly have the right to denounce anything they don't like. But when they move to take what they don't like away from you, away from me, that's un-American. That's censorship.

If I could choose one song lyric to play for the censors, it would be Maxwell Anderson's "How Can You Tell An American," from the 1938 stage musical Knickerbocker Holiday:

It's just that he hates and eternally despises
The policeman on his beat, and the judge with his assizes,
The sheriff with his warrants and the bureaucratic crew,
For the sole and simple reason that they tell him what to do.
And he insists on eating,
He insists on drinking,
He insists on reading,
He insists on thinking—
Free of governmental snooping or a governmental plan,
And that's an American!†

Or would that song now be banned as fostering disrespect for law and authority?

Leo N. Miletich is a writer and former disk jockey whose work has appeared in Cosmos, Playboy, and The Library Journal, among others.

?"Honey Hush" by Lou Willie Turner. Copyright © 1954, 1963 by Progressive Music Publishing Co. Copyright Renewed, Assigned to Unichappell Music Inc. (Rightsong Music, publisher). International Copyright secured. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Used by permission.

†"How Can You Tell An American" by Maxwell Anderson and Kurt Weill. Copyright © 1938 by DeSylva, Brown & Henderson Inc. Copyright Renewed, Assigned to Chappell & Co. Inc. and Hampshire House Publishing Corp. for the USA only. International copyright secured. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Used by permission.