Slouching Into Pop Culture Obsolescence

Cultural References They're Coming To Take Me Away

Cultural references.  They surround us as we grow from children to adulthood and beyond.  But there is one problem with these generational companions – they all have a “best by” date.

In recall getting an early lesson in the way these references eventually become stale.  When I was a kid we had some relatives who joked that they had named their car “Silent Cal.”  Everyone laughed, but it had to be explained to me.  Calvin Coolidge became president after the death of Warren Harding in 1923.  Sort of an anti-politician, Coolidge was a man of few words.  There was a joke that someone, upon meeting him, said “Mr. President, I made a bet with the fellows back home that I could get you to say three words.”  Coolidge was said to reply “You lose.”

Coolidge was expected to run for a second full term in 1928, but declined to do so.  With his characteristic economy of words he made a written announcement that said only “I do not choose to run.”  See what happens?  It took two paragraphs to explain something that someone of my parents’ or grandparents’ generation would have grasped instantly.

Cultural References Burma_Shave_slogans

As a young history geek, I ate this kind of thing up.  I am went on to become conversant in multiple generations of these societal markers, thanks to a love for obsolete culture  that took hold during my formative years.  So I knew to smile when someone ended a clever quip by pausing and saying “Burma Shave”. I felt like I had cracked a code when I heard my elders make references to obsolete references like old advertising slogans or radio shows.  (“The Shadow Knows . . . .”)

These days I am noticing that the cultural references of my own generation – the ones I have always taken for granted – are beginning to go into retirement.  Last week a colleague sent an email after making a silly mistake during a hectic day.  She announced she was leaving for the day, heading “for the funny farm – where life is beautiful all the time.”  I laughed.  But the Millennial computer tech who was working with her that afternoon had no idea why it was funny.

When I was a kid there was a novelty record that got a lot of airplay – They’re Coming To Take Me Away, Ha-Haa.  It was terribly incorrect, politically speaking.  It was a spoken lyric that simulated a young man’s descent into madness after his dog runs away.  The refrain goes:

“they’re coming to take me away, ha ha

they’re coming to take me away, hee hee ho ho

to the funny farm,

where life is beautiful all the time

and I’ll be happy to see those nice young men

in their clean white coats

and they’re coming to take me AWAY, HA HA.”

Yes, I really just did type out those lyrics from memory, without having heard the record in at least 20 or 30 years.  I am quite sure that the single is hidden away in my basement somewhere, passed on from some older cousins who would have bought it when it was fresh.

For those who have never had the experience, you can listen to it here.  Believe it or not, this record hit No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 for a short time.  The artist was actually a recording engineer who made the record for fun, messing with the recording speed to get the high voiced effect as his supposed mental state spirals out of control.  And yes, there was a lot of blowback from mental health professionals even then.

This experience came on top of a rerun of a piece I had written for Curbside Classic about a car – a 1969 Pontiac GTO, in a particular model called “The Judge”.  The first thing I thought of when I saw the car was Here Comes The Judge, a funny bit done by multiple African American comedians on the late 60’s television show Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In.  I later learned that it had been the signature bit of an old black comedian who went by Pigmeat Markum.  (Trivia Alert:  Some consider Here Comes The Judge to have been the very first rap record.)

Anyway, twenty years ago I could have used an expression like “They’re coming to take me away, ha haa” or “Here come da Judge” and I would have been met with knowing, nostalgic chuckles.  Today I am just as likely to receive nothing but blank stares from the twenty and thirty-somethings who fill workplaces and social settings.

And I keep being surprised at the scope and depth of the problem.  My generational cohort knows that when you refer to some neighbors as “The Clampets” that they have lots of money and no sophistication.  If you compare a glamorous girl to a girl-next-door type by using the names Ginger and Mary Ann we all knew instantly what was meant.

I am having to police my language these days.  Making a reference to Lassie or Flipper accomplishes nothing.  References to Lurch or Uncle Fester bring blank stares.  Saying “Double your pleasure, double your fun” means just as little as “I’d walk a mile” for something. (Certainly not a Camel, since I have not smoked in decades.)

Some of these have aged slightly better – Most people will still understand if you refer to a particular kind of police officer as a Barney Fife or make a quip about The Island Of Misfit Toys or Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree, but this is only because the original source of the ideas stuck around for a longer time to begin with, bringing more kids “into the club”.

Cultural References Cadillac-1954-fq

But for every one of those there are those references with an extremely limited shelf life, such as “Danger Will Robinson” from the short-lived TV show Lost In Space.  Many of these will become as obscure as references to Dagmar, a buxom starlet of the early 1950’s who seemed to have little to offer beyond her physique.  Had not some long-ago wag referred to the front bumpers of new Cadillacs as Dagmars, she would be completely forgotten today.

Perhaps I need to start a home for retired cultural references.  Or maybe I already have.

 

Photo and Media Credits

They’re Coming To Take Me Away record label from Discogs.com

They’re Coming To Take Me Away video from the YouTube channel of LyricsforLife

Here Comes The Judge video from the YouTube channel of Sids60sSounds

Burma Shave signs – 2005 photo by Peter Merholz, found at Wikimedia Commons

1954 Cadillac photographed by Joseph Dennis for publication at CurbsideClassic.com

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25 thoughts on “Slouching Into Pop Culture Obsolescence

  1. Good observations. For years upon getting in the car with my parents, my mother would say “Let’s go, James”. Huh? I know it’s from a television show, but that’s about it.

    Her mom, my late grandmother, would compare something large (particularly the posteriors of women she didn’t like) to being the size of a Sherman tank.

    My father has called me Dobie Gillis. I’m still not sure what that’s all about.

    Although I did mention Richard Pryor to a 22 year old about ten years ago. She had no clue who he was. So perhaps I’ve joined my parent’s club.

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    • I know that Dobie Gillis was a TV show (and that the guy who was Gilligan (Bob Denver?) was a character named Maynard G. Krebs, but that’s all I’ve got on that.

      You remind me of another, the sort-of-nearby small town of Fairmount, Indiana has been famous for a long time as the home of James Dean. He did pretty well for a guy who only made 3 movies in the 50s, but I get the sense that his star is fading. I have never been to his museum.

      And yes, it is sobering when Richard Pryor has gotten into the “obscure celebrities of yore” classification.

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      • There’s a memorial located near the site where James Dean died in a car crash, in Cholame, California, when his Porsche Spyder was hit by a 1950 Ford driven by a young man named Donald Turnupseed. The intersection (Hwy’s 46 and 41) where the crash occurred is officially named the James Dean Memorial Intersection by the State. The physical memorial was installed by a Japanese man. Every time I drive by there are people stopped there, checking it out. Or maybe just stretching.

        And though I could probably only recite half the words to “They’re Coming to Take Me Away” without cheating, I did write the above about the James Dean memorial from memory. Though I’ll say that a large part of 1950’s and later American “pop culture” relates to TV. So although I started listening to Top 40 (there’s another old term) radio around the age of 6 or 7, our family didn’t get a TV until I started high school. So references to TV like Doby Gillis or Mayberry or Beaver Cleaver are learned, not experienced, for me.

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      • James Dean’s star has stayed amazingly bright for a guy who made 3 movies. Fairmount Indiana has little else to recommend it besides being Dean’s old hometown.

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    • I can relate. I know many of the references you mention, and I recall every word of an arcane, un-PC song that began “Lazy Mary, you better get up; she answers back ‘I am not able’; Lazy Mary, you better get up; we need the sheets for the table…” It just moved from the inner depths of my memory bank, where it should justly remain, to the surface as a result of your post.

      The counterpoint is that as a crossword puzzle fan, I am often stumped by my lack of knowledge of Millennials’ or Gen Zs’ cultural references.

      Interesting post.

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      • You made me look up Lazy Mary – I knew it but didn’t know that I knew it. I don’t think I had ever heard it with English lyrics. Now it’s going through my head too, so we have each other to blame. 🙂

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      • I had heard the Italian version, not sure where and never knew what it was about. At least an Italian version was what came up on YouTube.

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  2. I remember reading a George Clooney interview where he was talking with his father about being a famous movie star and his dad said something like “Oh yeah, name the #1 movie star of 1933” which helped him put his fame into the correct temporary context.

    I don’t worry about using old cultural references so much as I am bothered not not understanding the new ones. I really haven’t watched TV in 20 years so there are many things that must be explained to me and I have been asked if I am Amish. (Almost, but not quite)

    For a humorous take on this look for Late Night show segments “What does Karen know?”

    Liked by 1 person

    • It helps to spend time around younger adults – I have picked up a handful of their references. And I wonder how long until people don’t know anything about the Amish? 🙂

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  3. Your post reminded me of the conversation I frequently have with Mrs. Tom in Phoenix involving neither of us recognizing the upcoming guests on late-night talk shows. (I am 68)

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  4. I knew I was in trouble when, in the mid-1990s (when I was about 30), I mentioned W.C. Fields while conversing with a group of 18-22 year-olds at a church function. One of them looked up at me and asked, “Who’s W.C. Fields?”

    Five thousand years from now, will you even remember that you lived on earth and what your name was?

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    • Yes, so many names that won’t mean a thing. You can’t call a speeding driver Barney Oldfield and soon A J Foyt may be a mystery. Would it be Danica Patrick now?

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  5. First, I would like to say that, as someone who has come from CC, that I also enjoy reading your blog. Also, do you remember that the B-side of “They’re Coming to Take Me Away” was the exact same song backwards? My recent experience w/pop culture history was remarking to a dear friend of mine who’s almost 30 that my grandnephew looked like Sherman of Sherman & Peabody w/his glasses & she didn’t know what I meant.

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    • Yes, I absolutely do remember that backwards flip side.

      Those second and third tier cartoons are a great example. Using Heckel and Jeckyl or Droopy Dog in a conversation will get a lot of blank stares these days.

      And it’s good to see you drop by over here.

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      • Thank you, JP, I appreciate your kind words. As for Dobie Gillis, even though I was only 1 when it was cancelled, I did watch the whole series via YouTube & Shout Factory’s website last year. Bob Denver played beatnik Maynard Krebs & Warren Beatty & Tuesday Weld were also in it. Finally, could you imagine Coolidge having a Twitter account?

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      • Haha, Calvin Coolidge would have had no difficulty at all with the 144 character limit! You also remind me of seeing TV shows of the 60s where people were making jokes from Tuesday Weld’s name. Like “I have a date with Tuesday on Thursday. Or is it a date with Thursday on Tuesday?” I guess you had to be there. 🙂

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  6. I remember Laugh-i . Goldie Hawn is still around but looking much older, but I wonder what became of the original “Here comes the judge” rapper and more importantly, why did we even think it was funny!-

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    • You made me look it up- Pigmeat Markham died in 1981 at the age of 77. I am going to take a guess that the work of black comics started getting traction in white america around this time and what had long been funny to black audiences became trendy for awhile. This is a subject I would love to read more about.

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