Not too long ago, I ran across a piece of terminology with which I was unfamiliar whilst indulging a craving for amusement on YouTube, not exactly a routine occurrence (neither the YouTubing nor the linguistic stumper). Noticing that a band I kinda like had done a video for a catchy, ole tune that I rather enjoy – well, who could resist?
Befitting a “throw-back” band, the black-and-white video is like the early days of MTV when the band itself would be depicted performing the tune in some abnormal setting – in the middle of a busy street or hang-gliding through the Rockies. In this case, the setting is a residence and the “star” resembles the late Jonathan Winters or maybe Tyler Perry, a heavy-set dude portraying an older woman. I also notice that one of the band members is wearing and playing an old-fashioned washboard – yes, I said a washboard.
As I was satiating my bemusement with the tune and its tale, my wider range of vision took note of a certain arrangement of letters that didn’t seem to be matching up with anything in my mental dictionary. A quick check of my for-real dictionary provided no assistance. Yet, there were those seven letters, in that very same order, included in the titles of a couple of the other video treats being teased in the sidebar. In all this usage, the word is capitalized and is positioned between the band’s name and the word “Combo.” Wazzup?
The video seemed to show maybe a handful or so of players manipulating a variety of strings (upright bass, fiddle, ukulele) and offering other rhythmic support like the afore-mentioned laundry device.
Well, since the tune is catchy and often features some audience sing-a-long, why not partake of an in-concert version of the tune “Mama Don’t Allow”? So that I do, and am not only rehearsed on the “Oh, No, She Don’t!” audience participation required during a live rendition, but schooled about a British craze back in the ‘50’s that had been spurred on by my prosaic puzzlement that actually sounds much like a type of fruity candy. The performance video reveals a six-man combo, drummer and keyboardist accenting the strings and washboard; in another, this line-up is joined by a older dude sitting (literally) in playing the spoons – yes, I said the spoons.
Somewhere along the way here in my quest for linguistic enlightenment, my hopelessly out-of-date self stumbles to the realization that I am sitting at a device that can likely clear up my misunderstanding in fewer clicks than it took to create it.
Sure enough, by the fourth letter, the musical mystery is recognized and identified as an actual genre of music dating back to the 1920’s. It had arisen out of the ragtime tradition, is typified by the use of non-traditional, even improvised instruments, and did indeed enjoy a comeback of sorts in the ‘50’s.
What hopped to my mind was an old Warner Bros. cartoon in which Bugs Bunny calls the square dance at the hoe-down for his two hillbilly antagonists. (“I’ll pull your beard, you pull mine!”)
Unlike the tattered hillbillies scufflin’ to the directives of a cwazy wabbit, England’s Jive Aces project a spiffier image – “Oh, how they adore us when we wear our blue fedoras, our zoot suits are the envy of the town,” as one of their clever original compositions puts it.
But they get down and dirty, in the best kind of way, when it's “Skiffle” time.