Lyrics and Life
By Caitlin Ward
Tubas in the Moonlight
Through the twilight, I can hear the humming of a melancholy **** (mm-mm)
Tubas in the moonlight, playing for me all night
Every once in a while, I develop the urge to listen to music of the Jazz Age — which, as you can guess, if you didn’t know, is jazz. It’s early jazz, mind you — 1920s jazz, the kind you find on 78s at the bottom of bins in antique stores. My sister had a great affection for that sort of thing. She would buy the 78s, record them onto her computer using our record player, and then speed them up to 78 RPMs so we’d be able to hear what they actually sounded like.
This close approximation, I should note, is The Bonzo Dog
Band. They were the house band for the 1960s Monty Python-spawning British
sketch show Do Not Adjust Your Set. I’m not always a fan of comedy bands,
but The Bonzos wrote some very sweet and technically proficient songs
that I have loved for many years. They had this knack for taking classic
genres and twisting them slightly, so you couldn’t always tell
which songs were covers of 1920s jazz standards and which ones they’d
written themselves. They had this tendency —
This plan derailed when I looked up the song on YouTube
to find a performance of it. I realized, watching Vivian Stanshall sing
Tubas in the Moonlight on Do Not Adjust Your Set, that I had been mishearing
the first line for 10 years. I was sure he sang, “through the twilight,
I can hear the humming of a melancholy tune.”
That’s not what he sings. I’m not going to tell you what
he sings, but that’s not it. I will tell you it rhymes with “tune” and
I will also tell you it’s a racial epithet, but I will not tell
you what he sings.
This has caused me a great amount of stress. On the one hand, even at the time of the song’s performance in the late 1960s, it was a somewhat antiquated racial slur. The song and its performance parody a time and genre of music that was hardly known for its linguistic sensitivity. The original version of the 1928 Cole Porter standard Let’s Do It (Let’s Fall in Love), for example, is half unsingable these days. And there is always the argument that we give words far more power than we should.
Comedian Lenny Bruce famously used racial slurs in his
act as a way of calling out their absurdity. It’s just a word.
It’s a throwaway line in an absurd song — it wasn’t
supposed to draw particular attention to itself.
On the other hand, I kind of feel as if that’s the problem: a group
of white British men using an antiquated racial epithet sits badly with
me, whether it was intended humorously or not. In fact, in some ways
it sits worse with me because it was supposed to just be silly. It’s
not paying any mind to the historical baggage of racial slurs, let alone
the civil rights battles going on in various parts of the western world
at exactly the same time. It’s a kind of privilege to be able to
ignore the ramifications of a word and say it is just supposed to be
You may think I’m taking all this too seriously, but here’s the thing: the fact that this word is in that song made the song about that word for me. I don’t know if I can listen to that song the way I used to; I certainly won’t love it the way I have. We don’t live in a world where racial epithets can just be throwaway jokes, because far too many people still use them seriously.
Ward is a freelance writer and aspiring documentary filmmaker based in Saskatoon. You can find her short bursts of insight and frustration at http://www.twitter.com/newsetofstrings