Popular music and stuttering
- Category: Personal Commentary
- Published: Saturday, 12 January 2013 23:22
- Written by Lisa Wilder
Two years ago, the Stuttering Foundation awarded the 1974 Bachman-Turner Overdrive tune You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet an award for being the "most unique" of all the songs that feature stuttering. It stood out because it is about a real person: Randy Bachman's brother, Glen, who stuttered. Randy performed a version of the song with stuttering in the chorus as a tribute to him, never intending it to be released. But the band's manager thought the stuttering version had more character, and it ended up being used for the album.
One must admit that You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet is a great song. But songs that incorporate stuttering in the lyrics can often be annoying. Many stutterers can sing fluently, and would not sound that way. Sometimes musicians use it as a musical device –– the repetition of sounds in a song for effect –– and sometimes to communicate nervousness or dishonesty. Two examples from the past three years are Canadian recording artists Fefe Dobson and the band Marianas Trench. Fefe's song, Stuttering, is about a girl trying to get the truth out of her boyfriend who is lying to her.
If you ever really cared about me
Tell the truth, give it up
You sound guilty, 'cause you’re stutterin’
It is bothersome that stuttering is once again being used to indicate dishonesty. For kids who stutter, a popular song mimicking stuttering can be agonizing, as it is repeated by schoolmates to torment them. Fefe Dobson herself has been involved in an anti-bullying campaign, "ArtistAgainst". This involved many artists who participated in the charity cover of Cyndi Lauper's tune "True Colors", and has spoken out against bullying in interviews. Does she know kids who stutter are being teased with the lyrics to her song?
The Canadian band Marianas Trench's song, Stutter, seems to be about a man who stutters out of nervousness when he tries to ask a girl to dance. His stuttering surprises him, as he asks "D-D-D-D-did I stutter?" in the chorus. The video is bizarre, set in what looks like a 1940s dance hall. The song is quite popular, and they even performed it during half-time at the Grey Cup last November.
Stuttering in songs has a long history. The Stuttering Homepage has a list of songs that feature stuttering, some of which are relatively recent, like the awful Stutter Rap, made popular in Britain in the 1980s and Bob Dylan's The Ugliest Girl in the World. But most of the songs cited are older, some going back to the 1800s. Mostly, they depict a man who stutters out of nervousness around a woman he wants to ask on a date. They include You Tell Her I Stutter, where a man tries to get his buddy to set him up with a girl he likes, and Oh Helen, where the singer stutters on her name and it comes out "Hel-Hel-Helen" - considered funny because the singer is cursing with the word "hell", as he does when singing the word "damsel" that comes out "dam-dam-damsel".
The most popular stuttering song ever is probably K-K-K-aty, a World War One era ditty played in dance halls throughout the States and Canada at the beginning of the century. This period was also known as the Tin Pan Alley era in American Songwriting. The text Sounding Off: Theorizing Disability in Music, has a chapter entitled "Stuttering in American Popular Song, 1890-1930", in which K-K-K-Katy is discussed by the author Daniel Goldmark. The narrator of the song is Jimmy, brave in battle but "with the girls was just a gawk". The song was even expanded into a stage play, where Jimmy's stuttering and teasing of him was emphasized for comedic effect.
Also from this period of musical history is I'm Always Stuttering, Stuttering Jasper and the Boy who Stuttered and the Girl who Lisped. They sure got a kick out of stuttering back then. One of the most horrible of these songs is Lil-lil-lilian, in which a man who stutters spits so much when he talks that people have to hold up umbrellas. Even worse is The Stuttering Coon, which not only mocks stutterers but is disgustingly racist.
Very few of these songs are tolerable. Rarely are they, like Ain't Seen Nothin Yet, enjoyable. I leave you with what is possibly the best song with stuttering in it, this 1950s vintage blues piece by John Lee Hooker, Stuttering Blues.