September 17: Outmoded skills

The great 60s instrumental, "Whittier Boulevard," by Thee Midniters, can be found here.

When I worked in advertising, ever so many years ago -- well, here's how long ago it was: we had type guys. Every afternoon around 4 or 5 or so, the reps from the type houses would come to get orders from the art directors -- "SMOOTH SMOKING GOODNESS!" in 72-point Baskerville or whatever, and the next morning, or later that night, the type would come back in smooth sheets. (Yes, we did cigarette ads. But I was too junior for that account.) It was a great business, and the type guys had season tickets to everything, which meant that once in a great while the seats would trickle down to me and my officemates -- usually a game that no one wanted to go to (Knicks v. Clippers, e.g.)

And then, almost instantly, that business ceased to exist.

So it is with the popular versifier like John Greenleaf Whittier. Once a titan of American letters, turning to his verse now is to have an experience that's beyond Quaint, or perhaps beneath it:
BLESSINGS on thee, little man,
Barefoot boy, with cheek of tan!
With thy turned-up pantaloons,
And thy merry whistled tunes;
With thy red lip, redder still
Kissed by strawberries on the hill;
With the sunshine on thy face,
Through thy torn brim’s jaunty grace;
From my heart I give thee joy,—
I was once a barefoot boy!
It goes on. It actually has a nice image at the end, where Whitter looks forward sadly to the boy being shod for work, as a horse is. (And this poem, though corny, is sad.) But reading these poems is like watching someone work as a blacksmith; it seems so distant from our own time. (And come to think of it, schoolchildren are often exposed to Colonial Williamsburg-like blacksmiths and this kind of verse.)

Where did the appetite for this kind of rhyming go? Don't say "hip-hop" -- people do love the rhymes, but it hardly seems the same audience as the Whittier-consumers, even controlling for changing notions of appropriateness, and besides, there's still a few decades between the collapse of this kind of pop-verse and Grandmaster Flash. Maybe all the talent was snapped up by the greeting card industry. Or maybe it was radio -- a versifier could make a lot more cash writing songs to be sung by, I don't know, Vaughn Monroe.

My own theory is that the cartel controlling supplies of words like "thy" and "fain" suddenly went belly-up.

1 comment:

Lisa Simeone said...

Singer/songwriter Richard Shindell has a wonderful song about these sentiments ('sad, corny' Whittier poem to which you link) called "A Summer Wind, A Cotton Dress." Heartbreaking.