Though its title may conjure images of safety pins and slam dancing, Songs of the Pogo (Reaction Records) is a whole different kettle of catfish. A CD reissue of the 1956 LP, Songs presents human performances of nonsense ditties that initially debuted in Walt Kelly’s Okeefenokee comic strip “Pogo.” The classic newspaper strip, which ran from 1948 – 75, was known for its quirky mock Southern dialect and pun-filled poetry. The latter regularly appeared in the strip and on illustrated pages in the Simon & Schuster volumes printing Pogo comics. Superstitious turtle Churchy LaFemme was the putative author of many of these gems, though the rest of the cast could be just as prone to poesy.
Kelly’s strip was a masterful blend of the farcical and satiric (it grew more openly political as the years progressed), but his poems were all wordplay and whimsy. At the peak of Pogo Possum’s popularity, Kelly (with musical collaborator Norman Monath and “Sing Along With Mitch” arranger Jimmy Carroll) put together a long-player of many of the more durable nonsense-verses-set-to-music. In the years since, the record’s become a collector’s item among comic strip fanatics and devotees of novelty music.
As a longtime lover of Kelly’s work, I’ve been dying to hear this platter for decades. Back in the sixties, I’d found a copy of the sheet music to this record but could never uncover the actual vinyl recording. I remember struggling to plunk out the tunes on the family piano (my sister was the pianist in the house), trying to get a sense of the way they sounded. Listening to Kelly jovially bellowing “I Go Pogo” over a rollicking old-timey brass band, I realize I was nowhere close.
Kelly’s lyrics, while typically nonsensical, evoked vaudeville, madrigals and sentimental parlor music. The fifties era collection sounds very much of its time (fair warning to rock ‘n’ rollers): studio orchestra, hearty male choruses and theatrical singing abounds. All pretty high-falluting for a batch of tunes that supposedly were birthed in a southern swamp, but never mind. The cartoonist himself sings on three of the cuts (best of which is the strip’s election campaign song) and performs a children’s story in the bonus rounds. (Also included as an extra, a recitation of the intro to a strip collection that introduced Kelly’s memorable catchphrase, “We have met the enemy – and he is us.”) As a singer, the baritone Kelly made a great brush-&-ink man, but, hey, he was no worse than Shel Silverstein.
In the end, Songs of the Pogo is an indispensable CD for Pogophiles and a definite curiosity for lovers of the nonsensical (have the guys from They Might Be Giants found this yet? I’d love to hear ‘em cover “Slopposition.”) Only Kelly verse inexplicably missing? His best-known creation: the spooneristic Xmas carol, “Deck Us All With Boston Charlie” (which was recorded in 1961 by jazz vocalists Lambert, Hendricks & Ross). And though it may be just a footnote to this comic strip great’s career, this disc still holds a place in the pantheon of charming musical foolery . . .
ADDENDUM: And for those unfamiliar with Kelly’s verse, here’s a sample of one that’s particularly A.A. Milne-like, “Many Harry Returns”:
Once you were two, dear birthday friend,
In spite of purple weather.
But now you are three and near the end
As we grewsome together.
How fourthful thou, forsooth for you,
For soon you will be more.
But ‘fore one can be three be two;
Before be five be four.