Topical Songs 1: Music Out of Time

Steve Russell

By the time you are pushing 40, you understand why oldies radio stations are common coast to coast. You hear the first few bars and you can name the tune and the artist. Even more important, the music transports you to a time and place.

Where you lived, where you went to school or worked, which car you drove and who your lover was—all these memories hide, for my generation, in grooves on vinyl. I internalized this when I caught myself singing along with the radio and enjoying a tune I could not stand when it was popular. It failed to carry enough meaning to satisfy me when it was new, but now it illustrates some months of my life. I listen to enjoy the view.

Unfortunately, soundtracks of the parts of my life that mean the most to me now do not get on the radio. I treasure most my years of involvement in the Civil Rights Movement, when we dared greatly and achieved greatly.

We changed the world and most of us changed ourselves in the process. We lived though the kind of adversity that bonds people together no less than military combat, and that adversity had a wonderful way of clarifying values.

The Civil Rights Movement reconciled me to Christians. It didn’t make me a Christian but I became tolerant of people who attributed their own goodness to fear that a powerful Invisible Friend would punish evil acts. I’ve witnessed selflessness and courage that command respect no matter what the source.

The soundtracks of those times by and large did not get on the radio then and certainly do not now. It was topical music for poor guitar players, lyrics made up in the heat of conflict. Those songs had, as my pal Tom Paxton used to say, a short shelf life.

Tom was the only person I knew of who got famous after the sort of childhood I shared in Bristow, Creek Nation, Oklahoma. He lived on 10th Street and I lived on 12th and I used to throw his morning copy of the Tulsa World.

He taught me something about the shelf life of topical songs at a concert where he was taking requests and I asked him to play “Anita OJ.” Anita Bryant was a Miss America runner up from Oklahoma who became a minor celebrity as a singer, charting 14 times between 1959 and 1964—11 in the top 100—and topping out with a number five hit in 1960. She became the pitchwoman for Florida Orange Juice.

In 1977, well past her hit music prime, Bryant went on an anti-gay crusade, involving herself in movements to repeal a number of gay rights ordinances, most famously in Dade County, Florida. She also successfully advocated legislation to prevent gay people from adopting children.

In this context, Tom Paxton wrote a hilarious send-up of Bryant:

Jesus loves Anita, or so it doth appear.

Lately things are looking strange or dare I say it? - queer.

In spite of controversy, so the morning paper said,

She's retained her high commission to squeeze fruits for heavy bread.

I shouted my request at a gig Tom played on the University of Texas campus in the eighties. “No,” he said, “she’s had a hard time lately and I don’t believe in piling on.”

Bryant’s anti-gay crusade had caused a major backlash. Several endorsement contracts evaporated. A nationwide boycott of orange juice led to a decline in screwdrivers and the rise of the “Anita Bryant”—vodka and apple juice.

In 1979, she lost the OJ gig, her biggest endorsement contract. Soon after, her marriage broke up and she did something she had professed not to believe in and got a divorce. Many of her fundamentalist friends likewise did not believe in divorce—one of the few social issues about which Jesus actually stated an opinion---and the holier than thou attitude that made the anti-gay crusade work now resulted in Bryant being shunned.

Tom’s song was written when she was the aggressor:

You spoke in Miami to set the record straight.

Gave the folks a target acceptable to hate.

You told us there are some things one may never do in bed.

One wonders, dear Anita, if you'll ever get ahead?

Bryant the crusader had fallen off her high horse, although the law she advocated to keep gay people from adopting survived into the 21st century and was still being litigated at a time when Florida had 3,400 children in foster care and was still not allowing gay people to adopt.

Still, her life was unraveling and Tom did not want to kick her while she was down.

Sometimes songs with a very specific context that should limit their shelf life get recycled by events, as in Tom’s song about government bailouts:

I am changing my name to Chrysler

I am going down to Washington, D.C.

I will tell some power broker

What you did for Iacocca

Would be perfectly acceptable to me!

It’s only fair to add that Chrysler CEO Lee Iacocca paid back the money with interest, but Chrysler was back in 2008-2009 and this time brought along a bunch of Wall Street gamblers in danger of going bust. The Chrysler bailout was small beer compared to the fountains of taxpayer money that paid off bad bets at the front end of the Great Recession, and Tom had to update his lyrics.

Of course, not everything that came from what they called the “folk revival” had a short shelf life. I’ve found some examples that lead off with a much younger Tom Paxton.

Part 2 of this series will discuss what ought to be the ultimate short shelf life songs, the ones composed for elections. In Part three, I’ll ask if the topical songs written by and about Indians go out of date as well.


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