Harmonious Rats


FRED singing “Who’ll take fourth place when we’re gone”

Word of the Day: In musicologist-speak, a “contrafactum” is a sacred song that has been repurposed with secular lyrics, or vice versa. Think

Alas my love you do me wrong

as opposed to

What child is this . . .

By extension, it’s any reworking—notably including parodies—of a familiar song. Which brings us to the comedy quartet FRED, identifiable by their glittery lapel pins. Reading from left to right: F (baritone), R (bass), E (lead), D (tenor).

What the heck, you may reasonably ask, does “FRED” stand for? Well, back in 1997 they told us:

F is ’cause we wait for fireworks

R is for respectability

E means very, very extraordinary

D means doing more than anyone you’ve seen before

In other words, it stands for four guys who really, really like Frank Sinatra. There’s nothing anachronistic about this. Barbershop music is all about the arrange­ments. Very few songs in the standard repertoire date from the real “barbershop” era—before 1914, let’s say. The classic “Sweet Adeline” was actually banned from competition for a number of years (this is really true) because it had picked up too many stereotypes:

Sweet Adeline (hic!), my Adeline

with accompanying clinging-drunkenly-to-lamppost business.

“What the heck does FRED stand for?” helped push the group to second place in SPEBSQSA* competion, jumping up from fourth the year before. But the next year they were back in fourth place again, leading inevitably to

Who’ll take fourth place when we’re gone?

well known to all their listeners as the old standard

Who’ll take my place in your heart when I’m gone?

It got them first place. Later experience suggests that competition judges love this gimmick. In the years leading up to 2010, comedy quartet Storm Front had placed third, sixth, and third again. Inevitably this led to

We’ve grown accustomed to third place

In between, there was Max Q, who landed in second place three times in succession. They’re not a comedy group . . . but nobody could blame them for indulging in a light rehash of “Here’s to the Losers”, leading to a 2007 win.

* Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barbershop Quartet Singing in America. The organization later changed its name to Barbershop Harmony Society (abbreviated SPEBSQSA), just in time to start handing out awards to quartets from Sweden and New Zealand alongside the traditional US-and-Canada lineup. Look it up, and you will find a caution against attempting to pronounce the abbreviation.

Ein Musikalischer Spaß

a series of open fifths

Towards the end of his career, Mozart took time off to pen Ein Musikalischer Spaß, not to be confused with the similarly motivated Musikalischer Scherz created by Johann Strauss a century or so later. That’s pen, literally. Sources say Wolfie took great care to write it out himself, because any competent copyist would auto­matically have corrected the work’s glaring errors—thereby blowing the joke.

As a joke, it falls into the “I guess you had to be there” category. Musical rules are not as strict as they were in 1787, so some “mistakes” will no longer be heard as mistakes. (The final three bars, where every instrument is playing in a different key . . . yes, probably. At least I hope so.) And today’s court composers are not as predic­table; in fact, today’s court composers are not as insert-any-adjective-you-like. I will not venture to say whether the other two targets of the lampoon have similarly changed: are today’s string players less conceited, the hornists less fond of the bottle than they were in Mozart’s day?

Better stick with parodying songs everyone knows. Or, at least, everyone in your audience. Back when FRED were just beginning their climb to the top, Chordiac Arrest nibbled at the edges of fame, hitting 5th place two years in a row. Sadly, they don't seem to have thought of a suitable We’re Number Five program. Instead they left us with the inimitable “Darkness on a Delta” set. Along with the verbal parodies, we get the line

We sent out for Chinese food

sung on a series of open fifths that had the audience in stitches.

Chordiac Arrest is no longer around, on the rock-solid grounds that at least three of their members have died. Most of their parodies are credited to baritone Lynn Hauldren, known in the Chicago area as Empire Carpet Guy. Not being from Chicago, I don’t know if this was the cultural equivalent of Cal Worthington and his dog Spot singing close harmony.

Only a Rat in a Gilded Cage

rat locked in a golden birdcage

You know how it goes:

She’s only a bird rat in a gilded cage

A beautiful sight to see.

You may think she’s happy and free from care

She’s not, though she seems to be.

Somewhere in there, you get the backstory:

For her beauty was sold for an old man’s gold

She’s a bird rat in a gilded cage.

The gilding—for people who wonder about these things—was achieved with sparkly glue. Technically I believe this converts the picture into Mixed Media, but let’s not be silly.

There’s Always a Tall One

barbershop quartet of rats

Barbershop quartet truism: There’s always a tall one. If you are lucky, he’s the bass, adding extra effect to his oom-pa, oom-pa in the background. But it could be anyone. Even the tenor.

Shine on, shine on harvest moon

Up in the sky

I ain’t had no lovin’ since

January, February, June or July.

No clouds, it’s a holiday

For me an’ my gal

So shine on, shine on harvest moon.

Incidentally, the harvest moon is the one closest to the autumnal equinox. The one after that is the hunter’s moon. Don’t let anyone tell you you’re wasting time looking at pictures when you could be out learning something.

The Band Played On

Casey waltzing with the strawberry blonde

Don’t be misled by that “strawberry blonde” business. Officially it’s The Band Played On. Like all songs of its vintage, there’s a whole chunk that nobody knows, before launching into

Casey would waltz with the strawberry blonde

And the band played on.

He’d glide ’cross the floor with the girl he adored

And the band played on.

His brain was so loaded it nearly exploded

—and some more stuff I don’t remember—

He’d ne’er leave the girl with the strawberry curl

And the band played on.

Wait Till the Sun Shines, Nellie

sweethearts at the window

I’ve written about this song elsewhere. It sounds very sad, doesn’t it? But if you take the lyrics at face value, it’s perfectly benign.

On a Sunday morn,

Sat a maid forlorn,

With her sweetheart by her side;

Through the window pane,

She looked at the rain

. . . and so on until you get to the “Ah-ha!” of the chorus:

“Wait till the sun shines, Nellie,

When the clouds go drifting by.

We will be happy, Nellie,

Don’t you sigh!

Down Lover’s Lane we’ll wander,

Sweethearts you and I.

Pause for all four members of the barbershop quartet to indulge in some fancy vocals . . .

Wait till the sun shines, Nellie,

By and by!”

Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree

Patty, Maxene and Laverne sing their song

. . . with anyone else but me

Anyone else but me

Anyone else but me (oh no no)

Don’t sit under that apple tree

With anyone else but me

’Til I come marching home.

Hmm. Does that mean it will be OK to sit under the apple tree with other guys after the singer comes safely home? Or does that take us into a later decade and My Boyfriend’s Back?

This picture could almost have been put with Rats I Have Known. Once and only once have I bought three rats together. I was at a loss for names, so I fell back on Patty, Maxene and Laverne. In that order.

Joy to the World

a holiday song

Some paintings hang around for years and end up in the $10 bin. Some, like A Fine Fat Cat and Rubenesque, get snapped up in an instant. This was one of the “snapped up in an instant” ones. Getting painted just in time for a Christmas show didn’t hurt, but in any case I really like the way it came out.

You can also get this picture as a Virtual Squeak (otherwise known as an e-card) at the Rat & Mouse Club of America. But by the time you’ve finished looking at all the other offerings, you will probably have found at least eight pictures you like even better.

O Ratte Mio

rat gondolier

For those who speak Neapolitan:

Che bella cosa è na jurnata ’e sole,

N’aria serena doppo na tempesta!

Pe’ ll’aria fresca para già na festa

Che bella cosa na jurnata ’e sole.

Ma n’atu sole cchiù bello, oi ne’,

’O sole mio sta nfronte a te!

’O sole, ’o sole mio, sta nfronte a te,

Sta nfronte a te!

I am sorry to say that with this I have met my match, and do not feel competent to paraphrase. Even when there are rats involved.

If you want to hear it, I don’t think there’s any need to look further than this.

Ode to Joy

rat choir singing Ode to Joy

What do you mean, you don’t know what they’re singing? You’ve heard it hundreds of times.