Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Why We Need Hokum (Part Two)

Last week, we began a discussion of hokum, or why people believe non-scientific things with fervor, passion, and delight, but quickly went sidewise into a discussion of etymology.

While we're on that subject, Bruce Townley writes that I missed an alternate definition of “hokum.” According to Wikipedia, "hokum" is a type of American blues music that uses extended analogies or euphemistic terms to make sexual innuendos.

Bo Carter and the Mississippi Sheiks’ “Banana in Your Fruit Basket” is a good example.
I got a brand new skillet, I got a brand new lead,

All I need is a little woman, just to burn my bread

I'm tellin' you baby, I sure ain't gonna deny,

Let me put my banana in your fruit basket, then I'll be satisfied
Now, I got the washboard, my baby got the tub,

We gonna put 'em together, gonna rub, rub, rub

And I'm tellin' you baby, I sure ain't gonna deny,

Let me put my banana in your fruit basket, then I'll be satisfied
Carter is also the author of “Please Warm My Wiener,” “Don’t Mash My Digger So Deep,” and the tragic “My Pencil Won’t Write No More.” Blind Willie McTell recorded “Let Me Play With Your Yo-Yo” in 1933, and perhaps most famously, the Dominoes in 1951 recorded “Sixty Minute Man.”

Gospel composer Thomas Dorsey, better known for “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” and “Peace in the Valley,” also recorded “It’s Tight Like That” under the nom-de-hokum Barrelhouse Tom.

Early country music had a number of hokum hits, mostly sung by white performers in blackface, including “Tom Cat Blues,” “Shanghai Rooster Yodel,” and “That Nasty Swing.”

While hokum has largely died out, along with minstrel shows and blackface entertainers (Ted Danson notwithstanding), ZZ Top’s “Tube Steak Boogie” shows that the hokum impulse has not completely left the musical world.

But of course that’s not the kind of hokum we were talking about.

In the previous installment, I wrote that Wikipedia defined hokum as a synonym of bullshit, but I think there’s an important distinction, coming from the “hocus-pocus” part of the word’s definition.

Ordinary bullshit is simply assertion without fact, the idea that if you shout loud enough and are definite enough, people will tend to believe you. That describes the intent (and sadly, too often the result) of most political dialogue.

Hokum, on the other hand, is all dressed up and ready to party. It has a backstory, whether it’s true or not — with enough plausible-sounding information to make it slide comfortably into your mind like a White Castle hamburger. Unlike bullshit, hokum has a trace of the carny about it. Like science fiction itself, hokum appeals to the sense of wonder in us all.

Of course, labeling a belief as hokum is a direct assault on the people who believe it…which is why I’m punting that chore until next week.

More to come.

No comments:

Post a Comment