Let's Eat the Old Folks Words & Music by Steve Gillette
This song is an example of what they used to call 'gallows humor.' It also might be discussed in the context of Jonathan Swift's famous piece A Modest Proposal, published anonymously in 1729. In it he suggests that the impoverished Irish might ease their economic troubles by selling their children as food to rich gentlemen and ladies. Swift was responding to what he saw as the heartless attitudes towards the poor, as well as British policy toward the Irish in general.
It's been used as an example of irony for generations of students, and is a very effective use of ghoulish images for the sake of invoking a realization of the suffering of others. Empathy is the goal, while humor and discomfort are the strategy.
Black comedy, also known as black humor, dark comedy, dark humor, or gallows humor, is a style of comedy that makes light of subject matter that is generally considered taboo, particularly subjects that are normally considered serious or painful to discuss.
Whereas the term black comedy is a relatively broad term covering humor relating to many serious subjects, gallows humor tends to be used more specifically in relation to death, or situations that are reminiscent of dying. Scholars have associated black comedy and black humor with authors as early as Aristophanes and the ancient Greeks.
Sigmund Freud, in his 1927 essay Humour (Der Humor), puts forth the following theory of black comedy: "The ego refuses to be distressed by the provocations of reality, to let itself be compelled to suffer. It insists that it cannot be affected by the traumas of the external world; it shows, in fact, that such traumas are no more than occasions for it to gain pleasure."
Some other sociologists elaborated this concept further. Paul Lewis warns that this 'relieving' aspect of gallows jokes depends on the context of the joke: whether the joke is being told by the threatened person or by someone else.
Black comedy has the social effect of strengthening the morale of the oppressed and undermines the morale of the oppressors. According to Wylie Sypher, "To be able to laugh at evil and error means we have surmounted them.”
Kurt Vonnegut wrote about how this dark humor evolved: “Actually it's humor from the peasants' revolt, the forty years' war, and from the Napoleonic wars. It's small people being pushed this way and that way, enormous armies and plagues and so forth, and still hanging on in the face of hopelessness.”
A 2017 study published in the journal Cognitive Processing concludes that people who appreciate dark humor "may have higher IQs, show lower aggression, and resist negative feelings more effectively than people who turn up their noses at it."
Roald Dahl is known for delving into the use of gruesome humor. He could also be pretty sensible about the creative process. I've long subscribed to something he said in Tales of Childhood: “A person is a fool to become a writer. His only compensation is absolute freedom. He has no master except his own soul, and that, I am sure, is why he does it.”
The cartoons of Gary Larson and Charles Addams have delighted us all, and maybe have touched on that empathy nerve. Addams' ghoulish figures opened up my childhood to a much wider world, and reached millions on the TV screen later on.
Gahan Wilson wrote: “When I was 8 or 9, I was browsing through the books section of a secondhand store, and I saw this set of bound volumes of Punch,” the British humor magazine, he told The Comics Journal. “I bought one of the volumes for 15 cents and took it home. After pleading with my father, he very sweetly drove me back to the place and plopped down for the entire set, bless his heart.”
Tom Lehrer is the one humorist in our time who most exemplifies the use of this kind of radical irony in song. As a young person, I delighted in his gleeful use of horror as humor. “I hold your hand in mine dear, I place it to my lips. I take a healthy bite from your dainty fingertips.” The effect of his humor on my young imagination was life-changing. Watch on YouTube.
In the classic movie Life of Brian from Monty Python, a group of hapless men condemned to being crucified by Roman soldiers, sing the unexpectedly cheerful song, "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life." In what might be another example of humor in the face of pain, the song has been used in many memorial services. Watch on YouTube.
In 1930 Stanley Holloway recorded his recitation of “Young Albert and the lion.” from a script written for him by Marriott Edgar. Watch on YouTube.
I first heard this song from the The Kingston Trio, but here is a 1934 recording of Cyril Smith singing “With her head tucked underneath her arm” The song was written in 1934 with lyrics by R. P. Weston and Bert Lee and music by Harris Weston. Watch on YouTube.
Sweeney Todd is Stephen Sondheim's beloved musical which has made audiences squirm and giggle with delight since 1979. Here's a version of "A Little Priest" from Sondheim's 80th birthday celebration with Patti LuPone, George Hearn, and Michael Cerveris. Watch on YouTube.
Just as Jonathan Swift was trying to wake up his readers to the real pain of starvation, I hit on a similar approach as I became aware of a growing cynicism and insensitivity to the suffering of the elderly, the homeless and the poor occurring in this country.
My song was prompted by what I sensed was a growing callousness toward the plight of many poorer people, older people facing the prospect of outliving their savings and others in desperate straits with no savings at all. All this while the world's governments in many cases are opting for austerity and a diminishment of any social safety net. While that's a dire prospect, and may be something that we will all have to endure, still we shouldn't have to lose our sense of humor.
I admit that it's a cheap trick to go straight for the bottom. 'Reductio ad absurdum', I think is the Latin for taking the most ridiculous and extreme view. That can be fun, as long as it's not abusing the listener. Certainly in a discussion, it's not a respectful response, but for Jonathan Swift, and the rest of us, it can be a useful device.
This song skirts the line where bad taste may be encountered. 'Taste' is a pun I hadn't intended, but that may be a clue as to where the sticky wicket is to be found. The song walks a no-man's-land of insensitivity. Lines that conflate food with human traits, like “Why not give it a try, with a salty fisherman's platter, or a humble Shepherd's pie,” beg to be groaned at. The word 'disgusting' means exactly that, loss of appetite, and that may be a problem that the writer of this song hasn't completely solved.
The song may not be truly successful on its own terms. That's not false modesty. But as the man said, 'false modesty is better than no modesty at all.' I offer the song as an example for the songwriter to study, but make no claims as to its perfection. Maybe another look at some of the ideas will suggest a better treatment. In other words, do as I say and not as I have done, exactly.
The song is a little unusual in that it starts with a chorus which is repeated after the verse and again after the bridge, but with some slight changes of lyrics. Musically, I did experiment so as to relieve the ordinariness of the sing-songy chorus. I wanted that old-time music hall glee as a setting for the unsettling language, but then wanted to venture into new musical territory in the verse. That's the reason for the change of key and the employment of some new principles of harmony.
In the fourth section you have a more conventional bridge which also represents a little excursion away from the established tone of the song. And as is the case with many bridges, it has a scheme of setting up a punchline which then leads back into the chorus.
Here's my video of the song. I had fun with some wonderful images from more innocent days:
Steve's recording of "Let's Eat the Old Folks." Video by Steve.
In his song "Dead Egyptian Blues" Michael Smith has used the blue linen of mummification to convey his personal philosophy and overview of mortality. Here he and Anne Hills perform a wonderful version live at the Rose Garden Coffehouse:
Michael Smith and Anne Hills perform Michael's "Dead Egyptian Blues" (1985)
And here's a video from Lou and Peter Berryman, true masters of irony and wordplay, not to mention having that transcendent vision. The song is "The Boomers Are Rising Again":
Lou and Peter Berryman perform "The Boomers Are Rising Again"
My recording of "Let's Eat the Old Folks" is available for purchase as a digital download here.
For those intrepid souls who might want to sing this song, or for those who just want to better understand the harmonic choices, here are the chords.
Chorus: D G E7 A Edim A D G E7 A7 D Verse: Bmaj F#min E E7 Am F#min F#dim B7 G G/F# C9 A7 E7 A7 Bridge Bmin G D Em9 Bmin E7 A A7
And here are the lyics::
Let's Eat the Old Folks Words & Music by Steve Gillette Let's eat, let's eat the old folks, the homeless and the poor. If the four food groups are not enough, Let's just add one more. Let's eat, let's eat the old folks, don't let 'em go to waste. Let's show 'em that we value their good taste. We'll give mom the joy of cooking on her new rotisserie. With Uncle Ben and Aunt Jemima and old Chef Boy-ar-dee. There'll be treasured family recipes in all the gourmet magazines. Just think what Grandma could do for the flavor of green beans. Let's eat, let's eat the old folks. Why not give it a try? With a salty fisherman's platter, or a humble shepherd's pie. Let's eat, let's eat the old folks, don't let 'em go to waste. Let's show 'em that we value their experience, and good taste. Folks say my plum pudding is the best they ever had, It's because I add that special touch, Three fingers of Old Grandad. Let's eat, let's eat the old folks, the homeless and the poor. If the four food groups are not enough, Let's just add one more. Let's eat, let's eat the old folks, don't let 'em go to waste. Let's show 'em that we value their good taste.
© 2006 Compass Rose Music, BMI
The Bosses of the Senate by Joseph Keppler Puck Magazine, 1889.