UKULELE MUSINGS 2020, No. 33, 1 August 2020: “There’s Corn, and then There’s ‘Corny'”

In these days of stay-at-home sequestration, Alison and I enjoy our short drives through our Happy Valley as we visit–properly distanced and masked of course–our favorite farm stands.  We enjoy checking out the growing field crops on a weekly basis and are pleased to note the progress from seedling, to blossoming, to ripening.  One of my favorite crops to watch is corn and, having grown up in the flat, nearly topography-less state of Illinois, I can state unequivocally that Massachusetts “corn” is nothing like Illinois “CORN.”  In Illinois, green cornstalks with their high yellow tassels can stretch up eight to ten feet in August with rows so dense you can’t see through.  That’s serous CORN. The landscape is horizontal but the corn is vertical!

Now, gentle readers, you are probably asking yourselves just what does this week’s musing about corn have to do with our favorite little musical instrument—the ukulele.  Not a whole lot, I’m afraid, but bear with me as we meander down a few musical streets—laid out like a T-square-straight grid of serious, really serious CORNfields.

Alas, there’s only one uke in my collection that can claim any resemblance to corn but it does so in two ways.  First, its color; and second, it’s a bit “corny.”  Right? OK, moving on . . .

Further exploration on Google, however, led me to this more fittingly thematic instrument, not a uke however. Not yet in my collection; perhaps later, much later. . .

Now, on to our agricultural-musical theme.

Taking a look at some of the early corn-related songs out there, the sheet music cover art is often meticulously and accurately drawn.  They honor the crop itself and the sunbonneted maidens who grew up amongst it.

Click or tap on the next image for a lively, more recent ragtime piano version of this golden oldie to get you into a “corny” mood.

Here’s another bit of vintage sheet music on our theme.

Now on to the fun stuff. Party time on the farm!

Clearing the floor for a good old-fashioned barn dance! As I recall the farm-country protocol, finding a red ear in the batch gave one the honor of choosing a dance partner. Anticipation and flirtation!

Now here’s something a tad musically different! The old-time banjo tune “Shuckin’ the Corn” played on a five-string, steel-string “ukejolele,” no less! Click or tap on the next image for a barn burner of a treat!

Then there are those songwriters that recognized the well known fact that a cornfield was often a clandestine, country-style trysting spot for amorous young farmfolks.

And, in keeping with our “corny” theme, who else can give a better ukulele rendition of this old, old chestnut of a trysting song than “Mr. Corny” himself. Tap or click on the next image for an earful, so to speak!

And, of course, there are the “corny” songs that distill (ahem) . . .

. . . some humor out of that versatile crop.

And, from the 1920s, with ukulele chords included!

Believe it or not, I actually found a Youtube of this “corny” tune. Tap or click on the next image for a gnaw!

Moving on–as we must–to a more historical approach to this musing, we can take a look at the origins of so-called “Country Music” and see how corn and “corny” fit in.  Today, musicologists refer to the early days as “Roots Music” often featuring fiddle music as a lead for string bands playing in local barn dances and down-home venues. 

We can do it too on our favorite little musical instruments if we practice, practice, practice!

In the early 1920s, when folks came to perform on the first radio broadcasts to offer this style of music, performers would dress for the occasion in their “Sunday-go-to-Meetin’” clothes—suits, white shirts, neckties for men, simple dresses for women.  Here’s the “Carter Family” all dressed up for the radio!

Here’s another group performing on the radio dressed in their “Sunday Best.”

When in the mid-1920s, those radio broadcasts became broadcast nationally and attracted a huge country, ex-country, and urban audience, studios began staging their programming before live audiences. 

Now here is where the “corny” part comes in.  Here’s a dignified looking, old-time string band from those early years led by a local physician and harmonica player who performed with some other local businessmen buddies. This group became one of the most popular features on the early days of Nashville’s “Grand Ole Opry.” Click or tap on the next image for a listen.

For the radio audience, the good doctor was asked to rechristen his group from the “Dr. Bates Band” as the “Possum Hunters.” Here’s the same band in their newly donned “hayseed” garb demanded by the live studio audience. Same music, however.

This next group changed their outfits and their name from “The Bently Brothers” to the “Dixie Clodhoppers,” again for the live radio audience. Somehow they kept the neckties and silk socks, however. Go figure!

And the list goes on and on . . .

Because live studio audiences wanted a real “country experience,” broadcasters, sponsors, and–quite soon—performers were drawn to (or pushed into) the “hayseed” or “hillbilly” look. 

Bib overalls, straw hats, gingham dresses, and button shoes or bare feet were embraced and the “corny” became the standard costume. 

Yet, the music usually stayed the same while only the appearance changed. 

So, how does this homespun, culturally “corny”—albeit non-racial “hayseed/hillbilly/western” caricature compare to other cultural appropriations of the time such minstrelsy and black-face?  “Corny” to “Cowey,” I guess. Worth a ponder or, in my humble opinion, at least a muse.

Enough of that!  Back to Illinois CORN. 

I went to the University of Illinois which–I can proudly say– is the only college campus in the country with a venerable, 150-year old cornfield–The Morrow Plots–as a hallowed landscape feature in its heart. These plots have been used for continuous soil and plant-rotation testing for all those years–nothing “corny” about that! 

In fact, it’s the only cornfield in the country designated by an act of Congress as a National Historic Landmark. (So there Iowa!) And, all new university buildings must be designed so as “to NOT cast a shadow on the cornfield.”  

Needless to say, a song was born! Click or tap on the next image for a listen to this campus anthem! This is an older YouTube but the newer ones of this world class acappella glee club have this tune imbedded in about fifty minutes of other good music. Consider it a way of “shuckin” the corn.

I will, however, end with a much better YouTube of the entire Varsity Men’s Glee Club (yes, they have an equally good women’s glee club) as part of an alumni celebration a few years ago. Click or tap on this one just to make me nostalgic for Illinois CORN!

So, keep safe, keep your distance, keep enjoying our Happy Valley “butter and sugar” corn, and STAY TUNED.

Or course, you could wear a corn mask (bib?).  Or would that be a kernel too “corny?

Note: You have to have been raised or lived in the so-called Illinois “Corn Belt” to fully appreciate this week’s musing. My apologies, and condolences, to those who weren’t and had to grow up with, well, corn–and, I will concede, TOPOGRAPHY.

Author: NohoBanjo of Northampton and, now, Easthampton, Mass.

Hi friends, neighbors, and fellow strummers. These “musings” are based on my interest and study of Banjo and Ukulele history, lore, and music. My goal is to both educate and enlighten by sharing what I have learned within a broad musical and historical context—with honesty and, at times, a bit of humor. Needless to say, your thoughts and comments are, as always, welcome.

One thought on “UKULELE MUSINGS 2020, No. 33, 1 August 2020: “There’s Corn, and then There’s ‘Corny'””

  1. I didn’t know the Morrow Plots are a national landmark. Having Illinois corn for dinner tonight. Thanks for another fun blog and Illini pride.


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