Monday, March 11, 2019

A Crowded Life in Comics –

More About Google (Barney, That Is)

by Rick Marschall

We got good response from last week’s essay on Barney Google, from our Yesterday’s Papers Editor John Adcock who remembered his mother’s fondness for the eponymous song; from John Rose who directs the course of Snuffy Smith’s adventures today; and from… Google, or Facebook, or whichever member of the Big Brother League put a hold on Sharing of the article.

Race? Religion? Politics? No boxes were checked, but that means little to Big Brother or Blinky.

Nevertheless time marches on, at least in the Papers of Yesterday, and the little gray cells of memory in this crowded life.

The fond memories of John’s mother made me dig into the archives of another collecting specialty, vintage comics-related songsheets. I have about 200 of these, I guess; and a few can be pinned on Billy DeBeck, the comic genius who created Barney Google, Spark Plug, Snuffy Smith, Sunshine, Bunky, and a cast of thousands.

Google with the Goo-Goo-Googly Eyes” arguably is the most famous comic-character related song. In 1923 Billy Rose and Con Conrad composed it, and it was a popular tune performed and recorded in new versions until at least the 1950s. In those days, cartoonists and syndicates did not profit from such productions – it was regarded as promotion, rather, until the early 1930s – but DeBeck profited in other ways. America sang and whistled this song, and still does, even if Spark Plug the horse is virtually forgotten.

The lyrics are:
Barney Google, with his Goo-Goo-Googly Eyes.
Barney Google had a wife three times his size.
She sued Barney for divorce,
Now he's living with his horse.
Barney Google, with his Goo-Goo-Googly Eyes.

– and about three dozen other verses added through the years. A partial list of those who performed and recorded the song:

Georgie Price, 1923; Great White Way Orchestra (vocal: Billy Murray), 1923; Ernest Hare & Billy Jones, 1923; Frank Williams,1923; Missouri Jazz Hounds (vocal: Arthur Hall), 1923; Haring's Velvetone Dance Orchestra (instrumental), 1923; Selvin's Orchestra (instrumental), 1923; The Badgers (instrumental), 1923; Harry Blake and Robert Judson, 1923; Ed Smith, 1923; Master Melody Makers,1923; Thomas & West,  1923; The Georgians (instrumental), 1923; Les Steven's Clover Gardens Orchestra  (instrumental), 1923; The Two Gilberts, 1924; Charlie Ventura & His Bop For The People, 1949; Joe “Fingers” Carr and Pee Wee Hunt, 1956; The Andrews Sisters, 1958; The Sauter-Finegan Doodletown Fifers, 1958; Frances Faye, 1959; Mitch Miller and The Gang, 1962. There are also recordings by Mel Blanc (on the piano!), Spike Jones, Eddie Cantor, The Firehouse Five, The Buffalo Bills, and Dorothy Provine. Gyp Rosetti sang it before getting murdered in the last episode of Boardwalk Empire. I will suppose that Dave van Ronk, Leon Redbone, and R Crumb have performed it too.

Billy DeBeck was prolific. Several strips and many characters. When he discovered the dialects and traditions of Appalachia, he became a virtual expert and scholar on the ways and words of those mountain folk; Snuffy Smith speaks in authentic, not stage-words. DeBeck did invent phrases that entered the English, or rather the American, language: “Sweet mama,” “horsefeathers,” “heebie-jeebies,” “hotsy-totsy,” “doodlebug,” “time’s a-wastin’,” and possibly “Great balls o’ fire.”

I never met DeBeck, but through the years have stories about the colorful cartoonist. From Fred Lasswell, of course, who succeeded him during World War II. From Zeke Zekely, assistant on Bringing Up Father. And from Ferd Johnson, who drew Moon Mullins for years. These three artists were the assistants of, respectively, DeBeck, George McManus, and Frank Willard. When the “big boys” would golf or carouse, the assistants did the work… and then golfed and caroused themselves.

Ferd remembered DeBeck as a “dapper little guy.” To complete the circle from the previous column, I share a self-caricature of DeBeck from when Barney was just about “hitting” in Chicago… when he transferred his own mail-order cartooning lessons to the aegis of the Chicago Academy of Fine Art. Many “name” cartoonists were to study there, and, later, teach there. One of the last was a cartoonist I knew in the ‘70s, Art Huhta.

OK, let’s share a gallery of the dapper little guy’s great creations, via songsheet art. The first, however, is not by him, despite the signature. Pirate cover art for a stage show.

The rest of the songsheet covers are roughly if not precisely chronological:

As part of a continuity – featuring a secret society whose password was “OKMNX” (which turned out to mean nothing more than “OK; ham and eggs”) – Debeck and King Features offered membership cards. The response was so great that applicants received letters apologizing for delays.

A great legacy. But songs and songsheets were just a part. In my Crowded Life, I also have skimmed the surface, as a collector, of toys, figurines, board games, reprint books, and more delightful effluvia. Sometime to be shared here. Time’s a-wastin’!