Songs that Aren’t Funny Anymore (But Are)

I was listening to a Limelighters recording, and they did “Have some Madeira, My Dear.” I laughed, a lot, in part because “Have some Madeira, my dear?” was a catch-phrase my parents used back when. Then I realized that I probably shouldn’t be laughing at the song, because it is really not funny. But it is, especially when the lead plays up the old lech’s part very, very well. So do I laugh? And can we even sing, let alone write, stuff like that any more?

The lyrics were originally written by the British comedy pair Flanders and Swann, and are:

She was young, she was pure, she was new, she was nice
She was fair, she was sweet seventeen.
He was old, he was vile, and no stranger to vice
He was base, he was bad, he was mean.
He had slyly inveigled her up to his flat
To view his collection of stamps,
And he said as he hastened to put out the cat,
The wine, his cigar and the lamps:

Have some madeira, m’dear. You really have nothing to fear.
I’m not trying to tempt you, that wouldn’t be right,
You shouldn’t drink spirits at this time of night.
Have some madeira, m’dear. It’s really much nicer than beer.
I don’t care for sherry, one cannot drink stout,
And port is a wine I can well do without…
It’s simply a case of chacun a son gout
Have some madeira, m’dear.

Unaware of the wiles of the snake-in-the-grass
And the fate of the maiden who topes,
She lowered her standards by raising her glass,
Her courage, her eyes and his hopes.
She sipped it, she drank it, she drained it, she did!
He promptly refilled it again,
And he said as he secretly carved one more notch
On the butt of his gold-headed cane:

Have some madeira, m’dear,
I’ve got a small cask of it here.

And once it’s been opened, you know it won’t keep.
Do finish it up. It will help you to sleep.
Have some madeira, m’dear.
It’s really an excellent year.
Now if it were gin, you’d be wrong to say yes
The evil gin does would be hard to assess.
Besides it’s inclined to affect me prowess,
Have some madeira, m’dear.

Then there flashed through her mind what her mother had said
With her antepenultimate breath,
“Oh my child, should you look on the wine that is red
Be prepared for a fate worse than death!”
She let go her glass with a shrill little cry,
Crash! Tinkle! it fell to the floor;
When he asked, “What in Heaven?” She made no reply,
Up her mind, and a dash for the door.

Have some madeira, m’dear.
Rang out down the hall loud and clear
With a tremulous cry that was filled with despair,
As she fought to take breath in the cool midnight air,
Have some madeira, m’dear.
The words seemed to ring in her ear.
Until the next morning, she woke in her bed
With a smile on her lips and an ache in her head…
And a beard [on her ear-lobe]* that tickled and said:
Have some madeira, m’dear!

So, is it still funny, as performed? Or is it an appalling paean to date-rape? Even when it was written, that kind of behavior was seen as unethical at best. Only cads and worse got innocent people drunk in order to take advantage of them. Which is part of the humor – the lengths the man goes to persuade the young woman to accept his advances.

What about cartoons with Pepe LePew, the amorous French skunk forever chasing a (most of the time) unwilling cat? Are they funny or are they lessons in what sexual harassment looks like and so to be shunned outside of the classroom or sexual-harassment-awareness-seminar?

I still find “Have some Madeira” very funny, and laugh right along with the cues in the music, because I know it is a warning. Don’t get drunk around someone who might not have your best interests at heart. Beware of people who try to get you drunk. See also “Black Velvet Band” (sometimes “Black Ribbon Band”) and “Coulton Weaver” for similar cautions. I know there are more if you really dig into folk music. The tales of young women and men with ill intentions go back very, very far, and appear in all sorts of ballads and folk-tales. And there are females who try to seduce or otherwise ruin young men. Some are funny, some are not. Heck, Andre Norton has one in the Witch World novel Songsmith that later was fully written out by the artist then-known as Heather Alexander and recorded. There are other patter-songs that I grew up with that are probably now verboten, decried by all proper people because they are [something]ist.

So, is it still funny? No, I don’t sing it around people I don’t know very, very well. In fact, it really doesn’t seem to work as well as when guys perform it. I could see a lot of ways to use this to teach “stay away from people who keep buying you drinks” sorts of things. Except we’re not supposed to teach young men or women common sense and basic safety, because that’s everyone else’s job. (“Drink all you want in public or private, and the other person has to know that you are schnockered and to leave you alone, no matter how you act or respond.”)

*The lyrics in brackets are the ones I grew up hearing and singing along with. The original words are more explicit, but since I’m talking about what I learned, I’ve used those.

7 thoughts on “Songs that Aren’t Funny Anymore (But Are)

  1. Traditional folk music is absolutely chock-full of sexual innuendo and seduction routines. I have an extensive collection of English folk music, and from medieval to modern, the subject is common. I could post many video links here, but I don’t want to clog up your Comments section with YouTube windows. To give just two examples, here’s Steeleye Span with “Spotted Cow”:

    And, for a very modern “folk” song, Hamish Imlach performs “Cod Liver Oil and Orange Juice” (I hope you can penetrate the Scottish accent!):

  2. Let us not forget “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”. Of course, she’s willing to stay a bit longer…

  3. Okay, I finally get it, after a full 90 seconds of contemplation: it’s a cautionary tale, and not an endorsement, and that’s why I can laugh at it.
    That’s only my rationalization, though, which is REQUIRED if I am to permit myself to continue my existence without bemoaning my wickedness.
    Umm…that doesn’t explain why I laugh at some other stuff, though…maybe I need to work on my rationalization technique.
    Or I could just accept the fact that I’m a perv, when it comes to humor.

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