The old philosopher

In 1956 Eddie Lawrence had a one-hit wonder, a song called The Old Philosopher that is perhaps the most pessimistic song to ever reach the American Billboard Top 40.

Ryankusumojr / CC BY-SA

The Old Philosopher is a song that sounds like it came out of the Great Depression. The basic structure is simple: an old-timey character recounts a series of increasingly implausible and awful events to the sound of a mournful accordion. Then, the music switches to upbeat band music and he exhorts you cheer up and never give up, all with the kind of chipper deranged positivity today reserved for infomercials and self-help seminars.

The highlight of the song are those awful events. They begin pretty benignly, like this:

You say you lost your job today?
You say it’s 4 AM and your kids ain’t home from school yet?
You say your wife went out for a corned beef sandwich last weekend, and the corned beef sandwich came back but she didn’t?
You say your furniture is out all over the sidewalk cause you can’t pay the rent and you’ve got chapped lips and paper cuts and your feet’s all swollen up and blistered from pounding the pavement looking for work?

And keep escalating and escalating until we reach this epitome of the pessimistic art:

You say you can’t pull your car out of the mud and you’re in the middle of nowhere and it’s pouring rain and you can’t get the top back up, and your paycheck’s all blurred, and your foot went right through the gas and your girl’s screaming bloody murder she’s scared of the dark, and a stroke of lightning splits your motor in half, and your suit’s shrinking up fast, and you start up the windy road on foot and 60 yards of barbed wire hits you right smack in the puss, and you both fall down in the mud and then a wild animal comes over and runs away with your shoes, and your car blows up suddenly and your windshield wiper ends up in your mouth, and you can’t move and the mud’s rising up to your nostrils and you’re sinking fast, and you don’t hear your girl screaming any more…

You can listen to the whole thing here, if you can handle it.

I’m trying to work out what happened in 1956 to make such a pessimistic song a hit, but so far I’m coming up blank. Elvis Presley, The Ten Commandments, the Suez crisis…


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