Friday, October 3, 2014

The Memphis Roots of "One Man Two Guvnors"

Posted By on Fri, Oct 3, 2014 at 2:39 PM

click to enlarge The Cast of "One Man Two Guvnors"
  • The Cast of "One Man Two Guvnors"
One of the niftier things about One Man Two Guvnors, the Commedia-inspired romp, currently onstage at Playhouse on the Square, is its incorporation of live British Skiffle music, which evolves over the course of the show into something just a little more Fab.

I’m not sure that Playhouse has done the best job of integrating Two Guv’s musical and non-musical elements, but I’m not complaining too loudly either because shortcomings, real or imagined, don’t diminish the fun.

But it’s an unsubtle play, innit? And yet there are subtle reasons why this thumbnailed musical history pairs so well with farce to create the romantic dystopia of mid-20th-Century working class England at the point on the cultural map where it collides with Britannia’s criminal class and the bourgeois.

To say that skiffle is rooted in Memphis is an overstatement, of course, but the distance is deceptively short between Presidents Island and Liverpool. Today the word “skiffle” is probably most commonly associated with England in the 1950’s, but it’s really just another word for the spasm bands and jug bands that played throughout the South in the early 20th-Century. The form has deep roots running from Chicago, where “skiffle parties” were thrown to raise rent money, down South to Beale where jugs farted and banjos sang, and on to Storyville in New Orleans where jazz oozed up from the gumbo.

Skiffle music’s defining qualities are exuberance, and innovation born from poverty. Skiffle band banjos might have started out in life as pie pans. Washboards, spoons, and “bones” stood in for drum kits and washtubs (or jugs) for bass. If you didn’t have a trumpet a kazoo would do. And if you didn’t have a kazoo, a comb and slip of tissue paper worked just as well. Mandolins might be fashioned from broken guitar necks and gourds. Saws sing, if you know how to strike or bow them.

The British Skiffle—the revival that brought together so many key players in the British Invasion-- doesn’t exist without artists like Gus Canon, Ma Rainey, or Memphis Minnie. Or without more polished acts like the Hoosier Hotshots who made movies with Gene Autrey, and were a huge influence on genius jazz clown Spike Jones.

Early rock is often imagined as a collision of country, blues and gospel and, of course, it is all of that. But from its lower class roots to the exuberant but distorted sounds of crudely repaired amps and the dollar bill Johnny Cash threaded between his guitar strings to make it sound like a snare drum, early rock artists seem to be carrying on skiffle and jug band traditions. When jazz and folk players in the UK embraced skiffle in the mid 1950’s musicians like Lonnie Donegan and bands like The Vipers embraced its folk roots and its rockabilly branches all at once.

So, I should probably get back to One Man Two Guvnors for a tic. Commedia dell’arte is some silly, silly stuff. What we call slapstick takes its name from a club composed of two wooden slats that literally slap together and make a loud smacking sound whenever one Commedia clown uses it to strike another for laughs. There are no beatdowns with a slapstick in Two Guvs, though there is one slapstick bit that could easily be called "the lazzo of beating your own self down." At its best this kind of humor aims at the lowest common denominator but catches everybody in a shotgun blast of inspired zaniness. And in its original incarnation, Commedia could also be very smart and subversive, its stock characters representing extreme elements among rulers and the too easily ruled. It began as a kind of street performance, like the flash mobs of yesterday, but not so twee. Commedia belonged to the people. And fewer characters better represented the people than poor beaten-down half-devil, Arlequino — the perennial servant of two masters. He’s the appetite personified, and would easily trade a fortune promised, for a beer in hand. Oi!

Skiffle was very much a working/underclass movement and in its skiffelized version of the English underbelly One Man Two Guvnors tells the story of just such a man. Francis Henshall— our Arlequino— can’t afford to say no to an extra paycheck, and he’s too distracted by his food and sex drives to even serve himself. It’s serious anarchy. It’s punk rock.

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