Tuesday, July 1, 2008


Ya give? Okay, here (in no particular order) is how it goes:

1) Way back in 1855, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote his famous epic poem, Song of Hiawatha, based on some stories from the Ojibway people, as interpreted by his contemporary, the noted ethnographer, Henry Rowe Schoolcraft (even back then everybody important had to have three names!) who got the stories from his wife, Jane Johnston Schoolcraft, who was of Ojibway and Irish descent. Still with me? Longfellow’s poem is known for many things, but most kids who had to study and learn to recite it in elementary school remember it for is distinct rhythm. I remember being told by my mother (who was born in 1912) that she had to commit a chunk of Hiawatha to memory as a girl, but hers may have been one of the last generations to do that. I myself recall having to memorize the dagger speech from Hamlet in high school, but we never studied Longfellow. Personally, I doubt there has been much epic poetry memorizing and reciting in schools for quite some time. I wonder if kids in these educationally diminished times ever crack a book on 19th Century poetry. Or Shakespeare for that matter. But I’m wandering away from my topic…

2) In 1989, experimental performance artist Laurie Anderson recorded her fifth album, Strange Angels, which included a track titled “Hiawatha.” This mystical number is a kind of pastiche ( in the non-humorous sense) of well-known musical and cultural references. Here’s a partial list: Elvis, Chuck Berry, Bob Dylan, Captain Midnight, a famous nursery rhyme, Marilyn and JFK, The Star-Spangled Banner, and...Hamm’s Beer.

3) Many Baby Boomers will surely remember this one. Hamm’s Beer has been around for a long time (since 1865), but one if its most beloved and famous ad campaigns came in the late ‘50s. Remember those commercials featuring Sascha, the Hamm’s Beer bear, with the tom-tom jingle, “From the Land of Sky-Blue Waters…”? The lyrics and rhythm were either (depending on your own point of view) an homage to or rip-off of the Longfellow poem. Plus, Hamm’s was founded in Minnesota, which is a Dakota word that translates as “water that reflects the sky.” Not only that, Sascha the bear was created by the famous Ojibway artist, Paul Desjarlait, in 1955. People loved that bear like they loved their Hamm’s. If you liked to party down in the latter 50s into the 60s, there’s a good chance it was with Hamm’s – after all, it had a rep as being one of the cheapest (but still quite palatable) beers on the market. Possibly you still party with Hamm’s today, although distribution these days is pretty spotty. Sadly, however, Sascha the bear was mothballed by the same forces that more recently retired Joe Camel. But Sascha and Hamm’s memorabilia and history are highly collectible in the booming nostalgia market.

I think this video of Laurie Anderson's “Hiawatha” is really beautiful. You’ll recognize many of the images from the Hubble telescope. You’ll also see in the lyrics (“more info”) the reference to “land of sky blue waters.” Although the song is on the album mentioned above (Strange Angels) this particular recording is credited as being from a live concert in New Jersey, which may account for the wonderful ‘echo’ quality it has, not found on Strange Angels. In fact, one of the YouTube commenters called it a bootleg recording. I can’t vouch for that one way or another, but it’s a gorgeous rendition. I think the words and images are meant for each other (and I said so). If I ever do find this version on a CD, I’m buying it!

The famous Hamm’s Beer jingle Today, of course, we recognize the tom-toms as culturally insensitive. And I think the soprano duck is pretty bizarre, too.

So there you have it, three seemingly incongruous things, all neatly linked together in well under the standard six degrees of separation.

Photos of Longfellow and Laurie Anderson from Wikimedia Commons; photo of tailgate party from Creative Commons, by Rob Lee

1 comment:

Quiet Paths said...

This was great. What drew me in? Not Hamms for sure but Laurie. I was a big fan in the 80's,. Excellent Birds.