Allan Sherman’s Accidental Anthology of American Anxiety
The albums that topped the 1962 Billboard charts were mostly ones you would expect of sixty years ago: Ray Charles’s brilliant soul reinterpretation of country and western songs. The soundtracks to Breakfast at Tiffany’s, the (first) film version of West Side Story, and the Elvis Presley vehicle Blue Hawaii. The self-titled first album from Peter, Paul, and Mary.
But then, tucked in at the end of the year, were two very different beasts—both parody albums. One was a live recording of a comedy performance featuring an impersonation of President Kennedy; it would go on to sell a million copies and win the Grammy for Album of the Year.
The other was the first album of Allan Sherman. If you’re under the age of, say, 50, there’s a good chance you don’t know who Allan Sherman was—or you may perhaps have heard just one song of his, the one beginning “Hello Muddah, hello Faddah, here I am at Camp Granada.” Those lines about a miserable sleepaway camp are some of Sherman’s most amusing—but they’re actually among his least interesting.
Born in Chicago in 1924, Allan Sherman attended 21 different grade schools throughout an itinerant childhood. He entered the Army in 1942 but was discharged because of allergies; he then went to college but earned poor grades and was kicked out after breaking into a closed sorority house.
Sherman had other things going for him, though: He was a funny guy, and so began to carve out a career as a comedy writer. And he had bigger ideas. Hollywood liked one of them well enough to land him a job as the producer of a game show, I’ve Got a Secret, based on a concept he developed. Off and on over the next few years, he produced a handful of other TV shows and specials as well. He claimed half-jokingly to have “invented the word ‘please’” on applause signs for live audiences: “When I ordered the sign, I insisted—even though it cost an extra $75—that it should read PLEASE APPLAUD.”
By the spring of 1962, it looked like Sherman might be in for a big career break producing the latest iteration of Steve Allen’s variety show. But just as the show was to premiere, he was humiliatingly ousted. (“I was Captain Bligh, and the whole Goddam thing was a mutiny,” he recalled in his memoir.) Suddenly jobless, with a family to feed and his career as a producer ruined by bad press, Sherman took stock. What else did he have left that he might turn to for money?
Sherman had long loved entertaining guests at parties with comedy bits and musical parodies. In Hollywood, these impressed the likes of Harpo Marx, Jack Benny, Steve Allen, George Burns, and Gracie Allen. He decided to try to turn them into an album—and in just a few weeks he had written enough new songs for an LP and recorded them. The album dropped in the fall of 1962: (Allan Sherman’s Mother Presents) My Son, the Folk Singer, a collection of folk melodies given witty new lyrics. Soon, Sherman was everywhere: “Frank Sinatra bought twenty-five records to give to his friends. Sammy Davis, Jr., gave one to each of his friends, including Frank Sinatra. Irving Berlin bought a copy in New York and was mad for it. . . . Every rock ’n’ roll station in the United States began to play” the album. By year’s end, it had topped the charts.
The next year, Sherman put out two more albums—My Son, the Celebrity and My Son, the Nut—both of which also received wide airplay and became number-one albums.
It was Allan Sherman’s moment.
But it was only a moment. The fascination with silly songs was fleeting. None of the three albums Sherman put out in 1964 did as well as his first three chart-toppers, and the airwaves were soon taken over by the rock music of the British Invasion. NBC gave Sherman his own one-hour primetime special in early 1965, but already by then his record sales were collapsing. In 1966, his record label dropped him and his wife divorced him. His creative output and health alike declined, and he died in 1973 at the tragically young age of 48—while entertaining guests with songs at a party.
Today, Allan Sherman is largely forgotten, except perhaps as a blip—a midcentury curiosity. However, as a producer of American popular culture, he punched above his weight. Sixty years on, it’s worth treating his humorous lyrics with a bit of seriousness and curiosity.
Sherman is probably most notable for his Jewish comedy, which is understood to have helped create a fusion of Jewish and American identity. He’s also credited, despite the doldrums of the parody genre, as an inspiration for Weird Al, whose career has stretched on for far longer than Sherman’s did. But Sherman was also something of a social critic—albeit a funny, and not necessarily sincere, one.
Nonetheless, most of his lighthearted and occasionally pointed lyrics could not be written today. They are time capsules of their era, a little accidental anthology of the tensions and anxieties of midcentury America. The nation’s political landscape, and its assortment of live issues, has greatly changed. It’s much harder to poke fun at the suburbs or consumerism, much less something like Jewish assimilation today; they are less identifiable as distinct phenomena, and have melded into the backdrop of American life.
Start with “Pop Hates the Beatles” (to the tune of “Pop Goes the Weasel”) where, in a premonition of his own coming musical and commercial misfortune, Sherman skewered the generational divide in music tastes:
No daughter of mine can push me around.
In my house I’m the master.
But when the Beatles came into town
Gad, what a disaster.
Then give a listen to 1963’s “Here’s to the Crabgrass” (to the tune of English folk tune “Country Gardens”) in which a city family decamps for the “sweet simplicity” of suburbia, only to be overwhelmed by home maintenance and boredom—the appliances, which we remember as reliable tanks, break down frequently—and move back to the noise and crush of the city.
In some ways, it’s a familiar story—a year ago, the Wall Street Journal ran an article on wealthy homeowners who were already regretting their pandemic-induced flight from the city—but in 1963, it was describing the phenomenon of suburbanization itself, still a live issue and ongoing process. The number of families who had never lived in the suburbs, who perhaps had never even been to the suburbs, was then still well above zero. And in any case, the suburbs are today no longer populated solely or even mostly by white middle-class former urbanites. They have grown into complex places that would have been difficult to imagine in the early ’60s.
Or consider 1965’s “Chim Chim Cheree” (using that tune from Mary Poppins), lampooning the ubiquity and absurdity of American advertising, in the same era that left-leaning social critic Vance Packard published his iconic The Hidden Persuaders. Every line is chock-full of nonsense, and this stanza is illustrative as any:
I wake up each morning a most happy man
I cover my Pic-O-Pay with Fluoristan
I add Hexachlorophene, ’cause it’s so pure
And then GL-70, just to make sure
It’s difficult today to even identify all of the references, many of which were cultural and commercial touchstones for an exceedingly brief moment in time. Who remembers the mythical Nauga monster whose skin, according to the ads, provided the synthetic Naugahyde upholstery? Platformate? Nasograph? It’s a treasury of colorful American excess. And to go along with all this unnecessary stuff, Sherman also skewered the rising phenomenon of consumer debt (as well as dating!) in “A Waste of Money” (“A Taste of Honey”): “I got no girls. They repossessed both the car and the pearls.”
These ditties reveal an interesting dynamic: While the language, tone, and color of advertising was much more in-your-face in those days—seemingly every product had a mascot and a jingle and a nonsensical trademarked scientific-sounding name—this pervasive advertising was in many ways more lighthearted and less intrusive. Those infamous hidden persuaders couldn’t hold a candle to the big data, location tracking, and targeted advertising we now accept more or less without complaint.
Yet don’t take this all too seriously: Sherman also did his own advertising numbers, singing the praises of Scott paper cups and Encron polyester carpet, suggesting that he did not himself harbor the views of the more serious economic and social critics that his work sometimes resembled.
And then there’s Sherman’s Jewish humor. Start with “Seventy-Six Sol Cohens,” performed live in the ’60s but never released until 2014’s There Is Nothing Like a Lox: The Lost Song Parodies of Allan Sherman. Here, Sherman parodies the anxieties of Jewish assimilation, focusing on a gaggle of Sol Cohens who learn golf and become Sol Quinns. (If you want to revisit Vance Packard again, his 1959 entry The Status Seekers covers some similar ground.)
Then there’s “The Ballad of Harry Lewis” from Sherman’s first album back in 1962, set to the tune of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” It tells the story of a garment worker who dies in a factory fire, and includes an impossibly clever line that showcases Sherman’s knack for parody perhaps better than any other lyric in his body of work. After identifying one Irving Roth as the factory owner, Sherman drops this line in the second stanza: “He [Lewis] was trampling through the warehouse where the drapes of Roth are stored.” As biographer Mark Cohen said, “When Sherman turned the ‘Battle Hymn’ into a song about a shlemiel in a garment factory, then you have something new.”
To a modern listener, this might appear to be a bit of clever but random nonsense. Yet consider that only about fifty years separated Harry Lewis’s untimely death from the catastrophic Triangle Shirtwaist fire—whose victims were mostly young Jewish women. There were still plenty of Jewish garment workers in the New York City of the 1960s, and plenty more people old enough to remember when industrial accidents were a real possibility.
Underneath the absurd flight of fancy, Sherman hinted at something biting and poignant. Say you were the little brother of one of the women who died in one of America’s deadliest industrial disasters; you would be in your fifties when Sherman released “The Ballad of Harry Lewis.” That sting is something that cannot quite be experienced by anybody alive today, just as, say, nobody can “see” Star Wars the same way a moviegoer could on the big screen in 1977.
Sherman may or may not have followed the work of Vance Packard, but Packard, who published books on every topic from class and status, to advertising, to consumerism and planned obsolescence, to corporate ladder-climbing and privacy, crafted, odd as it is to say, a thematically similar body of work. His books, like Sherman’s comedic corollaries, are still insightful. But in some ways the significance today of these pieces of cultural production is not their policy arguments, such as they are, but their status as primary sources that map out the issues that were, at the time, considered of great national importance.
You could read Vance Packard for an elucidation of America’s midcentury period of whiplash-inducing normalcy. But you might have more fun—and learn almost as much—breaking out those old Allan Sherman records.