Monday, May 31, 2010

Plastic Jesus...One More Time

Here's what you would see if you went to the site where this song is posted. Interesting stuff.

raymondcrooke — July 19, 2009 — The original version of "Plastic Jesus" was an actual radio advertisement in the1940s and 50s for a company that made plastic dashboard statuettes of Jesus and offered them for sale in various states including Texas and West Virginia. This parody is generally attributed to Atlanta songwriter Ernie Marrs, who wrote a number of topical songs that were recorded by Pete Seeger, one example being "The People Are Scratching." Seeger had actually planned to record "Plastic Jesus," but changed his mind after it had already been advertised on a Folkways album. He wrote, possibly in "The Incompleat Folksinger," that he liked the song a lot because it showed how people accept plastic or illusion over substance but he said he decided not to sing the song any more because he thought the reason he enjoyed it might have something to do with his Protestant upbringing, and did not want to offend any Roman Catholics.

Ernie Marrs did record it in the 1960s for "Broadside" Magazine , where it was printed. A shorter version was printed in "Sing Out" (1964).

However this satirical song was around before Marrs adapted (and copyrighted) it. It was actually written by two West Coast musicians, Ed Rush and George Cromarty, who were members of the Goldcoast Singers. Ed Rush traced the song back to an African-American camp-meeting song with lyrics "I don't care if it rains or freezes, leaning on the arms of my Jesus," which was the theme song of a religious radio program broadcast from Baton Rouge in the 1940s. The parody lyrics are based on this line.

Here is how Ed Rush describes it: "As bored teenagers in Fresno, California in the late 50's my friends and I used to sit around on hot summer nights playing with a radio to find distant stations. A favorite was (as I dimly recall) a station with the call letters (maybe) XERB, from Del Rio, Texas. The transmitter was just over the Rio Grande, in Mexico, so that they could engage in some questionable transactions that the FCC might not have approved of. They peddled all sorts of tacky quasi-religious stuff, including plastic statues of Jesus, Mary, etc. These were guaranteed to protect the buyer, especially if he sent cash. One of our favorite programs often featured rousing spiritual anthems, including one song that started, 'I don't care if it rains or freezes, leaning on the arms of Jesus...' Being slightly irreverant teenagers, George and I came up with 'I don't care if it rains or freezes, long as I've got my plastic Jesus...', etc, etc. I clearly recall rolling on the floor with laughter for about an hour". He also notes: "In mid-1963 a Chicago disc jockey played Plastic Jesus several times a day and nearly got fired by his very Catholic boss."

Paul Newman sings this song in Cool Hand Luke as a hymn, as if it was the only thing he knew that had some spiritual words.

This song was heavily debated when it was printed in "Sing Out" and again when it was printed in Broadside, with angry subscribers asking how they could publish something so blasphemous, canceling subscriptions and claiming they would never read the magazine again. Gordon Friesen of "Sing Out" defended the song against charges of being sacrilegious: "'Where does the sacrilege lie really, with the song, or those greedy for profits, who debase the Savior by producing and peddling these cheap little trinkets in his image?'" (Broadside issue 39).

I first heard this song from a friend at school who was instrumental in introducing me to the folk scene and also happened to be an atheist). At the time I also found it offensive until I understood that the target is the sellers of religious kitsch, not religion itself

No comments: