2003   JULY 2   #183

Harry Burgess - Chicago Policeman

I've been collecting Song-Poems for nearly seven years now, and I don't know what I ever did without them. I may be wrong about this, but it's my impression that many enjoy song-poem records via some ironic viewpoint, or enjoyment of how "bad" or "wrong" they are.

That's never been the appeal to me. I see them as a true piece of Americana, something that would be quite unlikely to happen anywhere else: in what other country do so many people believe that, just given the right chance, they can make it in their dream field (in this case, song-writing). People run scams everywhere, of course, but I doubt that there would be so many willing participants for this particular shell game anywhere else.

Most of the song-poems I love are ones which succeed despite or even because of the clash of all manner and talent level of lyric writers with (mostly) truly talented musicians, who then have to work at an unbelievable pace to produce dozens of tracks in a single session. The results are often (to use the name of one song-poem) a "musical collision", yet the good ones are just as likely to stay in my brain, get played over and over again, or even (in a few cases) inspire me to record remakes.

There are not that many big hits of the past that I consider to be better than "I'm Having My First Heartbreak", "Lady Off Pedestal at Notre Dame" and "Darling Don't Put Your Hands on Me", all of which can be heard and downloaded at The American Song-Poem Music Archives.

There's always an exception, though, and for me, it's "Chicago Policeman". I first heard this song on a tape of song-poems, and was lucky enough to find a copy about two years ago, at the same store where I got "Wing Ding Ding" by Thurl Ravenscroft. My guess is that this is a hybrid song-poem/vanity release, because the other side of the record is a spoken word piece by the author of "Chicago Policeman" (interestingly, this spoken piece is an eloquent argument against the more imperial aspects of U.S. foriegn policy at the time, and a broadside against U.S. involvement in Viet Nam, not what one might expect from the author of this tune).

As opposed to all those song-poems I love as wonderful music, "Chicago Policeman" is a record I find so thoroughly wrong-headed, in many ways, as to be hysterical. The angry, reactionary lyrics are set to a sweet, sing-song melody, sung by a vocalist who sounds like a cross between Mr. Rogers and Kermit the Frog. The point of view is hopelessly skewed from what I see as a basically indefensible position (recall that a federal probe of the '68 convention determined the violence to have been "a police riot"), and I particularly enjoy the fact that the writer's first two reasons given for having wanted to be a policeman was "to have a star and a uniform, and have a car with a big loud horn".

- Bob Purse

TT-3:31 / 3.2MB / 128kbps 44.1khz
from Swank Records 45, #HFCS-167

Carl Howard writes:
I don't know if you were aware of it, but "Chicago Policeman" is on Arf Arf's "Only In America Volume 2," the sequel Erik (at Arf Arf Records) released a few months ago. Bob Purse's comments are great, though.

Max Swanson writes:
While I couldn't agree more about the oddity, bad rhyme scheme and worse vocal delivery of this song, I see the actual lyric quite differently. The mode is ironic, with basic feelings of sarcasm and disillusionment with law enforcement dominating the whole composition. The author says that he was seduced as a boy by the "big horn" and general image of authority projected by the police. He eventually makes it into the inner circle. When the 1968 convention rolls around, he is fed lots of propaganda about the hippies and yippies, exhorted to do his duty and protect the status quo at all costs. The rebels' "weapons of war", however, turn out to be mere annoyances, and they are easily herded "down Michigan Ave." The diatribe against U.S. foreign policy that makes up the 'B' side of the record seems quite in keeping with this viewpoint of disillusionment. BTW, I'd say the singer sounds most like the lead character on "King of the Hill," whose name escapes me at the moment. Can't you just hear him saying, "Now, Dale, don't get so fired up about this Jerry Ruben Guy?"