John Sieger
Sieger on Songs

“The Monkey”

Dave Bartholomew’s sly, 1957 blues classic looks at evolution in reverse.

By - Feb 6th, 2015 01:39 pm
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Dave Bartholomew: The Monkey

Dave Bartholomew: The Monkey

When people say they don’t like the blues, they often have a mistaken impression of it. I’ve heard it dismissed as too sad and the content condensed like sour milk to “My woman left me, my car won’t start and I lost my job.” This is often good for a chuckle or two, usually from the joke teller.

I didn’t like vegetables as a kid. (I didn’t even like strawberries!) But I learned how tasty they could often be, and how good for you. Similarly, the blues, when practiced by masters like Dave Bartholomew, provides a lot of healthy pleasure. The song we listen to today is right on the cusp between blues and rock and roll which, in 1957, the year it appeared, was just being invented. The Monkey, often called “The Monkey Speaks His Mind,” is anything but maudlin. It’s a brilliant satire that questions the descent of man while affirming the ways we sink lower by the day.

Bartholomew is known as a man behind the scenes, but you could argue that he actually was the scene. He was an important bridge between big bands, jump blues and the life affirming craziness we call rock and roll as practiced in New Orleans. He ran a hot band in a very hot town, incorporating latin rhythms and writing horn charts that got under your skin in a good way. He half invented Fats Domino and helped him and countless others in the studio.

So in a town packed with legends why isn’t his name better known? The man was so busy writing, recording and producing, he rarely had time to step out front. Had he never done anything but write for, produce and lead Fats Domino’s band, creating a string of 40 chart-busting hits, he’d still be in the Hall Of Fame. But he did much more. He produced Earl King, Tommy Ridgley, Robert Parker, Frankie Ford, Chris Kenner, Smiley Lewis, and Shirley & Lee. No other figure, aside from Allen Toussaint can claim that kind of influence. Among the great songs he wrote were “I’m Walking,” “Ain’t That A Shame,” “Blue Monday” and today’s wonderful romp.

I’d discuss the chord changes if this song had any. It’s one chord and a bass hook that reels you in. The bass line might be something you’d want to keep in mind if you’re teaching guitar to beginners. It doesn’t get any easier, you would think. But the problem is, if you can’t feel it and play the overlay of shuffle rhythm on a foundation of the strict metronomic eighth notes the way this crack band does, it won’t be nearly as good. It’s almost certain Earl Palmer, one of the greatest session drummers in rock and roll, is holding it all together. It can take a lifetime or two to get your swing into this kind of shape, but no one told these hep cats.

The next pleasant surprise is Bartholomew’s authoritative basso profundo. Declaiming like the biggest ham on the smallest stage, he relates an absurdly clever treetop conversation between three monkeys looking to distance themselves from that failed branch, Homo Sapiens

The Monkey

The monkey speaks his mind

And three monkeys sat in a coconut tree
Discussing things as they are said to be
Said one to the other now listen, you two
There’s a certain rumor that just can’t be true
That man descended from our noble race
Why, the very idea is a big disgrace
No monkey ever deserted his wife
Starved her baby and ruined her life

Yea, the monkey speaks his mind

And you’ve never known a mother monk
To leave her babies with others to bunk
And passed them on from one to another
‘Til they scarcely knew who was their mother

Yea, the monkey speaks his mind

And another thing you will never see
A monkey build a fence around a coconut tree
And let all the coconuts go to waste
Forbidding all other monkeys to come and taste
Why, if I put a fence around this tree
Starvation would force you to steal from me

Yea, the monkey speaks his mind

Here’s another thing a monkey won’t do
Go out at night and get all in a stew
Or use a gun or a club or a knife
And take another monkey’s life
Yes, man descended, the worthless bum
But, brothers, from us he did not come

Yea, the monkey speaks his mind

Written by Pearl King, Dave Bartholomew, Jacques Clayeux, Philippe Teboul, Thomas Darnal, David Jamet, Santiago Ignaci Casariego, Manu Chao, Olivier Dahan, Tomas Arroyos Valle, Antoine Chao

Lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Universal Music Publishing Group, BMG RIGHTS MANAGEMENT US, LLC

There is another, much longer, article that needs to be written about why everybody and their third cousin is listed as a writer on this. The lyric sources listed on the internet can be suspicious, and, since this song appeared in 1957, the heyday of stolen song credits, (I’m looking at you Colonel Tom Parker!) there might have been some sneaky business going down on this one.

Nevertheless, this is one smart, funny lyric. It’s worthy of Mose Allison or Randy Newman. It’s far from the kind of thing non-believers laugh at when the blues is being derided. There is wisdom wrapped up in this disarming entertainment, but it isn’t preachy or pedantic. Neither is it desperate to viewed as some kind of high-minded “literature.” It simply tells the truth — now you One Percent-ers, tear down that fence and share some coconuts!

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