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Under the Counter: U​.​S. Sleaze & Stag Recordings ca. 1940s​-​50s

by Canary Records

Beer Joint 03:54
Mr. Speaker 03:03
The Pioneers 03:26
Joy Stick 03:02
Pool Game 02:31
Peter 02:47
Grand Hotel 03:04


“Under the mask of humor, our society allows infinite agressions, by everyone and against everyone. In the culminating laugh by the listener or observer - whose position is often really that of the victim or butt - the teller of the joke betrays his hidden hostility and signals his victory by being, theoretically at least, the one person present who does not laugh. […] Erotic humor is far & away the most popular of all types, and an extremely large percentage of jokes authentically in oral circulation, in this and apparently all centuries and cultures, is concerned with the humor - often unwilling, unpleasant, and even purposely macabre - of this sexual impulse. The humor of scatology must be assimilated into this, if only because both operate under the same psychological and verbal taboos. […] The editor is very conscious that in presenting [...] a collection of what this culture calls frankly and appreciatively ‘dirty jokes,’ he himself is falling into every kind of aggression in the book, and is almost certain to cause every reader, without exception, some sort of uneasiness in one chapter or another.”
- Gershon Legman, introduction to Rationale of the Dirty Joke: An Analysis of Sexual Humor (Grove Press, 1968)

THIS COLLECTION INCLUDES DISCRIMINATORY AND OFFENSIVE MATERIAL INTENDED ONLY FOR ADULTS. However, unlike the anthologizing work of the great folklorist Gershon Legman, I have made two significant censorial choices. I have purposefully omitted broad racial and ethnic stereotypes (although I have retained regionalistic stereotyping) and material that is specifically centered around sexual violence (although I have retained passing references to assaults). My feeling is that this collection will be understood as entertainment, despite its historicizing context, and that presenting some of the available material here would be itself an act of perpetuation of misogyny, racism, and the ongoing systemic violence that is prevalent among the material that I’ve drawn from in making this collection. The axiom "Fuck 'em if they can't take a joke," is a reasonable and helpful a rule if the "they" is clearly understood. My intention is not to obfuscate the hostility that was on display on these old discs but to offer some of these recordings in a way that will not cause undo pain to contemporary adult listeners.

Anyone who has physically handled enough 78rpm discs in the U.S. has encountered the “blue” humor material that was on offer in the post WWII period. Typically anonymous, bearing little more than a title on their labels, they were most often documents of cabaret and burlesque performers, examples of dirty jokes inherited from stage routines but unreleaseable under inherited codes of propriety, filled either with double meanings or else explosions of expletives. Some were the pornographic audio equivalents of “stag” films. In any case, they were a use of the home audio format as a release of repression and sublimation of sexual and other taboo language in the U.S. Between the Supreme Court’s decision on Joyce’s Ulysses and the trials of Lenny Bruce, they were sold clandestinely by men to other men as home-listening smut or "party records" to replicate the bawdy atmosphere of nightclubs at home.

Many were stock bits, recorded repeatedly by various uncredited stage and radio performers. Some were subsequently rerecorded on LPs in the 1970s by Black performers like Skillet & Leroy and Rudy Ray Moore. Parodies of risque material performed by Black entertainers in the 20s and 30s was rerecorded by white performers in stereotyped dialect, a form of audio blackface (which we have omitted on this collection). Queer culture songs and routines were disseminated and consumed through a similar process, even as homophobic sentiments arise periodically. And, of course, ethic humor - a baseline of early 20th century American stage acts - was broadened to include overt sexual ideas of various groups. (Some ethnic groups, particularly Poles in Chicago, produced "hot" and "sexy" material during the LP era, which is a subject for another discussion.)

For what it’s worth, a significant number of these types of recordings circulate online now, particularly on YouTube, but many also don't. No wide-scale release of the "blue" comedic discs of the 40s and 50s has been undertaken and for good reason. They remain largely in the “naughty” piles of collectors, who are generally reluctant to share them widely because of the shame involved in perpetuating these often distinctly unsavory or sub-artistic bits of American life. The culture of 78rpm record collecting continues to include many individuals who take the contents of the recordings as totemic of a wished-for past, an anachronistic world that is racist, homophobic, and misogynistic. Those reprehensible impulses would be too easy to project on this cross-section of audio cultural detritus, so it may be useful to present some of those recordings here in a spirit of joyfulness.

Henri Bergson wrote that, "If there exists a madness that is laughable, it can only be compatible with the general health of the mind - a sane type of madness." The best way to hear these things is understand them as a form of collective madness. The joke, certainly, is on you and me, but it's only because we're all crazy together.


released August 20, 2021

transfers, restoration, and notes by Ian Nagoski

see also:
Actionable Offenses: Indecent Phonograph Recordings from the 1890s (Archeophone Records) 2007
Rationale of the Dirty Joke: An Analysis of Sexual Humor (Castle) Gershon Legman, 1968
The Horn Book: Studies in Erotic Folklore and Bibliography (University Books) Gershon Legman, 1964.
The Limerick: 1700 Examples With Notes and Variants and Index (Bell Publishing) Gershon Legman, 1969.
Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic (Cloudesley Brereton and Fred Rockwell, translators, Green Interger) Henri Bergson,1999.


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