Saturday, November 11, 2006

Ate some burnt hoss flesh

One of my two favorite books (the other being Alice's Adventures in Wonderland) is James Thurber's memoir of his youth in Columbus, Ohio, My Life and Hard Times. I first encountered it when I was about 10, in the pages of The Thurber Carnival, a sort of greatest-hits collection that includes My Life and Hard Times in its entirety (all 115 pages). (I still recommend The Thurber Carnival to any unfortunate who hasn't met Thurber yet.) I picked up The Thurber Carnival at that young age because it was full of cartoons, and I loved cartoons. Enough backstory. My point is that at age 10, I thought the funniest part of this very funny book was this passage from early in Chapter Five, "More Alarms at Night":
Father was usually in bed by nine-thirty and up again by ten-thirty to protest bitterly against a Victrola record we three boys were in the habit of playing over and over, namely, "No News, or What Killed the Dog," a recitation by Nat Wills. The record had been played so many times that its grooves were deeply cut and the needle often kept revolving in the same groove, repeating over and over the same words. Thus: "ate some burnt hoss flesh, ate some burnt hoss flesh, ate some burnt hoss flesh." It was this reiteration that generally got father out of bed.
As a child, I wept with laughter when I first read this passage, whenever I re-read this passage, and whenever I even thought about this passage. In fact, I took to amusing myself, whenever I was bored, by murmuring aloud, "ate some burnt hoss flesh, ate some burnt hoss flesh, ate some burnt hoss flesh," until I dissolved into giggles. (This helps explain why my childhood was interrupted periodically by serious conversations instigated by grave and concerned adults.)

I was sure then, and I am sure now, that while the expectation of Father bursting in -- the suspense of wondering when that would happen -- certainly heightened the entertainment value of the repetition, the repetition was entertaining in and of itself, indeed more entertaining than anything else on the record, and that the boys could have listened to "ate some burnt hoss flesh" for hours, had Father not inevitably burst in to complete his role in the (nightly?) drama. I was sure, too, that whatever "No News, or What Killed the Dog" might have been about, "ate some burnt hoss flesh" had to have been the absolute least fortunate line to repeat ad infinitum, the worst collection of syllables on offer, the record's nadir of taste. All this factored into my merriment, as did my utter mystification over what ELSE could possibly have been on that record, what else it might have been about.

This week, more than 30 years later, I finally found out. "No News, or What Killed the Dog" must have been the 19th-century version of "The Aristocrats," a lengthy, offensive shaggy-dog tale subject to endless variations, all of which lead inevitably to the same anticlimactic -- but, in context, grotesquely hilarious -- punchline. I know this because George G. Carey, in his book Maryland Folklore (Tidewater Publishers, 1989), includes a version told by Eastern Shore waterman Alex Kellam. It begins:
I heard the one about the rich plantation owner whose health went bad and the doctor ordered him away for six months' rest and he was to lose all contact with his friends and family. And so at the end of the six months he came back and his colored servant met him at the depot and took him home in the horse and buggy. On the way in he said to Sam,

"Now I've been gone six months and I haven't heard one thing from home. What's happened since I've been gone?"

He said, "Oh nothing, except one little thing. Since you've been gone your dog died."

He said, "The dog died? Well, what killed the dog?"

"Well, the dog eat some burnt horse flesh."

"Burnt horse flesh? How'd he get that?"

"Well, your barn burnt down and burnt up all the cows and horses, and after the fire the dog eat the burnt horse flesh and that's what killed the dog."

"Oh," he said, "my barn burned?"

He said, "Yessir, the barn burned."

He said, "How did the barn catch fire?"

"Well, it seems a spark flew over from the house ..."
And so on and so on, potentially endlessly, with calamity piling upon calamity, until at the end we reach the punchline: "But other than that, there ain't no news." Carey calls this story "a once widely told American yarn."

So now I finally know the context of "ate some burnt hoss flesh." And it's still funny! As David Letterman would say: For you students of comedy -- now, that's comedy.


Anonymous said...

Wow! That's my story with variations. The Thurber Carnival" the classic 1945 compilation which includes the entire "My Life And Hard Times" was what my parents read to me at bedtime. Ate age four and five, stories like the Night The Ghost Got In and The Night The Bed Fell were funny/scary magic. When I was maybe ten or eleven - this was in the mid '50's when any old family house had '78's and phonographs to play them, a friend on a rainy afternoon played "No News...". It was revelation - The Dead Sea Scrolls - were as nothing.

thanks for reminding me
Rick Bowes

Anonymous said...

TO: Andy Duncan, a fiction writer, journalist, . . . etc.:

I first heard about "No News, or What Killed the Dog" when I was a little kid back in the early 1940s when my father told it to me -- and I have repeated it many times over the past 60 plus years, usually to uniform hilarity. It was not until Googling it and reading your recent entry on your Blog that I (thankfully) learned exactly where it came from. I do remember the James Thurber reference and recall a couple of years later discovering "The Night the Bed Fell" in an old anthology by Clifton Fadiman and thinking it was the funniest thing I had ever read.

Reading between the lines, I suspect that your sense of humor would appreciate the following story:

"Louisiana Title Search

A good-old-boy Louisiana lawyer received a letter from a Washington DC bureaucratic type complaining because a title search the lawyer had done on a piece of property in Louisiana which the Post Office intended to purchase only went back to the year1803. The Government Man wanted a COMPLETE title search.

The lawyer responded as follows:

"Dear Sir:

Thank you for your letter of yesterday's date which I received this morning and reviewed with interest. 1803 seemed a significant date to us at the time, but in response to your request, please be advised as follows:

The United States of America acquired by purchase the Territory of Louisiana in 1803 from the Republic of France, France having acquired the same by conquest from Spain in that same year.

The right, title, and interest of the Kingdom of Spain derived through discovery in 1492 by one C. Columbus, a citizen of Genoa Italy, acting under commission of Her Royal Highness, Queen Isabella I of Spain, whose title and office were bequeathed by Sixtus I, a citizen of Rome, Italy, Vice-Regent and Earthly Representative of Jesus Christ, son and heir-apparent of God.


We trust this answers your inquiry.

Sincerely yours,"

Respectully submitted
G. Wynn Smith, Jr.

Anonymous said...

I found this (old) blog entry after googling "ate burnt hoss flesh." I'm glad to know I'm not the only one who laughs at Thurber decades after reading. (or Lewis Carroll).

Bop_vito said...

thurber lives on! I've been reading MLAHT to my 9 year old son, who roars with laughter.

Also, in a box of 78s acquired a few years back i found a copy of 'no news' by nat wills. I was tempted to try to scratch it just so but i refrained. I did, however, do the experiment of bumping the needle over and over again to replicate the 'ate some burnt hoss flesh' recursion.

Thurber lives!

thanks to you all.

Jack Landers said...

As a life-long Thurber fan myself, I give you here a link to the exact recording of Nat Wills's recitation:

Anonymous said...

Library of congress has the recording Thurber wrote about.

How cool is that!


Rahul Karnik said...

Heck, I grew up in India, and still am not the only one who stumbled upon this looking for "ate some burnt hoss flesh" AND I'm going out on a limb here by assuming some of the other Carroll and Thurber fans also read Rex Stout (Nero Wolfe).

Incidentally I lived for 5 years in Somerville, NJ, the courthouse of which features in Thurber's writing ...