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,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."
"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 ..."
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.