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“Yer Blues”: a parody? Really?
31 March 2015
6.30am
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Oudis
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Hello fellow BeatleBiblers. Reading about “Yer Blues ” in Wikipedia I found some amazing… information (or simply “opinions”?) I am copying and pasting:

“Lennon said that, while "trying to reach God and feeling suicidal" in India, he wanted to write a blues song, but was unsure if he could imitate the likes of Sleepy John Estes and other original blues artists he had listened to in school. In "Yer Blues ," he alludes to this insecurity with a reference to the character Mr. Jones from Bob Dylan's "Ballad of a Thin Man," and with the third verse, which draws on Robert Johnson's "Hellhound on My Trail." Instead, Lennon wrote and composed "Yer Blues " as a parody of British imitators of the blues, featuring tongue-in-cheek guitar solos and rock and roll-inspired swing blues passages.”

“The half-satirical, half-earnest song mockingly acknowledges the British blues boom of 1968 and the debate among the music press at the time of whether white men could sing the blues. According to Walter Everett, the song's "ponderous earnestness ... belies the composer's satirical tone." In the chorus, Lennon sings, "If I ain't dead already, girl you know the reason why." The writer Jonathan Gould interprets this to be a "joke [in] that nobody knows the reason why — or, for that matter, what any of these bluesy poetics are really supposed to mean." Gould called "Yer Blues " an example of the "cultural realism" that distinguished the Beatles from their musical contemporaries in Britain: "[T]heir acceptance of the idea that, except as a subject of self-parody, certain expressive modes of African-American music lay outside the realm of their experience and hence beyond their emotional range as singers.”

What I read made me wonder; do you people agree with what I copied and pasted? Frankly I cannot see –hear, feel– the element of parody in the song. According to Walter Everett, the song's "ponderous earnestness ... belies the composer's satirical tone"; well, I wonder where did he the impression that the tome was satirical to begin with. I can’t find that tongue-in-cheek tone. Feeling suicidal is an emotional state that many human beings know, unfortunately, and John knew it well. “If I ain’t dead already…” a joke? If anything, the song proves that Caucasians can play the blues –maybe not like African-Americans, not with the same voices and the same style, but can certainly cry out for help in a song. Please let me know what you think, because “Yer Blues ” is one of the most heartfelt songs in the whole Beatles’ repertoire.

Forsan et haec olim meminisse juvabit” (“Perhaps one day it will be a pleasure to look back on even this”; Virgil, The Aeneid, Book 1, line 203, where Aeneas says this to his men after the shipwreck that put them on the shores of Africa)

31 March 2015
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ewe2
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I know I took it seriously initially but it's not just Everett who sees it as a parody, Alan Pollack calls its a "big gesture" piece that John was fond of doing, and Lewisohn is in agreement. I don't think it's necessarily a contradiction to write a parody and sing it sincerely, that's something all songwriters do. Neil Finn calls his lyrics "the guy", from whose point of view he's singing but only tangentially connected to his real life. A blues parody is going to fall flat if you don't believe the guy is feeling it, that's the parody. At the same time, John had more than enough blues to project in his singing so I have no trouble accepting that he was feeling it at the same time. You can have both.

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31 March 2015
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The title screams parody.

31 March 2015
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For a parody, it's pretty humourless.

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Oudis
31 March 2015
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Zig
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I just finished re-reading Lennon Remembers and he said in the interview that is was a parody of (as Oudis posted above):

the British blues boom of 1968 and the debate among the music press at the time of whether white men could sing the blues.

I get the feeling that while the song itself is not a parody, John's idea behind it was. Personally, I love the song and it is in my top 10 to 15 Beatles songs. It rocks.

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31 March 2015
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Parody or not, it's sure as hell convincing. 

Gotta love that sharp solo. It's like a snake biting you.

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1 April 2015
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vectisfabber said
For a parody, it's pretty humourless.

 

Yes maybe……perhaps i should have said 'pastiche'

 

Just trying to fit in. 

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4 April 2015
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I wouldn't say it was so much a parody, more of a 'slight'.

The British blues 'boom' had pretty much run it's course by then, having been usurped by psychedelia, and was now morphing into the heavy rock sound of exponents such as Led Zeppelin. The likes of Cream and Fleetwood Mac were still very much Blues influenced, but that influence was manifesting itself in a new direction and sound. The Stones had pretty much moved into new territory too. Not that much of a fan of the Blues (I think it's fair to say like others he saw it as going over old ground and lacking creativity) John would have had his nose to the coal-face and been pretty much clued-in to the latest musical trends, and seen the decline of the Blues. It's also well recorded he had a dislike of Jazz, more so the trendy 'hipsters' that surrounded it, and the Blues scene had their fair share of those (I can attest to that!).

So with that in mind, I'd say it's a swipe in their direction - a 'ha-ha told you so'.... the vocal has a very nasty delivery - almost spiteful and sneering.

I need a cup of tea. And biscuits.....

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7 April 2015
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There’s something in this “parody theory” that doesn’t convince me. All we have is a couple of authors that believe it is a parody, but I would like to know if John ever said it was… And in any case, what I personally believe is that he may have started to compose it as a parody but his feelings took over and created one of his most heartfelt songs. When he sings “Yes I’m lonely / Wanna die”, he means it.

Forsan et haec olim meminisse juvabit” (“Perhaps one day it will be a pleasure to look back on even this”; Virgil, The Aeneid, Book 1, line 203, where Aeneas says this to his men after the shipwreck that put them on the shores of Africa)

7 April 2015
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I love the way @Joe wrote about this aspect of the song on his Yer Blues page " Balanced deftly between parody and earnestness, ..." If anyone hasn't read Joe's page on the song, give it a whirl.

10 April 2015
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I’ve come to realize that nobody, with two exceptions, has given the reasons why they believe “Yer Blues ” is a parody. Only @Wigwam said “The title screams parody” and @Oyster Black Pearl stated “the vocal has a very nasty delivery - almost spiteful and sneering”.

Please those of you who subscribe to the parody theory explain why you see a parody in the song. Wikipedia says “Lennon wrote and composed "Yer Blues " as a parody of British imitators of the blues, featuring tongue-in-cheek guitar solos”; and then “The half-satirical, half-earnest song mockingly acknowledges the British blues boom of 1968”. Walter Everett says that the "ponderous earnestness ... belies the composer's satirical tone."  @Joe says it is “Balanced deftly between parody and earnestness.” But nobody explains why they see an element of parody in it. As I’ve said when John sings “I wanna die”, I buy it. He means it –in my opinion. The voice is for me not sneering but a powerful cry for help. Please give me arguments, ladies and gentlemen.

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Forsan et haec olim meminisse juvabit” (“Perhaps one day it will be a pleasure to look back on even this”; Virgil, The Aeneid, Book 1, line 203, where Aeneas says this to his men after the shipwreck that put them on the shores of Africa)

10 April 2015
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Ok, for a start, the lyrics follow a typical blues pattern of repetitive statements about how blue he is. Parody point #1.

In addition, those lyrics steadily up the ante, and they rhyme in just the same way you expect blues lyrics to Parody point #2.

Lennon sings the song in a style he already perfected on Twist And Shout and would continue to use in I Want You (She's So Heavy) and even argued would have been more appropriate for Oh! Darling . That rather puts Yer Blues in the same company I think. Parody point #3.

Musically, its a straight blues, with a few wrinkles, like extra beats, the splice where the fill comes back in, the refusal to repeat the first verse on-mike, and the whole effect is a parody which strongly reminds me of early Yardbirds. #Parody point #4.

On top of that it's on an album basically dedicated to parodying a dozen styles, and Yer Blues fits that mold. Parody point #5. But as I said, I've no doubt he meant the song as he wrote it, but that was India, and this is months later in a British studio, it's mannered as well as sincere.

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10 April 2015
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I was deeply into British blues………I preferred Peter Green's renditions of what is essentially a 'Black man's take on suffering to anybody else's……..Including his American black contemporaries……and those still around from the previous era like, BB and Albert King.

But can a white man sing the blues? Yes and no………I was grateful to John Mayall for all he'd given to the British blues boom that spawned so many great players but found his own work almost unlistenable…….For me it was Micky Mouse sings the blues….an embarrassment…..Pastiche becomes parody. 

Even Peter Green with his great voice, emotional guitar, his own very real angst and mental suffering was nonetheless  of a different time, a different culture and a different colour. Therefore (it went) he could never be 100% authentic……There should not have been this purist snobbishness but there was. I'm sure even the artists themselves felt it. Peter Green in particular believed he'd made his name off the backs of black cotton pickers and his fame was undeserved. He set about giving his money away to obscure black blues artists.

A song/poem doing the rounds at the time was….

"I've got the Chicken Shack

Fleetwood Mac, John Mayall can't fail blues……."

I think John and Paul realised how they were Liverpool lads trying to sound American……and it worked to an extent. Even when they covered black artists songs they were at least as good as the originals but blues was at the root of the rock/rockabilly they aped. It was another thing altogether to reproduce  the blues with any authority. 

They had Mick Jagger's plastic blues in front of them as a testament to how not to copy originals.

But the blues format was there for everyone to use…...the Beatles too. 

I think the title shows that John was aware of all this…... and because of it a little self-conscious. 

 

To me he's saying:

'Here, listen to me song…….It's how I'm feeling, really feeling. Okay it's a blues song written by a white working class bloke…..And OK I know I'm a millionaire now but it's me doing my best. Give it a chance you lot and don't take the piss I know my limitations here.

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10 April 2015
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Atlas said

To me [John] is saying:

'Here, listen to me song…….It's how I'm feeling, really feeling. Okay it's a blues song written by a white working class bloke…..And OK I know I'm a millionaire now but it's me doing my best. Give it a chance you lot and don't take the piss I know my limitations here.

I agree with you 100%; yet that doesn't make the song a parody. He was just using the blues structure, the way The Beatles had used many other musical sources.

 

(Perhaps this thread is a bit like the "Was John Gay?" one; we'll never get to a conclusion)

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10 April 2015
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Myself, I think there is a basic misunderstanding of John's use of the word "parody" in this circumstance. I don't believe he was suggesting it was intended to be either humorous or satirical, just that he was looking for a way into recording the song in the way that an actor might search for a way into a role that they doubt they can pull off if they go for their usual way of thinking about a role.

It's worth taking a look at the exchange between John and Jann Wenner on the subject during the 8 December 1970 Rolling Stone interview:

JL: All these songs [Plastic Ono Band] just came out of me. ... They all came out, like all the best work that anybody ever does. Whether it is an article or what, it's just the best ones that come out, and all these came out, because I had time. If you are on holiday or in therapy, wherever you are, if you do spend time... like in India I wrote the last batch of best songs, like I'm So Tired and Yer Blues . They're pretty realistic, they were about me. They always struck me as — what is the word? Funny? Ironic? — that I was writing them supposedly in the presence of guru and meditating so many hours a day, writing I'm So Tired and songs of such pain as Yer Blues which I meant. I was right in the Maharishi's camp writing "I wanna die..."

JW: Yer Blues , was that also deliberately meant to be a parody of the English blues scene?

JL: Well, a bit. I'm a bit self-conscious — we all were a bit self-conscious and the Beatles were super self-conscious people about parody of Americans which we do and have done.

I know we developed our own style but we still in a way parodied American music... this is interesting: in the early days in England, all the groups were like Elvis and a backing group, and the Beatles deliberately didn't move like Elvis. That was our policy because we found it stupid and bullshit. Then Mick Jagger came out and resurrected "bullshit movement," wiggling your arse. So then people began to say the Beatles were passé because they don't move. But we did it as a conscious move.

When we were younger, we used to move, we used to jump around and do all the things they're doing now, like going on stage with toilet seats and shitting and pissing. That's what we were doing in Hamburg and smashing things up. It wasn't a thing that Pete Townshend worked out, it is something that you do when you play six or seven hours. There is nothing else to do: you smash the place up, and you insult everybody. But we were groomed and we dropped all of that and whatever it was that we started off talking about, which was what singing...what was it? What was the beginning of that?

JW: Was Yer Blues deliberate?

JL: Yes, there was a self-consciousness about singing blues. We were all listening to Sleepy John Estes and all that in art school, like everybody else. But to sing it was something else. I'm self conscious about doing it.

I think Dylan does it well, you know. In case he's not sure of himself, he makes it double entendre. So therefore he is secure in his Hipness. Paul was saying, "Don’t call it Yer Blues , just say it straight." But I was self-conscious and I went for Yer Blues . I think all that has passed now, because all the musicians... we've all gotten over it. That’s self-consciousness.

To me, here's how I read his comment. He's suggesting that he felt his environment and background prevented him from being an "authentic" blues singer, or from approaching recording the song as if he was one. He's admitting that he remained unconvinced that art-school/university educated middle-class white boys from the English suburbs (which is true for many of those involved in the "British blues boom") could ever be considered as authentic. However authentic they themselves may have believed themselves to be, he couldn't see it as anything more than unauthentic imitation by those who were fooling themselves into believing they were the "real deal".

That, I believe, is the nature of his "parody". He's not really convinced white boys (with the possible exception of Dylan) can sing the blues, especially English ones, and he found himself with a blues song to record. Not believing that someone like him was capable of creating an authentic blues, and that he was too self-conscious to try, he needed to find another way into the recording to make it work. While he couldn't convince himself he could do an authentic blues, he could happily "parody"/ape the approach, style and sound of those English boys who believed that they were authentic.

In many ways it's him turning around and saying, "White boys can't sing the blues, so here's my take on those white boys who think they can..."

I don't believe the parody element ever came into the writing of the song, or what he was saying, but rather in his approach to how he got it on tape - in that he did a sincere imitation of what he considered to be unauthentic imitation of the real deal.

Does that make any sort of sense?

I'd also like to address this comment:

@Oyster Black Pearl said
[John was] not that much of a fan of the Blues (I think it's fair to say like others he saw it as going over old ground and lacking creativity)...

John was, and always remained, a huge fan of the blues. He never had any of the disdain for it as he often expressed for jazz, and always saw himself as coming from the blues tradition, and that everything he did was based on the blues. In fact, in the same 1970 interview, he gave my favourite ever quote about "What is the blues?".

JW: You feel basically the same way about rock and roll at 30 as you did at 15.

JL: Well, it will never be as new and it will never again do what it did to me then, but like Tutti Fruitti or Long Tall Sally is pretty avant garde. A friend of Yoko’s in the village was talking about Dylan and "the One Note" as though he just discovered it. That’s about as far out as you can get.

The Blues are beautiful because it’s simpler and because it’s real. It’s not perverted or thought about: It’s not a concept, it is a chair; not a design for a chair but the first chair. The chair is for sitting on, not for looking at or being appreciated. You sit on that music.

JW: How would you describe "Beatle music"?

JL: It means a lot of things. There is not one thing that’s Beatle music. How can they talk about it like that? What is Beatle music? Walrus or Penny Lane ? Which? It’s too diverse: I Want To Hold Your Hand or Revolution Number Nine?

JW: What was it in your music that turned everyone on at first? Why was it so infectious?

JL: We didn’t sound like everybody else. We didn’t sound like the black musicians because we weren’t black and we were brought up on an entirely different type of music and atmosphere. So Please Please Me and From Me To You and all of those were our version of the chair. We were building our own chairs, that’s all, and they were sort of local chairs.

The line I've bolded shows John's deep admiration for, and debt to, the blues. It has to be remembered that much of his beloved "Rock 'N' Roll " was made up of artists that had been considered as (rhythm and) blues performers until the new label was thought up.

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10 April 2015
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Ahh the famous "chair" comment, which blew my mind when I read it back as an early 20-something. That sense of stylistic parody is what I was getting at, poorly.

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10 April 2015
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Ron Nasty said

 

"In many ways it's him turning around and saying, "White boys can't sing the blues, so here's my take on those white boys who think they can..."

See below!

 

@Oyster Black Pearl said
[John was] not that much of a fan of the Blues (I think it's fair to say like others he saw it as going over old ground and lacking creativity)...

 

I should read my posts more :-) I was talking more about the Blues "scene" of the time, not the "real deal". What set the Merseybeat groups apart from others in Britain was the lack of Blues songs being performed. I've spoken to a few "old hands" about this, and while they had a high regard for the music, most felt a bit of a fraud performing it. Of course there were exceptions, and the influence was there, but as far as most were concerned, "the Blues had a baby and they called it Rock and Roll".

I think it's this feeling of insecurity and misrepresentation, and lack of authenticity that turned the song into parody, into presenting the song a "plastic" rendition if you like.

I also think we can over-analyse things, if we'd had John around for the past 35 years, things would be a lot clearer.

 

PS apologies for the dodgy quote layouts, it's not too clever to reply (for me) on iOS.

 

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10 April 2015
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Oudis said
I’ve come to realize that nobody, with two exceptions, has given the reasons why they believe “Yer Blues ” is a parody. Only @Wigwam said “The title screams parody” and @Oyster Black Pearl stated “the vocal has a very nasty delivery - almost spiteful and sneering”.

Please those of you who subscribe to the parody theory explain why you see a parody in the song. Wikipedia says “Lennon wrote and composed "Yer Blues " as a parody of British imitators of the blues, featuring tongue-in-cheek guitar solos”; and then “The half-satirical, half-earnest song mockingly acknowledges the British blues boom of 1968”. Walter Everett says that the "ponderous earnestness ... belies the composer's satirical tone."  @Joe says it is “Balanced deftly between parody and earnestness.” But nobody explains why they see an element of parody in it. As I’ve said when John sings “I wanna die”, I buy it. He means it –in my opinion. The voice is for me not sneering but a powerful cry for help. Please give me arguments, ladies and gentlemen.

Perhaps I'd been influenced by Roy Carr & Tony Tyler's description from 1976 as the song being about the "disintegrating British Blues scene". Excellent music journals, those guys knew their stuff.

it's funny, I've listened to the song quite a bit because of this thread, and I can hear every point we've all made about it. 

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