Don't Forget Who's Taking You Home
by Anthony Tusler
The first song I remember about disability was "There's a Star Spangled Banner Waving Somewhere". If you haven't heard it you are probably younger than 65 years old. It was the biggest selling song of World War II. Sung by Elton Britt the lyrics combine an unabashed patriotism with a maudlin disability perspective. The singer asks, "Can the U.S. use a mountain boy like me?" because "Though I realize I'm crippled, that is true, sir, please don't judge my courage by my twisted leg". Hearing the tune as America was drafting my friends to go to Viet Nam, I marveled that someone with a disability exemption would want to go to war.
The "Star Spangled Banner Waving Somewhere" had special significance to my life. I've had a spinal cord injury since 1952 when I was five. Growing up in Pasadena I was mainstreamed and went to regular schools at a time when most kids were in special ed. I stayed away from other disabled people. I held the same stereotypes and prejudice against people with disabilities as other people did in the 50s. Even though I was one of "them" it didn't change my intolerance. The crippled newsie on the corner of Los Robles and Colorado Boulevards scared me to death, without consciously knowing why: that could be my fate if I didn't have my family and their resources.
The next song I noticed that was about a disabled person came out in the late 60s. It was "Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town". A disabled veteran begged his partner to remain faithful, "It's hard to love a man whose legs are bent and paralyzed …". He implores her to not go to town even though he can't satisfy "… the wants and the needs of a woman your age". I don't remember being shocked the first time I heard it, but I sure hope I was. Even as young and closeted as I was, I knew that I hadn't given up my sexuality along with my able-bodiedness. The song was so bold, so filled with self pity, anger, and revenge I was thrilled by its audacity, "… and if I could move I'd get my gun and put her in the ground" (see Wikipedia entry for Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town about the inspiration and writing of the song by Mel Tillis. Interestingly, Mel Tillis is a person with a disability because he has a severe stutter).
In the ensuing years, as I joined the disability rights movement and embraced my disability, I have researched and written about disability. I focused on self-determination and identity and didn't spend time thinking about disability and music although I kept a list of songs. Many of them had lyrics delivered with a stutter, such as "My Generation" by the Who and "Changes" by Bowie, yet few songs were explicitly about disability.
Every year the members, many if not the majority disabled, of the Society for Disability Studies (SDS) have a dance at their annual meeting. In 2003 a call appeared on the SDS listserv for song recommendations. One member posted a set list that appeared to be the soundtrack of just about every oldies radio station - good songs, but overly familiar and lacking any relevance to disability. Because SDS and I were paying more attention to disability identity, culture, and the arts I was inspired to pull together a list of songs that had some connection to disability.
I burned a CD for the dance of artists with disabilities who rocked out. To insure that the collection was danceable I engaged in a rare activity - dancing. I hopped around the living room in my wheelchair with the stereo going full volume to ensure danceability. I sent the CD off to the Washington DC site of the conference and waited for cheers or jeers. There was no response, positive or negative.
Yet, my interest was piqued. I began to seriously research songs, singers, and songwriters with a disability connection. The deeper I dug, the more I discovered. I continue to be surprised I was inspired to begin work on a second collection of Disability Songs, Singers and Songwriters. The criteria for inclusion in this collection was either the disability identity of the performer or songwriter, or a song that had disability subject matter. Many of the songs were performed by musicians who are blind, others were by people with a variety of disabilities, and some were by non-disabled songwriters. I eliminated emotional disabilities or addiction because those singers and songs are amply represented in music and deserve separate attention.
The material started to group around themes: society's mirror, disability imperative, and identity and meaning. Society's mirror has the hidden emotions with disability themes or images. "Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town" is a good example. Disability imperative includes singers and songwriters who became musicians because disability either created an opportunity for them or limited their job choices. Identity and meaning is the most exciting because it is about the back story of the music created by people with disabilities.
Songs are at their core, emotional. They express ideas and feelings that we are too embarrassed to express. Where else could one say "I pledge allegiance to the heavens above tonight to you, baby" (Celine Dion, Declaration of Love) without irony or snickering. Because of the freedom to give voice to previously cloaked emotions, songs can highlight stereotypes and prejudices.
Songs like "Ruby" and "There's A Star-Spangled Banner Waving Somewhere" show disability as tragic and pitiful. There were a few other stunners. Red Sovine's tearjerker "Teddy Bear" portrayed a boy who is "… not much help with my two crippled feet" and the hard to find "Little Crippled Girl's Prayer" by the Marsh Family had a little girl who sadly "… sat alone in her wheelchair watching all the other kids play". Randy Newman may have intended "Short People" as an ironic statement, but it was adopted by bullies on playground to torment fellow students.
A stronger and more interesting thread is how disability has lead musicians to create music and find a profession. Doc Watson, the justly renowned guitarist and singer, had to forego a career as an engineer when his blindness derailed his career path. Tom Jones might have followed his father into the Welsh coal mines if he hadn't contracted tuberculosis in his youth.
Marilyn Manson was lead to become every parents' nightmare by his childhood illness experiences. He and his music have been blamed for just about every evil from teen pregnancy to the Columbine tragedy. In his childhood he was in and out of the hospital. Those experiences left him feeling like an outsider and seeing the world from a disconnected perspective. He could no longer live without thinking about who he was and his place in the world. Disability in adolescence seems to have had that effect on a number of creative people.
Manson's shocking and brilliantly crafted persona, music, and stage show took inspiration from the outlook he gained when he no longer had a typical, carefree childhood. The brutal lyrics to Beautiful People, "The horrible people, the horrible people …" take on a whole new meaning when coming from someone with a disability. The lyrics appear to mock only the jet-setting gang of beautiful people, but knowledge of his disability experiences reveals his target is a much larger group - all who are caught up in the reckless drive for youth, beauty, and physical perfection.
Alice Cooper is an earlier example. He preceded Marilyn Manson in shocking and horrifying parents. His stage show concludes with a guillotine and a phony severed head. He, too, understood how to capitalize on teenage anxiety due to his childhood illness experiences. The common denominator of Cooper and Manson's successful imagery and stage show is provided by Frank Zappa. It's been said that his sharp criticism of society was informed by his childhood illnesses. He felt like an anthropologist studying a foreign culture, e.g. the normal childhood he had left behind.
Much earlier in the 20th century, A. P. Carter dropped out of school when he was teased about his palsy. He became an itinerant salesman in the hills of Virginia where he met Sara and her cousin Maybelle. A singer and song collector, he was taken with the women's singing. The three formed what became the country music dynasty, The Carter Family. First recorded in 1927 they went on to become one of the more successful and influential groups in the 30s. Would A.P. have become a famous musician if he didn't have a disability and if he had stayed in school?
Another country legend is Doc Watson. He was born and still lives in Deep Gap, North Carolina. He lost his sight by his first birthday and has had a long career and significant recognition as a flat-pick guitar player and singer. In a radio interview he said that if he was not blind he would have become an engineer. I have a hard time imagining anything he could have built that would be as meaningful and significant as his music.
Identity and meaning
The most fascinating aspect of disability and music are the songs that have a greater meaning when the back stories of their disabled creators is exposed. These are stories of disabled people creating important and lasting music. Here are two examples.
"Save the Last Dance for Me"
"Save the Last Dance" is as familiar as any song can be, holding a permanent spot in the soundtrack of our lives. It was a hit by the Ben E. King Drifters in 1960. Most in my generation heard it when we were in our teens. It was not common knowledge that the lyricist, Doc Pomus, had a disability and used of braces and crutches to walk.
The power of the song is because we identify with the protagonist. We lament that the object of his affections will "… dance every dance with the guy who gives you the eye" We are relieved at the good news at the end of the verse, "But don't forget who's taking you home and in whose arms you're gonna be," assured the lovers will unite.
Forty-five years after it was a hit I got a shock when I began to delve into Doc Pomus' life. I knew from his 1991 obituary that he was a wheelchair user so I had included one of his moderately famous songs, "Viva Las Vegas," in my first disability music compilation.
The shock was, he wrote "Save the Last Dance for Me" for his fun-loving wife who liked to go out dancing. Those lyrics combined with my shared kinship with another non-dancing wheelchair user made my world shift. I realized, yet again, what it means to be disabled. I knew it in the old way-and the new. When I thought about Doc Pomus, a short man with an obvious disability, a man who came of age using crutches and a wheelchair in the 50s, and writing those opening lines, "You can dance every dance with the guy who gives you the eye, let him hold you tight …". I remembered how hard and scary it was to be the only one with a disability in junior high and high school and the painful awareness of my lack of romantic desirability. I was reminded of my longing for romance, the fragility of my hopes, and my fear of able-bodied competitors.
But then, Doc Pomus' confidence comes bursting through with "But don't forget who's taking you home and in whose arms you're gonna be …" He asserts with self assurance that the end of the dance will prove his faith in how the evening will end. His attitude is astounding. Pomus is willing to be vulnerable at one turn. He exposes his fears as a disabled outsider. Then he turns around and is assured of the upcoming eroticism. Finally, he is assertive and confident of his shared commitment and connection, "… so darlin' save the last dance for me". At the same time I am filled with disability shame, I am buoyed and excited by disability pride. Doc Pomus becomes a brother - a successful disabled brother. His words touch me in my present life. They reinforce my own commitment to my wife, my pride in our disability community, my joy in the life I am now leading. It's a life I couldn't imagine when I was young.
More importantly one doesn't need to know the disability slant to the story to be entranced by the words and tune. There is a universality in his song. Everyone relates to the fear of being left. Everyone is relieved and gratified with the happy ending. I believe that the lives of disabled people, living at the margins, successfully dealing with unthinkable circumstances, can illuminate the human experience. This best selling song is a wonderful example.
Porgy and Bess
Another example of the wonder and power of the disability background is the opera Porgy and Bess. It was first performed in 1935. In 1959 it was turned into a movie in an abbreviated version, and I saw when it was released. The image of Porgy heading to New York from South Carolina to get Bess is a dim, but powerful memory. I was embarrassed by his goat cart and his pitiful leave taking. I was twelve or thirteen when I first saw the movie at the Academy Theater in Pasadena. Knowing more of the story and looking back as an aware, disabled person I now consider him as a proud, albeit poor and wheelchairless, disabled man.
The movie Porgy and Bess is an adaptation of the opera written by George and Ira Gershwin and Dubose and Dorothy Heyward. It's a love story of the title characters. It is also a story of the residents of Catfish Row, a fictional African American community. Set in 1920s Charleston, Porgy is a beggar with a disability. Without the use of his legs, he either scoots across the floor or uses a goat cart for mobility.
The opera was based on the book Porgy written by Dubose Heyward, a disabled man. He co-wrote the subsequent play with his wife, and was the librettist for the opera. He had worked on the Charleston waterfront and became familiar with the African American community there. He attempted to convey that world in Porgy. The book sold well and is considered to be one of the first American works with sympathetic African American characters. Later the production of the opera was controversial for forty years and was considered racist by many in the African American community. The first and the majority of the performances had all black casts but characters who were dope dealers and murderers were uncomfortable to the actors and other African Americans. The 1976 revival by the Houston Grand Opera helped bring about an appreciation and revitalization of the work. Many of the songs in the opera are well known including "Summertime."
All of the attention, positive and negative, has centered on race and the legitimacy of Porgy and Bess as an opera. Little notice has been paid to the role disability plays in Porgy's life. Heyward had a bout with polio, which impaired his dominant arm and hand, affecting his ability to write. His polio also led him to contemplate and explore what it means to be a man. Porgy is Heyward's alter ego. Unlike Heyward, Porgy is robust and strong-strong enough to kill the villain, Crown.
The revelation of Porgy is in Heyward's portrayal of Porgy's disability. The book Porgy provides a closer look at who he is and his motivation. Although a beggar, Porgy is described as someone with a great deal of dignity. He is shown living successfully with a disability. But Porgy doesn't ignore or minimize the difficulties of getting around, making a living, and finding romance.
In the beginning of the book and opera, each morning Porgy catches a wagon ride to his regular begging spot. It's only when the wagon driver is jailed and Porgy loses his transportation and ability to make a living that he inventories his resources and hitches an old, smelly goat to a wooden box with homemade wheels. He then has mobility to reach his begging spot and anywhere else he wants to go. Much of one chapter of the book describes Porgy's exultant travels around Charleston in his new found freedom, made possible by the goat cart. I realized that this was not a stereotypical, poor cripple but a proud man with a disability. A man who, like the people with disability I know, uses the tools available to create a satisfying life.
Every review or analysis of the opera Porgy and Bess ignores Porgy's disability. Knowing the intent of the book, it is clear that Porgy's disability status is central to the plot. His relationship with Bess begins because he has no other choice if he wants to be with someone. As they live together she helps him to come out of his proud shell. And Porgy gives Bess his love and commitment which helps her to straighten out her life and move beyond her cocaine addiction. Eventually Porgy kills the villain, thus proving his manhood. But in the process, like the punishment of the overreaching hero in a classic Greek tragedy, he loses Bess to her addiction and the lure of New York.
I am elated glad to have gone from embarrassment to pride when I think of Porgy and his story. I'm still surprised that Porgy's status and identity as a man with disability is ignored. I never would have imagined that it was a thoughtful and proud disabled author of the 1920s who revealed the treasure of Porgy and Bess.
It's all out there in plain view. There are people with disabilities telling their stories and creating music. This is just the beginning of unearthing our history and our stories. Just the other day I heard the lyrics to "Boppin' the Blues" by Carl Perkins. I loved, "Yeah that doctor told me, 'Son you don't need no pills, just a handful of nickels and a jukebox will cure your ills." I thought it would be wonderful if he had a disability. A quick Google search reveals Perkin's closed head injury - another of my brothers telling it like it is.
- 1. Santa's In A Wheelchair - The Kids Of Widney High, 3:13
- Widney High is the Los Angeles area special school.
- 2. Move On Up - Curtis Mayfield, 8:56
- Curtis spent the last few years of his life using a power chair.
- 3. I Don't Need No Doctor - Ray Charles, 2:33
- Ray Charles is, of course, blind.
- 4. Take Me In Your Arms Tonight - Teddy Pendergrass, 5:27
- A recording before his power wheelchair use.
- 5. What's in a Name - The Cripples, 4:12
- Seattle's openly disabled punk band singing about our old favorite, semantics.
- 6. Short People - Randy Newman, 2:55
- Will the controversy never end?
- 7. Mongoloid - Devo, 3:45
- Easier to rhyme than Down's Syndrome.
- 8. Johnny's Blues - Johnny Crescendo and the P.O.P. Squad, 3:44
- The U.K.'s disabled flag bearer and his Piss on Pity Squad
- 9. Beautiful People - Marilyn Manson, 3:38
- Marilyn's early years in the hospital informs this dig at the mainstream.
- 10. Cowboy Brown - The Kids Of Widney High, 3:36
- The Kids again.
- 11. Cracking Up - Nick Lowe, 3:02
- The title says it all.
- 12. I Wanna Be Sedated - The Ramones, 2:30
- Joey Ramone's OCD might have lead to this plea.
- 13. Spasticus (Autisticus) - Ian Dury & The Blockheads, 5:11
- The disabled author of Sex and Drugs and Rock 'n' Roll writes a BBC banned anthem for the 1981 International Year of the Disabled.
- 14. My Generation - The Who, 3:18
- Who says stuttering isn't a disability?
- 15. Destroy The Handicapped - Fang, 1:33
- It's unclear what we did to piss off these San Francisco, hardcore skinheads. NB: The lead singer is back on the streets after serving a prison sentence for murdering his girlfriend.
Current Disability Collection
* = disability identity determined by; ** = disability identity by song writer.
- 1. T.B. Blues - Otis Spann *, 4:12
- Muddy Water's long-time band mate and pianist died of TB.
- 2. I Have Had My Fun - Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee *, 3:33
- Since 1939 Brownie and Sonny have been instrumental in bringing country blues to mainstream audiences. Sonny lost most of his sight in early childhood.
- 3. Wade In The Water - The Blind Boys Of Alabama, 3:34
- Singing in the blind school and gospel traditions this Grammy winning group has enjoyed mainstream success.
- 4. Bess, You Is My Woman Now (excerpt) - William Warfield, 1:56
- Goat cart-using para celebrates love, romance, and intimacy.
- 5. My Little Tune - Joni Eareckson, 4:01, Joni's Song, Pop
- The Christian author sings about her relationship to her disability and God.
- 6. In the Disability Rights Movement - Jeff Moyer, 2:11
- Heart-felt, earnest folk music recognizes the struggle for Disability rights.
- 7. In Northern California (Where the Palm Tree Meets the Pine) - Danny O'Keefe, 3:19
- Able-bodied folkie describing a one-night-stand with a braced and crutched woman. ("Creepiest song I've ever heard." Anthony Tusler)
- 8. Little Crippled Girl's Prayer - Marsh Family, 3:31
- Does this mean that heaven isn't accessible?
- 9. There's a Star Spangled Banner Waving Somewhere - Elton Britt, 2:48
- World War II had its own plucky disability candidate.
- 10. Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town - Kenny Rogers
- Ruby has it all - politics, anger, self pity.
- 11. Daddy Come and Get Me - Dolly Parton, 1:79
- Forced institutionalization rears its unexpected head in this country weeper.
- 12. Disabled People Do It! - Jane Field, 2:53
- Wheelchair-using folk singer tries to convince us that crips are sexy.
- 13. The Letter - The Medallions **, 2:49
- "I was a very lonely guy at the time. … 14 years old, … and I walked with crutches," Vernon Green, lead singer.
- 14. Save the Last Dance for Me - The Drifters, 2:30
- The wheelchair-using Doc Pomus wrote this for his fun-loving, ever dancing, able-bodied wife.
- 15. Johnny's Blues - Johnny Crescendo and the P.O.P. Squad, 3:44
- The U.K.'s Disabled flag bearer and his Piss on Pity Squad
- 16. What's In a Name - The Cripples, 4:12
- They should know.
- 17. Takin' Retards to the Zoo - Dead Milkmen, .48
- What can you say? But why the crash?
- 18. Cretin Hop - The Ramones *, 1:18
- Joey Ramone's OCD viewpoint adds another politically incorrect song title and lyrics to the genre.
- 19. Spasticus (Autisticus) - Ian Dury & The Blockheads, 5:11
- The Disabled author of Sex and Drugs and Rock 'n' Roll writes a BBC banned anthem for the 1981 International Year of the Disabled.
- 20. Mongoloid - Devo, 3:45
- Easier to rhyme than Down's Syndrome.
- 21. Santa's In A Wheelchair - The Kids Of Widney High, 3:13
- Widney High is the Los Angeles area special school.
- 22. Beautiful People - Marilyn Manson *, 3:38
- Marilyn's early years in the hospital informs this dig at the mainstream.
About the author
In the mid-1980s, Anthony Tusler assembled a show that celebrated disability and the arts and published a booklet about it called Disability and the Arts: An Exhibit Confronting Our Attitudes and Experiences (Rohnert Park, CA: Sonoma State University Office for Students with Disabilities, 1985). This groundbreaking document was the first of its kind in the U.S. Anthony is also cofounder of the Institute on Alcohol, Drugs and Disability and active in the disability rights and independent living movement.
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