Tuesday, February 21, 2012

"Ode to a Bowl of Soup" and other ballads of Bathhouse John

We never had a stranger alderman than Bathhouse John Coughlin, who, with his partner Hinky Dink Kenna, controlled the notorious levee district for two generations beginning in the 1890s. Often seen tromping around in a suit made of green billiard table cloth, Bathouse John was often seen as a sort of affable buffoon.

Though he and Hinky Dink were running protection rackets that allowed people to get away with some awful things, it was hard not to like ol' Bathhouse, who generally did as he was told as a politician, but was allowed to amuse himself introducing goofy legislation like promoting the annual "Straw Hat Day." Newspapers showed shots of him practicing putting his hat on like a big boy.


But he may be best remembered as the poet laureate of the first ward. After his first song, "Dear Midnight of Love" (which Herbert Asbury said had all the literary merit of a first grade essay), several "ballads" appeared under his name, with such titles as "She Sleeps at the Side of the Drainage Canal," "Ode to a Bath Tub," and "Why Did They Build Lake Michigan So Wide." Most were actually written by John Kelley, a newspaper reporter, who knew fully well how dumb they were. But if Bathhouse knew, he didn't say. Rather, he suggested that they might be "too deep" for most people.

A few of his greatest hits:

SHE SLEEPS AT THE SIDE OF THE DRAINAGE CANAL

In her lonely grave she sleeps tonight
at the side of the drainage canal;
Where the whipporwhill calls at the twilight hour
they planted my sweetheart, Sal
Just a mile this side of Willow Springs
not far from the Alton track
there lieth Sal, my dear old pal
But these tears won’t bring her back.

ODE TO A BOWL OF SOUP

O, bowl of soup, to thee I lift my voice in gladsome song
nothing can touch ze spot like what ze French call "booyong."
I like you as mulligatawny, noodles, or consommé.
It cheers me when I see the sign proclaiming "hot soup all day."

I care note what they call you, you're just plain soup to me
I break my bread into the bowl to cool it, don't you see.
Let those who want to die of gout of richer food partake
But give me a bowl of soup like mother used to make

That little sign "Hot Soup All Day" in front of Hink's saloon
Brings customers for blocks around, especially at noon.
It's got fried liver skinned to death, and red hots, too, I trow,
Put up a "feed" of good hot soup, and then you'll catch the "bo."

I pride myself on being wise upon this free lunch question
"Potato pancakes 4 to 8" are bad for one's digestion
Saurkraut with spare ribs, fricandeiles, ox joints and all that group
are not to be considered with a bowl of steaming soup.

"How stew on individual plates" does not appeal to me,
and neither does the "business lunch" (which same costs 15c)
I'd rather have one bowl of soup than all the stew in town,
or goulash cooked Hungarian style, with gravy thick and brown

Clam chowder has its devotees, and I'll admit it's fine.
Others are fond of "K and K," but no corned beef in mine.
Just give to me a bowl of soup, and have it seasoned well,
It's got them all backed off the boards - I tell you what it's swell."


THE HOD CARRIER
Tis not a ladder of fame he climbs
this rugged man of bricks and mortar
The mason gets six for laying the bricks,
While the carrier gets but two and a quarter.


AN ODE TO A BATHTUB:
CANTO I:
Some find enjoyment in travel, others in kodaking views;
some take to automobiling in order themselves to amuse.
But for me there is only one pleasure, although you can call me a "dub" -
There's nothing to my mind can equal a plunge in a porcelain tub.


CANTO II:
Some go to ball games for pleasure, others go bobbing for eels.
Some find delight making money, especially in real estate deals.
I care not for ball games or fishing, or money unless to buy grub
But I'd walk forty miles before breakfast to roll in the porcelain tub.


CANTO III:
Some take a trolley to Hammond, others the boat to St. Joe
Some can find sport on the golf links with mashies that foosle, I trow.
The trolley and boat and the golf links are not one, two, nine with a  rub;
O, what in the world is finer than a dip in the porcelain tub?


CANTO IV
Some runs  dairy for pleasure, others a violet farm
Some turn their heads to bookbinding, and say it is life dearest charm.
But for dairies or sweet scented posies, or old books I care not a nub;
pass them all up, thank you kindly, for the little old porcelain tub.


UNDER THE TWINKLING STARS
Under the twinkling stars, 'mid a bower of roses fair
I lost my heart to Gwendolyn that night in June so rare.
We plighted our troth that summer's eve while gazing up at Mars;
O', the happiest night of my life was that - under the twinkling stars


She told me that she loved me as I held her hand in mine;
her lips were like to cherries of the Maraschino kind.
I drew her to my bosom, breaking two good cigars
and plucked the cherries from her lips - under the twinkling stars.


Perhaps the least sensible of them all, and Bathhouse's favorite, was a ballad of a girl (who may have been a lobster, and certainly marries one), who is terribly upset about the width of Lake Michigan for reasons unexplained:


WHY DID THEY BUILD LAKE MICHIGAN SO WIDE?
Twas a balmy day in June, and all nature was attune
that two loving hearts across the lake did go.
Said the youth unto the maid, "Stick to me, don't be afraid,
and married we will be at old St Joe."
When the boat approached the dock, it was after 3 o'clock
Then a scramble from the decks to get ashore;
Soon the youthful pair were wed, after which the bride let said:
"Won't you answer me this question I implore:


"Why did they build Lake Michigan so wide, so awful wide?
Look into mine eyes, dear, am I not your bride?
Answer sweetheart, answer, cast me not aside.
Oh why did they build Lake Michigan so wide, so awful wide?"


To Chicago they returned with money she had earned
a flat was furnished fit for any queen.
Persian rugs upon the floor, sofa pillows by the score
still the bride let weeping tears was often seen
She in silence bore her grief, till one day she sought relief
and confided to his nibs her tale of woe.
"Won't you answer me, I pray, (O, sweetheart, don't turn away)
The question that I asked at old St. Joe?


"Why did they build Lake Michigan so wide, so awful wide?
This little boon I ask of you, do not turn aside.
To you I gave my love, my all, and yet you've never tried
to find out why Lake Michigan was built so wide, so wide."


l'envoi:
Stung by the words his bride let spoke, the lobster hung his head
and while the tears rolled down his cheeks to her he slowly said
"You ask me why Lake Michigan was built so wide, so wide
I must decline to answer you because of family pride."

Bathhouse John is said to have put out a whole collection, Dear Midnight of Love and Other Ballads, but I can't find  a copy. Perhaps it's time to bring it into print as an ebook!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

BAH! thats just what the world needs more rubbish especially from bathhouse john. In the 1970s I had an acqauintance play a xerox coy of his masterpiece 'dear midnight of love photocopied from the book 'Lords of the levee"
he stopped not even halfway thru as it was so awfull. dull, slow moving like ketchup it was so silly you would have thought the three stooges
wrote it. I think if any song collection STILL exists at this point in time it should have a stake pounded thru its heart and buried under a ten ton boulder

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