Nobody Panic! It's Only A Pop Song About Sex

Jun 6, 2014
Originally published on June 15, 2014 10:36 am

Before 1909, American pop songs could be romantic and even coy about sex. But none were so explicit about adultery as "I Love My Wife — But Oh! You Kid!" about a married man named Jonesy and the young lass who catches his eye.

"It was a pickup line," writer Jody Rosen tells NPR's Robert Siegel. Rosen wrote an entertaining history of the song and its many imitators for Slate. "The phrase — 'Oh, you kid!' — suggested sauciness and adultery."

These songwriters and copycats were roaring 10 years earlier than the Roaring '20s, but they also anticipated the "the transgressiveness and salaciousness of rock 'n' roll and hip-hop."

"In fact, it wasn't just these sorts of songs ... incredibly popular and young people danced to them in the dance halls," Rosen says. "It's the reaction of the social reformers and guardians of public morality to the song that show us the same kinds of moral panics that greeted those later forms of popular music."

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A shocking moment from pop music history, now. It's about a scandalous song that created a wave of imitations that we would call, today, a meme, or we'd say, it went viral. The song was entitled "I Love My Wife But Oh You Kid."


BOB ROBERTS: (Singing) Now, Jonesy was a married man, oh yes, he was. Jonesy stopped and spoke to girly, just as old friends often do. And he said I'm married, but my dear that means you. I love, I love, I love my wife, but oh you kids.

SIEGEL: "I Love My Wife But Oh You Kid." And those clicks you heard were from the wax cylinder it was recorded on on 1909. For this, we are indebted to Jody Rosen, the writer who has posted a long and entertaining multimedia meditation on this song this week on Slate. And he joins us from New York. Welcome to the program.

JUDY ROSEN: Thanks, Robert.

SIEGEL: What's a landmark in pop music represented by "Oh You Kid?"

ROSEN: Well, you know, prior to 1909 and the release of this song, there really weren't any adultery songs. There were many, many sons of romance and songs that discussed, very euphemistically and coyly, of subject of sex. But in this song though, the dramatic situation is clear. There's a guy, named Jonesy. He sees an attractive, comely, young woman on the street and he says, oh I love my wife, but oh you kid, you're something else.

SIEGEL: Oh, you kid. We have to deal with this phrase now. This was a pickup line in 1909, I get it.

ROSEN: It was a pickup line. You know, Tin Pan Alley was a cutthroat environment where people were constantly ripping off each other's songs. There wasn't really copy right law as such back then. So there was a previous song that sort of inspired the song called "Oh, You Kid." It was a minor hit of 1908. Then another pair of songwriters wrote a song called "I Love My Wife But Oh You Kid."


CASEY ABRAMS: (Singing) I mean every word I've ever told you. Kiss me quick or else I'll have to score you, oh you kid.

ROSEN: Which came out 10 days before the song were discussing. And 10 days later, Harry Von Tilzer and Jimmy Lucus were better songwriters and who were obviously sharp entrepreneurs. They said, oh there's something in that phrase. We're going to write our own version. So they wrote a song whose technical title is "I love, I love, I love My Wife But Oh You Kid." In other words, they just added two more I love's to the title, but the phrase, oh, you kid, obviously suggested sauciness and adultery. Prior to this period, when the subjects were discussed, if they were ever discussed in popular music, the subject came up in novelty songs and songs that were written for ethnic impersonators. So mainly for blackface impersonators, that is for people who would get on stage and imitate African-American characters. And the suggestion was that that kind of romance was something that only the other participated in. And the novelty of this song was that, quote-unquote, "normal white Protestant, mainstream Americans lusted after people other than their spouses, too."

SIEGEL: And the story you tell, obviously proves that imitation was the sincerest form of songwriting, at the beginning of the 20th century.

ROSEN: Yes, in fact, the first great hit by Irving Berlin was called "My Wife's Gone to the Country, Hooray, Hooray," which was a spinoff song from "I Love My Wife But Oh You Kid." In fact, it alluded to that song in it's lyrics.


IRVING BERLIN: (Singing) My wife's gone to the country, hooray.

CHORUS: (Singing) Hooray.

BERLIN: (Singing) Hooray.

CHORUS: (Singing) Hooray.

BERLIN: I love my wife. But oh, you kid. My wife's gone away.

SIEGEL: Ultimately perhaps inevitably, the tables were turned by the sexes. Sophie Tucker recorded her version of this kind of song.


SOPHIE TUCKER: (Singing) Oh, my husband's in the city. About a hundred miles away And he only stays 'til Sunday.

CHORUS: (Singing) Hooray, hoorah, hoor-oh.

SIEGEL: For those who've never heard of Sophie Tucker, she was known as the Last of the Red Hot Mamas.

ROSEN: Yeah and you can hear why, right?

SIEGEL: We're talking about 1909 or 1910, whenever these songs were coming out. We think of the roaring '20s. I didn't know that it was roaring so much in those days.

ROSEN: Yeah, that's one of the things that I found interesting about this song. And what I find really interesting about this period, in American popular culture, in general. We have this, sort of, image of - this kind of sepia-toned image of this period and we think of it as quaint. But, in fact, a lot of the transgressiveness and salaciousness, that we associate with rock and roll and hip-hop and all that stuff, happened in this period, in the progressive era. In fact, it wasn't just that these sorts of songs were being written and were incredibly popular. And young people were going to dance to them in dance halls and things like that. It's the reaction of social morality to the same kinds of moral panics that greeted those of the later forms of popular music. The same thing was going on in this period. So, for instance, the song "I Love My Wife, But Oh You Kid" was met by thunderous denunciations from pundit-clergy. It was indeed a viral hit. But it was also - it also drove, you know, these guardians of public morality a little crazy 'cause they were concerned about its toxic effect on public morality. And especially on young women.

SIEGEL: Well, Jody Rosen, thanks for talking with us about it.

ROSEN: Thanks for having me.

SIEGEL: Jody Rosen's article in Slate, includes the sound files you've just heard and pictures of sheet music. It's a terrific multimedia story about "Oh, You Kid."


ROBERTS: (Singing) Just think, when I get home tonight, there'll be no wifey there. And right across the table, I will see your vacant chair. I love my wife. I love my wife. I love her more each day. I love my wife. I love my wife.


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