Next Stop: ‘Louie Louie’

By Carl Zebrowski

The WWII era boasted genius songwriters and lyricists such as Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Ira Gershwin, and Richard Rogers. It was an age when trained professionals wrote songs, usually working as teams, one writing the music and another the words. At its best, the union yielded gold—hundreds of songs dreamt up and hammered out during the war years have endured the ensuing decades to remain part of the living canon of American popular song.

The 1941 tune “Mairzy Doats” does not rank among those pop masterpieces. It was nevertheless written by professional songwriters: Milton Drake, Al Hoffman, and Jerry Livingston, all of whom also lent their talents to respectable musical endeavors. Drake took credit (or accepted the blame?) for the silly lyric of “Mairzy Doats,” saying he was inspired by his four-year-old daughter singing an old English nursery rhyme (a claim the English would probably rather ignore). The memorable lines of the children’s verse are “Cowsy tweet and sowzy tweet and libble sharksy doisters.” It didn’t take much creativity to parlay that distinctive wordsmithery into “Mairzy doats and dozy doats and liddle lamzy divey.

American history has seen many worse ways of making money than creating a meaningless, harmless, and, yes, even somewhat fun little song. So it’s hard to begrudge a dashed-off ditty its financial success. That success didn’t exactly happen overnight. It took about a year (understandably) for a publisher to see the sales potential of “Mairzy Doats.” Once the song was published, however, more than one performer recorded it and turned it into a hit. The vocal group the Merry Macs made the most of the tune, dragging it up to number one on the sales charts for a few weeks in early 1944. Marjory Garland carried the lead vocal, supported by the methodical close harmonies of the three men who rounded out the quartet. If you ignore the lyrics and listen only to the music and singing, the tune sounds much like any other vocal-group recording of the day.

If you have time to kill and spend some of it ruminating on the lyric (or if you wait for the explanation generously offered at the song’s bridge), you’ll find that the words refer to, well, ruminating—sort of. It’s about eating, specifically the eating done by cute animals you might find on a farm: “Mares eat oats and does eat oats and little lambs eat ivy.” And with that, the secret is out: our Greatest Generation parents and grandparents, with their “When I was a kid” stories, didn’t exactly hold the aesthetic high ground when they mocked rock-and-roll for its mumbled nonsense songs.

Carl Zebrowski is the managing editor of America in WWII. This article originally appeared in the February 2007 issue of the magazine. Order a copy of this issue now.

Image: Sheet music for "Mairzy Doats"

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