(YouTube video: "Lydia the Tattooed Lady,")
Yesterday was Groucho's birthday, and every other year or so I post this clip of him singing Lydia, the Tattooed Lady from the classic Marx Brothers film At The Circus.
I was just about to re-post the video when I remembered an e-mail I had received from a reader the last time I published it. A 21-year-old college student asked if Lydia was a "gibberish" song, because many of the lyrics made no sense to him.
Lyricist E.Y. "Yip" Harburg was at the top of his form when he wrote Lydia. It's fiendishly clever, invoking historical and contemporary references, and he effortlessly blends them with oblique asides describing Lydia's impressive physical characteristics. The result was an instant classic.
I watched the video again, and then it dawned on me... if my young reader had failed to pay attention during his history, literature, and geography classes, he just wouldn't get it.
So, if you've listened to Lydia and found yourself not only tapping your toes but scratching your head, here are the lyrics. With footnotes.
There will be a quiz later, so please pay attention.
Lydia The Tattooed Lady
(music by Harold Arlen, lyrics by E.Y. Harburg,
the guys who also did "Over the Rainbow.")
Ah, this meeting brings back memories. Childhood days... Lemonade! Romance! My life was wrapped around the circus... Her name was Lydia. I met her at the World's Fair in 1900 (marked down from 1940). Ah, Lydia...
She was the most glorious creature under the sun...
Rolled into one...
Lydia, oh Lydia, say, have you met Lydia?
Lydia The Tattooed Lady
She has eyes that folks adore so,
And a torso even more so.
Lydia, oh Lydia, that encyclopedia.(4)
Oh Lydia The Queen of Tattoo.
On her back is The Battle of Waterloo,(5).
Beside it The Wreck of the Hesperus(6) too.
And proudly above waves the red, white, and blue(7).
You can learn a lot from Lydia!
When her robe is unfurled she will show you the world,
If you step up and tell her where.
For a dime you can see Kankakee(8) or Paree(9),
Or Washington Crossing The Delaware.(10)
Oh Lydia, oh Lydia, say, have you met Lydia?
Oh Lydia The Tattooed Lady.
When her muscles start relaxin',
Up the hill comes Andrew Jackson.(11)
Lydia, oh Lydia, that encyclopedia.
Oh Lydia the queen of them all.
For two bits(12) she will do a mazurka(13) in jazz,
With a view of Niagara(14) that nobody has.
And on a clear day you can see Alcatraz.(15)
You can learn a lot from Lydia!
Come along and see Buffalo Bill(16) with his lasso.
Just a little classic by Mendel Picasso.(17)
Here is Captain Spaulding(18) exploring the Amazon(19).
Here's Godiva,(20) but with her pajamas on.
Here is Grover Whalen,(21) unveilin' the Trylon.(22),
Over on the West Coast we have Treasure Island.(23)
Here's Najinsky(24) a-doin' the rhumba.(25)
Here's her social security numba.
Oh Lydia, oh Lydia, that encyclopedia
Oh Lydia the champ of them all.
She once swept an Admiral clear off his feet.
The ships on her hips made his heart skip a beat.
And now the old boy's in command of the fleet,
For he went and married Lydia!
I said Lydia...
He said Lydia...
I said Lydia...
We said Lydia...
(1) Thaïs, a stunningly beautiful and rich fourth century courtesan who lived in Roman-controlled Alexandria, Egypt. She eventually saw the error of her ways, converted to Christianity, gave her money to the church, spent three years immured in a convent cell as extreme penance, and died 15 days after her release.
(2) Jeanne Bécu, a.k.a. Madame du Barry (August 19, 1743 - December 8, 1793), the stunningly beautiful and, alas, final Maîtresse-en-titre (chief mistress) of King Louis XV. She was convicted of treason for helping people flee the French Revolution and was beheaded on the guillotine.
(3) Greta Garbo, born Greta Lovisa Gustafsson, (September 18, 1905 – April 15, 1990), the stunningly beautiful Swedish film actress and international star. She made fewer than 30 films during her 1920-1941 career, retired at the age of 36, and spent her remaining years shunning publicity.
(4)A book or set of books containing articles on various topics, usually in alphabetical arrangement, covering all branches of knowledge or, less commonly, all aspects of one subject.
(5)The military engagement in which an imperial French army under the command of Emperor Napoleon was defeated by the armies of the Seventh Coalition on June 18, 1815.
(6)The Wreck of the Hesperus is a narrative poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow describing... well, bottom line, we're talking about a tattoo of a wrecked, ice-covered ship on a reef with a dead little girl tied to a broken, floating mast.
(7)The colors of the U.S. flag, a reference to the flag itself, or a reference to the country.
(8)Kankakee, Illinois, a city about 60 miles south southwest of Chicago.
(9)Paree (Paris), France's capital and largest city.
(10)German-American artist Emanuel Gottlieb's 1851 oil-on-canvas painting depicting, with numerous inaccuracies and anachronisms, then-General George Washington standing in a boat, leading his troops in the Christmas 1776 sneak attack against Hessian mercenaries stationed in Trenton, New Jersey.
(11)Andrew "Old Hickory" Jackson (March 15, 1767 –
June 8, 1845), the seventh President of the United States, serving two
terms from 1829 to 1837. He's best known as the guy on the $20 bill and
the first President someone tried to assassinate. Prior to entering
politics, he was a noted military leader whose exploits included leading
his troops up a steep hill near Tohopeka, Alabama on the March 27, 1814
Battle of Horseshoe Bend during the War of 1812. (The War of 1812 lasted
The reader is encouraged to learn more about Jackson. His presidency makes the current situation in Washington look like a 60s' hippie love-in. Old Hickory was ill-tempered, unforgiving, and the target of vicious personal attacks. During the 1828 election, his opponents called him a jackass. Political cartoonist Thomas Nast later used the jackass to characterize members of Jackson's then newly-formed Democratic party, a symbol that remains to this day. Jackson had been involved in numerous duels and had so many bullets lodged in various body parts that it was said he "rattled like a bag of marbles."
(12)25 cents. The etymology is left as an exercise for the reader.
(13)An upbeat Polish folk dance.
(14)Niagara Falls, the three cataracts located on the border of New York state and the province of Ontario, Canada.
(15)The island in San Francisco Bay. Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary operated there from 1933 to 1963.
(16)William Frederick "Buffalo Bill" Cody (February 26, 1846 – January 10, 1917), whose eponymous wild west shows toured the U.S. and Europe.
(17)Either badly-punctuated references to geneticist Gregor Mendel and artist Pablo Picasso, or lyricist Harburg coupling the last name of a world famous artist to a funny-sounding Jewish first name. You know, like Shlomo Warhol. Come to think of it, Shlomo Picasso is funnier.
(18)The character Groucho portrayed in the stage play and film Animal Crackers.
(19)The river in South America, not the website.
(20)In 1028, Lady Godiva repeatedly asked her husband Leofric (the Earl of Mercia) to not pass along to the impoverished citizens of Coventry the taxes levied on him by the King of England, Edward the Confessor. ("Trickle down" had a different meaning then.) Leo told Lady G that if she'd ride naked through the town market on a horse, he'd nix the tax hike. The next day she did just that. Leofric kept his promise and eliminated all taxes in Coventry except for those related to boarding horses. The bits about her covering her, uh, bits, with her long flowing hair- and the story that Tom the Tailor was struck blind when he took a peek as she passed by his shop (the origin of "Peeping Tom")- are later embellishments.
(21)President of the New York World Fair Corporation.
(22)One of two large structures located at the center of the 1939 World's Fair in New York.
(23)A man-made island in San Francisco Bay between San Francisco and Oakland.
(24)Vaslav Nijinsky (March 12, 1889 or 1890 – April 8, 1950), considered by many to be the greatest male dancer of the early 20th century.
(25)A style of ballroom dancing based on the Cuban bolero-son. Not to be confused with the terminal emulation software. Or the autonomous robot vacuum cleaner.