December is here, and, before we get into our cornucopia of Christmas selections, I wanted to mark the anniversary of a non-seasonal song introduced to the world at the Coronet Theatre in New York seventy years ago this month - December 11th 1947. It's still widely known, although allusions to it can be perilous. A couple of years back, making some observations on Britain's "overseas development" budget, Godfrey Bloom, a UKIP member of the European Parliament, found himself in hot water - indeed, a veritable cannibal's cooking pot - when he opined that there's no point wasting taxpayers' money by giving it to "Bongo Bongo Land". The usual brouhaha ensued, with the delicate spinsters and dowagers of the diversity biz having the vapors, and Mr Bloom subsequently vanished from the scene - though, whether for the Bongo-Bongo remark, or his assertion that David Cameron was "pigeon-chested, the sort of chap I used to beat up", or his jocular reference to a disabled debate opponent at the Oxford Union as "Richard II", or possibly some other jest entirely, I cannot say.
Alan Clark, the legendary Defence Minister and legover maestro of the Thatcher years, proved more artful. Asked by John Major to explain his dismissal of Africa as "Bongo Bongo Land", he said he was referring to the then strongman of Gabon, Omar Bongo. Mr Bongo has since been succeeded in power by his son, Ali Bongo, so Gabon in a certain sense is a Bongo-Bongo land. There is a German book of 1874 by the eminent Latvian-born botanist Georg Schweinfurth called The Heart of Africa: Three Years of Travels and Adventures in the Unexplored Regions of Central Africa, in which Dr Schweinfurth makes extensive reference to Bongoland as an actual place:
Across the Nomatina or Nomatilla, a copious river, declared by the Niam-niam to be identical with the Wow, which in its lower course in Bongoland they call the Nomatilla. Half-a-day's journey to the mbanga of Solongoh.
I have been 24 hours from Tulsa, but never half-a-day from the mbanga of Solongoh, so I cannot speak to the accuracy of his observations. But let me say that I doubt in the English-speaking world that Dr Schweinfurth's usage of Bongoland spread beyond members of the botanical community. Insofar as the allusion has currency as a synonym for Africa, it comes from a dotty novelty song celebrating its seventieth birthday this month:
Bongo bongo bongo
I don't wanna leave the Congo
Oh no no no no no
Bingo bangle bungle
I'm so happy in the jungle
I refuse to go...
As far as I know, it's never been the Congolese national anthem - and, to be honest, I'm not even sure to which particular Congo it refers: the formerly French Congo or the formerly Belgian Congo latterly known as Zaire but now reCongstituted. Either way, the song was a smash in 1947, and to this day gets quoted in many post-colonial studies journals for its neo-imperialist condescension:
Each morning, a missionary advertise on neon sign
He tells the native population that civilization is fine
And three educated savages holler from a bamboo tree
That civilization is not for me to see...
On the other hand, neo-imperialist condescension isn't the worst of sins. In the couple of years either side of the millennium, some four million people died in the Congo's civil war and barely made the foot of page 37 in western newspapers because there was no way to blame it on Bush. So much for "Never again". Educated-savage-wise, the Congo seems to have got heavier on the latter than the former since those words were written. So perhaps we should just enjoy the song as one of those madly insinuating place numbers like "I'd Like To See Some Mo' O' Samoa" that shouldn't be taken as a literal guide to the joint.
It's certainly catchy. Princess Margaret loved singing along with the "bongo bongo bongos" and considered it one of the all-time great compositions. She spent much of the Sixties and Seventies representing the Queen at colonial independence ceremonies across Africa, and I wonder as the Union Flag was hauled down and the new nationalist swatch run up the pole whether she ever felt like breaking into a quick chorus of "Bongo bongo". I confess to an occasional politically incorrect urge to hear Bono and Bob Geldof lead an all-star fundraising version of the tune. But despite shifting fashions it's endured longer than most pop novelties. Whatever its use to Messrs Bloom and Clark as a synonym for Afro-Marxist kleptocracy, in 1947 African dictators were thin on the ground. So "Civilization" (to give the song its formal title) operated on a more innocent premise – the natives' inability to see what was so great about life in the heart of the metropolis:
Don't want no bright lights, false teeth, doorbells, landlords...
They hurry like savages to get aboard an iron train
And though it's smoky and it's crowded, they're too civilized to complain...
At the movies they have got to pay many coconuts to see
Uncivilized pictures that the newsreel takes of me...
It comes from a show called Angels In The Wings, which opened at the Coronet on Broadway on December 11th 1947 and was a modest attempt to restore the tradition of intimate revue on the Great White Way. Paul and Grace Hartman had a sketch about a cookery class, in which the husband gets progressively more nauseous as the wife demonstrates how to fry snails in yogurt. In one of my favorite numbers, Hank Ladd wandered the stage wearing a rowing boat as he paddled the St Lawrence in search of Florence, a girl he misplaced on one of the Thousand Islands (you can hear me play it on this podcast). But the hit of the show was the moment when a young Elaine Stritch stepped out to renounce modernity for the joys of the jungle:
Bongo bongo bongo
I don't wanna leave the Congo
Oh, no, no, no, no, no...
The authors were Bob Hilliard and Carl Sigman, two songwriters who were primarily lyricists but were capable of cranking out a tune when no-one else was to hand: I would bet Sigman was mostly responsible. He was a fine composer in the early Thirties until he decided to concentrate on words. Both men have strange catalogues that sound like a lot of disconnected one-offs thrown together. Hilliard had a late career hit with "Our Day Will Come" for Ruby and the Romantics in 1963, but was at his peak in the late Forties when he struck gold with another geographical novelty number, "The Coffee Song (They've Got An Awful Lot Of Coffee In Brazil)". Hard to dislike a song with couplets like:
You date a girl and find out later
She smells like a percolator...
(That's an identity rather than a rhyme, but it's still cute.) The Carl Sigman songbook is even more random: There are movie songs, like his theme for Love Story which took off when he found himself stalled on the lyric and wondered "Where do I begin?" There are translations of continental ballads, like "What Now, My Love?" There's the all-time great telephone song "Pennsylvania 6-5000", a number about a number – in this case, the number of the Pennsylvania Hotel in New York, and the greeting with which, area codes and all-numeral local exchanges notwithstanding, they still answer the telephone. Oh, and Sigman also made Charles Gates Dawes the most successful Vice-President on the Hot One Hundred, when he took a little instrumental written by Coolidge's Veep and turned it into "(Many a tear has to fall but) It's All In The Game". And, of course, he wrote Miss Jessica Martin's and my Christmas disco blockbuster, "A Marshmallow World".
Angels In The Wings was Hilliard's first foray on to Broadway and Sigman's only one: He was something of a shy loner, and he didn't really enjoy the production meetings and backers' auditions and all the other crowded-room stuff that attends a stage endeavor. "Civilization" wasn't written for the show but it fit perfectly. And, for a man who wrote beautiful romantic ballads, it became improbably the song that for Sigman led to lifelong love. One day he wandered into the Brill Building to see how Louis Prima was getting along with the number and met Prima's secretary Terry. Four months later he waltzed her down the aisle. By then the song was a big hit for Danny Kaye and the Andrews Sisters. Louis Prima's take, by contrast, was unusually sluggish for a guy who two decades later in The Jungle Book would claim the crown as King of the Swingers and Jungle VIP. Prima was Italian-American, but have you ever heard "Bongo bongo bongo" by an Italian Italian? Nilla Pizzi and Luciano Benevene took it up the Italian charts in 1948. If you're an old Belgian Congo wallah, we're still waiting for the Flemish version, as far as I know.
Back then, Sinatra – in something of a career dip – was hosting the radio show "Your Hit Parade", which required him to sing whatever the public were buying. As you'll have heard on our Sigman centenary podcast, he tries to lay back and relax into the "bongo bongo bongos", which doesn't quite work, and by the time he gets to this couplet he sounds almost as befuddled as he did singing "The Woody Woodpecker Song":
They have things like the atom bomb
So I think I'll stay where I om...
Elaine Stritch advanced from "Bongo bongo bongo" to Noël Coward and Stephen Sondheim and other rarefied delights. But in her one-woman retrospective a few years before her death she felt she had to include "Civilization". And, just as it had been six decades earlier, it was again one of the best-loved numbers of the night. I don't know whether I had anything to do with that, but in November 2000 I found myself on Ned Sherrin's BBC show "Loose Ends", being broadcast live from New York. It was in the middle of the long post-election chad-dimpling phase of the Bush-Gore contest and tensions were running high. Everyone else on the show – Miss Stritch, Michael Feinstein – was pro-Gore, pro-abortion, anti-capital punishment, etc, and the political talk didn't go so well. But then Ned asked Miss Stritch about her early days on Broadway and she mentioned that "Bongo bongo bongo" had been her first solo.
"Oh, that's a marvelous song," I enthused.
"Do you remember who wrote it, Mark?" Ned asked.
"Bob Hilliard and Carl Sigman," I said.
"How do you know that?" asked Miss Stritch in wonder.
After the show we had a glass of wine and the talk turned to chads again and politics reared its ugly head. But, as we parted, Miss Stritch sportingly said to me, "You're full of sh*t. But you know who wrote 'Bongo bongo bongo'."
I may have that chiseled on my tombstone.
~For a more raucous musical entertainment this weekend, be sure to listen to Mark's audio special in which he talks to rock legend Ted Nugent.
Many of Steyn's most popular Song of the Week essays are collected together in his book A Song For The Season, personally autographed copies of which are available from the SteynOnline bookstore. Alternatively, if you're looking for a great Christmas present for a chum, you could get him or her a personally autographed copy of A Song for the Season as part of a Mark Steyn Club special Christmas Gift Membership.
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Please join Mark for a different kind of audio pleasure later this evening when he concludes our Scott Fitzgerald double-bill with the final episode of The Rubber Check.