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Gay Song Seven – “You're the cutest jailbird I ever did see”

AC Benus

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Gay Song Seven – “You're the cutest jailbird I ever did see”

 

Note: for this series of postings, the term 'Gay Song' refers to music written to/for/by or about Gay men or women. A second category also deals with music identified as Gay because it speaks to the heart of the Gay Experience.

 

So to make this easier, I will call them Gay in the 1st Degree (to/for/by/about), or Gay in the 2nd Degree (like Judy Garland singing Somewhere Over the Rainbow).

 

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This classic hit is both Gay in the 1st and 2nd degrees!

 

By the 1930s, the popular black slang expression for having sex made its debut in songs. Alberta Hunter had a hit with My Castle’s Rockin’  (and yes, castle is slang for a part of the female anatomy https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SpOtXGFS4Gw), and later in 1938, Ella Fitzgerald released Rock it for Me, which cemented the sexual slang with a type of ‘swinging’ music (swing itself being another way to describe sex https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YmdVTJPbdTs).

 

Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller’s 1957 Jailhouse Rock is one of the most explicit pop songs to ever deal with same-sex relations. If you don’t believe me, get a copy of the dictionary The Slanguage of Sex and you will see the lyrics positively bristle with a fun-loving tribute to what can go on behind bars.[1]

 

At this point we should talk about a few things. For us, men dancing has become a provocative sight. Part of that is a cultural reaction to post-Stonewall resistance where men in love did not care if they were seen dancing together. In the knee-jerk oppressive straight world, it became an act of defiance to their rule of ‘order’ and a powerful tool to spread fear that it was taking over; in their dirty minds the image of men dancing equaled the sight of two guys having sex. However, in the 1950s it was considered harmless and cute. The evidence is abundant. In 1955, the Hollywood film Blackboard Jungle, fanning adult fears that teenagers were a dangerously criminal subset and out of control, opens with an incredibly sweet moment of ‘good boys’ dancing together in the schoolyard before classes started. Another strong piece of evidence is the music video made in 1957 to promote Elvis’ single release of Jailhouse Rock on television. This is attached below, and you can see it involves the inmates cutting a rug, including a tender face-touch after the lyrics "You're the cutest jailbird I ever did see."

 

Secondly, how were same-sex partnerships in prisons viewed at the time? Lucky for us, we have a firsthand account. Jonathan Ned Katz conducted an interview with one of the victims of the Boise Witch Hunt of 1955; it was an incident in which Gay teenagers were rounded up and imprisoned. The young man says this about being transferred to the State Penitentiary: “The captain of the yard was an old friend of my family’s. I’d know him all my life. The first thing he said to me was, ‘Now, just go out there and find yourself a jock, and settle down, so we don’t have any trouble with you.’ I said, ‘How am I going to settle down with somebody when I’m locked up in my cell twenty-four hours a day?’ He said, ‘Well, don’t worry about that right now.’” It turns out this family friend began working behind the scenes to arrange for a suitable protector for the young victim of homophobia. “[Four days later], as I was going through the chow line, I saw this gorgeous guy handing out silverware. You wore anything – they didn’t pay attention to how you dressed – and he was wearing a shirt that was completely open, with sleeves torn out. He had been a prizefighter. […] He said, ‘You got any magazines?’ ‘No,’ I answered. […] Later he brought me a big stack of magazines and shoved them in my cell. […] Before the month was out, Larry and I had found a way to become lovers.”[2]    

 

So now that we know viewing men dancing was innocent at the time, and that same-sex partnerships were seen as good and stabilizing elements for prisoners, we can focus on the lyrics of Jailhouse Rock. Meant to pass as ‘straight’ to the uninitiated, it’s incredible just how many of the words are synonymous with sex among males. Here’s a small breakdown.

 

Intercourse: wail, swing, rock, crash-boom-bang, nix (nicks; slang for the buttocks).

 

Oral sex: sing, play, blowing, saxophone; trombone (references to the male member).  

 

Purple has a well-known association with Gay men, so the song’s “Purple Gang” could simply mean the fellows dancing (having sex) with one another. In Slanguage, on page 155, appears this about another of the song’s lyrics, the word kicks: “sexual tastes; like the phrase ‘whatever turns you on.’ The meaning was immortalized in the pop song Route 66 by Chuck Berry – ‘Get your kicks on Route 66.’ The song was taken up by the Rolling Stones in the sixties and the meaning still survives. Compare with [get your] ROCKS OFF.”  

 

So then going to page 230, the entry about getting your rocks off says: “likely derived from the U.S. black expression ‘rock and roll’ = sexual intercourse."

 

As for Elvis himself, he was pretty open about liking the boys, that is until his career took off and his ‘people’ tried to keep him more discreet. After documenting the singer was not interested in sex with women (“preferring to watch TV and talk to his girlfriends”) Keith Stern goes on to say this about him: “In his 2003 book, Elvis: The Hollywood Years, author David Bret documented affairs with men, including actor Nick Adams. […] Elvis’ stepmother Dee Presley also refers to these [relationships] in her unpublished manuscript The Intimate Life and Death of Elvis.”[3]

 

If you wish to investigate further, I’d point you in the direction of reading about the singer’s relationship with Dennis Hopper. The actor was just starting out in Hollywood and connected the singer with lots of out guys in town at that time, like James Dean. Hopper and Elvis stayed intimate friends until the singer’s death.

 

Also see the released FBI file J. Edgar Hoover kept in his desk drawer on Presley. The incident when Elvis was in the Army and stationed in Germany is very telling. Namely that the soldier and his entourage had a local hairdresser coming on base and bringing young men to them for sex and other fun. The FBI was drawn in when the hairdresser began trying to blackmail the singer.

 

The following link has the full lyrics for Jailhouse Rock

 

 

 

So, what do you think?

 

 


[1] The Slanguage of Sex by Brigid McConville and John Shearlaw, 1985 London.

[2] Gay American History, 1976 New York, ps.179-180

[3] Queers in History, 2009 Dallas, ps.369-370

 

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How interesting, AC.  It's weird that lots of us think of those days as full of innocence, but i don't think there has been such a thing. This is excellent i love all the info.. thanks so much for putting it all together.

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This is an incredible survey of the hidden language of sex I missed growing up. Wow. 

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thanks for this AC

not a week goes by here on GA that i don't learn something new

thank you for all the effort you put into sharing/educating us

:kiss:

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AC Benus

Posted (edited)

3 hours ago, Mikiesboy said:

How interesting, AC.  It's weird that lots of us think of those days as full of innocence, but i don't think there has been such a thing. This is excellent i love all the info.. thanks so much for putting it all together.

Thank you, Tim. Your comments are really interesting. There was that innocence in the era, even for Gay men and women, but paranoia began to overtake -- worry about 'foreigners', communists, and sissies as well. The Boise Witch Hunt is a great example. Here there were simply boys like there are everywhere 'practicing' or exploring their emotional sides with each other in total innocence and then politicians and police and judges created this series of lies. The young man interviewed above was entrapped while in jail by his mother and father's best friend (who kept arranging for cellmates who would come on to the boy). And why? Because the 6 months of jail time for his non-offense was not enough for these haters. They arranged for him to get caught, and a judge who could shake his head from the bench while saying "Seven years in the State Penitentiary is not suitable punishment for this heinous crime, but it's all I'm permitted to sentence you to -- for now." 

 

So, in 1957 when this song was clearly going to be a No. 1 hit for Elvis, there were plenty of guys who could smile and know exactly what it was about. That is could 'pass' for harmless in a society that was losing its innocence to GOP-fueled fairy-baiting was ironic to say the least. But it was not alone. Think of the 70s when little boys everywhere were singing about the pleasures to be found at the YMCA, and their parents were clueless ;) 

 

Thanks again

 

 

   

Edited by AC Benus
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45 minutes ago, Parker Owens said:

This is an incredible survey of the hidden language of sex I missed growing up. Wow. 

Hehe, me too as a kid. I was just mentioning The Village People and how clueless most parents were about songs like YMCA. 

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7 minutes ago, mollyhousemouse said:

thanks for this AC

not a week goes by here on GA that i don't learn something new

thank you for all the effort you put into sharing/educating us

:kiss:

Thank you, Molly! Kisses back to you. I appreciate your reading this. Be sure to check out the other six I've posted so far. Muah

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Wow! Learned a thing or two or three, I did. Really interesting, AC. Thanks for putting this together and sharing it with the us. :) 

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29 minutes ago, Reader1810 said:

Wow! Learned a thing or two or three, I did. Really interesting, AC. Thanks for putting this together and sharing it with the us. :) 

You're most welcome. Thanks for reading and commenting, Reader. I appreciate it. 

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1 hour ago, AC Benus said:

Hehe, me too as a kid. I was just mentioning The Village People and how clueless most parents were about songs like YMCA. 

 

Now I feel like I was such an innocent. My whole view of Elvis has just turned perpendicular to what I once thought...

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11 hours ago, AC Benus said:

Thank you, Tim. Your comments are really interesting. There was that innocence in the era, even for Gay men and women, but paranoia began to overtake -- worry about 'foreigners', communists, and sissies as well. The Boise Witch Hunt is a great example. Here there were simply boys like there are everywhere 'practicing' or exploring their emotional sides with each other in total innocence and then politicians and police and judges created this series of lies. The young man interviewed above was entrapped while in jail by his mother and father's best friend (who kept arranging for cellmates who would come on to the boy). And why? Because the 6 months of jail time for his non-offense was not enough for these haters. They arranged for him to get caught, and a judge who could shake his head from the bench while saying "Seven years in the State Penitentiary is not suitable punishment for this heinous crime, but it's all I'm permitted to sentence you to -- for now." 

 

So, in 1957 when this song was clearly going to be a No. 1 hit for Elvis, there were plenty of guys who could smile and know exactly what it was about. That is could 'pass' for harmless in a society that was losing its innocence to GOP-fueled fairy-baiting was ironic to say the least. But it was not alone. Think of the 70s when little boys everywhere were singing about the pleasures to be found at the YMCA, and their parents were clueless ;) 

 

Thanks again

 

 

   

You say (and i dont doubt you) then politicians and police and judges created this series of lies. But where does it all come from i guess is my question ... does it have it's start with religion? From what the Bible says? I've never read it, just going on things i've heard over the years.

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3 hours ago, Mikiesboy said:

You say (and i dont doubt you) then politicians and police and judges created this series of lies. But where does it all come from i guess is my question ... does it have it's start with religion? From what the Bible says? I've never read it, just going on things i've heard over the years.

Well, my comment was about Boise in the mid-fifties. That particular witch hunt is a fascinating case study about how homophobia can run amok. In that case, it all started with a Republican senator's son who more or less preyed on the teen sons of working-class Boise. When the flap broke out, the rich kid was sent off to military school, and the boys (who might be seen as the victims) were the ones rounded up, humiliated, tried in a mock fashion and sentenced to jail time. All of them furthered suffered by having attempts to entrap them while incarcerated. It's clear the 'conservative' goal, tragically led by the senator father of the instigator, was to literally lock these boys up their entire life for the so-called crime of being Gay. Even as it was, they all had to endure years behind bars. It's an American tragedy. 

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