NPR logo Novelty Songs

Novelty Songs

This weekend I was visiting some friends up in Washington State where I awoke on Sunday morning to the voice of Allan Sherman coming through the living room stereo speakers. Who is Allan Sherman, you ask? Well, he was a musician, comedian, and satirist popular in the 1950s and '60s. Allan's early work parodied old folk tunes and was aimed largely at the Jewish, Borscht Belt audiences. But he grew in popularity when he began skewering broader and more mainstream cultural topics. His most famous song was one you've likely heard, "Hello Mudduh, Hello Fadduh," which miraculously made it to #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart in 1963.

While listening to Sherman, I was reminded of a tune my high school chemistry teacher used to help us memorize the periodic tables: Tom Lehrer's "Elements Song." And then I started to wonder, what exactly happened to the novelty song?

Novelty songs, of course, are close cousins if not interchangeable with comedy songs. Though the novelty song tends to be more closely aligned with a fad, dance, or event.
Anyone remember the "Superbowl Shuffle?" Lest you forgot:

So, perhaps music-inspired comedians like Dimitri Martin and Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement of Flight of the Conchords are carrying on the tradition of novelty songs, or at least are crafting a new version of the genre. Yet, I would argue that the chief difference between those artists and, say, "Weirld" Al Yankovic is a lack parody and the addition of, dare I say, earnestness.

If anything, it's a medium like YouTube that has replaced the novelty song. What is YouTube if not novelties delivered to us 24-7 by none other than, um, us; a group of amateurs parodying, commenting, and imitating bigger budgeted and supposedly more legitimate forms? YouTube has turned our whole lives into a novelty, so why should we need actual novelty songs?

So, if we are bidding farewell to the novelty songs of yore, let's at least take a gander at a handful of memorable ones.

Do you have any favorite novelty songs? Or do you feel like there are any current and noteworthy practitioners of the genre? Please share.