Notes Toward a Definitive Treatise on the Role of Meat in Popular Music with Special Consideration of Rock ’n’ Roll

January 15, 2010

Preliminary comments, thoughts, and insights

text by Tony Michels
art direction and design by Pace Kaminsky
photo by Noe Dewitt
This article originally appeared in 
Meatpaper Issue Ten.

Click image above to view full photograph.

WHAT DOES MEAT TELL US  about popular music?
Professor Mendl Shochat-Fresser, the acclaimed Frankfurt School philosopher, raised this important question in his controversial 1928 lecture, “Tseshlogeneh Gedanken vegn Chazerei” (“Theses on Culture in Late Roman Antiquity”). “All forms of music,” he posited, “arise from brisket.” Shochat-Fresser’s colleagues ridiculed him, the most biting criticism leveled by Martin Heidegger, who insisted on the supremacy of soybeans —a notion implemented by Nazi Germany in 1935. At that point, discussion of meat and its relationship to music all but ceased in the Western world.

Yet meat has always fed music. Indeed, the history of American popular music, in its entirety, may be traced through beef, poultry, and pork.

The history of rock ’n’ roll bears out my claim. Scholars have yet to ascertain the precise number of
songs about meat recorded in the 1950s and early 1960s, but a safe estimate would run into the hundreds and perhaps thousands. Any complete repertoire needed at least one song about hot dogs, pulkes, fatback, or ribs. A crowning achievement of the early rock ’n’ roll era was the Starliters’ hit “Hot Pastrami with Mashed Potatoes,” arguably the most eloquent paean to smoked meats ever performed. Pigmeat Markham and Sleepy LaBeef, who were among the earliest singers to adopt meat-themed monikers, further consolidated the alliance between meat and music.

Alas, meat, like all things, is cyclical. With the rise of the counterculture in the late 1960s, animal flesh temporarily lost its appeal. Mind-bending sounds were in; sausages and tube steaks were out. “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” left no room for hamburgers to “sizzle on an open griddle, night and day,” as Chuck Berry would have preferred.

So much for the hippies, but when we turn our attention to black America, a different picture emerges. Pig snoots, fried chicken, smothered steak, ham hocks, rib tips, and anything doused in hot sauce inevitably found its way into blues, soul, and funk. King Curtis’ “Memphis Soul Stew” confirmed the fundamental truth of Shochat-Fresser’s 1928 dictum, “The funkier the music, the greasier the lyrics.”

In the late 1970s punk rose up against the rock establishment and reached back to the years before the Summer of Love to reclaim rock ’n’ roll. And with punk came a meat revival. Dead Boys may not have had actual food in mind when they composed their anthem, “Caught with the Meat in Your Mouth,” but the song signaled a profound change nonetheless.

Three decades later, meat’s musical lexicon has expanded in unexpected directions, as contemporary musicians find inspiration in lard, meat shakes, pork sodas, and the like.

By way of conclusion, I direct the reader’s attention to the menu above, reprinted here for the first time courtesy of Stanford’s Hoover Institution (Jay Lovestone Papers, box 140, folder 36). The menu, which was found, oddly, in the B & H Dairy Restaurant on New York’s Second Avenue, offers a rich selection of songs, albums, and bands having to do with meat or likenesses to meat. It substantiates all of my findings and contains important implications for understanding race, class, and culture in the United States.

TONY MICHELS  is the author of A Fire in Their Hearts: Yiddish Socialists in New York (Harvard University Press), and he teaches history at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. His articles have appeared in Guilt & Pleasure, Forward, Nextbook, and the Yiddish cultural magazine Afn Shvel.

PACE KAMINSKY is an art director at HK Creative in New York, where he focuses on design and advertising campaigns for fashion, home design, and photography.

NOE DEWITT grew up in a family of photographer’s in Mariposa, California, where he spent a lot of time hiking in the trails of Yosemite National Park. Now based in New York, he shoots family, portraiture, travel, and advertising photographs for diverse publications.

This article originally appeared in Meatpaper Issue Ten.

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