The Art of the Answer Song

Oh answer song, why do I love you so?  The sixties were undoubtedly a great time for pop music… one of the great celebrations of teenage angst where pop stars were able to create these great mythic landscapes where star-crossed lovers lived out extended dramas involving heartbreak, parental disapproval and gory and/or fiery deaths.  The answer song allowed these fantasies to be extended beyond their natural three-minute life span.

Of course it started before the 60s– there are probably some snappy 18th Century broadsheets spilling some sassy replies to popular ballads of the day.  But certainly by the first half of the twentieth century folks were hearing a hit and chiming in with their two cents worth.  Thus when Big Mama Thornton sang “Hound Dog” and it stuck around at number one on the record charts Sam Phillips got local DJ and Memphis celebrity Rufus Thomas to answer back with “Bear Cat“, which got to number three but nearly bankrupted the label with a copyright-infringement suit.

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Big Mama Thornton

Some songs were so popular they spawned multiple replies.  “Get a Job” by doo-wop group The Silhouettes must have really hit a nerve because it got several replies– The Miracles and The Tempos both declared “I got a Job“, while The Heartbeats sang “I Found a Job” and The Mistakes energetically declared “I got Fired“.

 

Often times the answer song was a ‘right of reply’ type of affair when the original seemed a little unbalanced.  One of my favourites of this type is by The Teen Queens (of “Eddie, My Love” fame) who answered Bobby Marchan’s somewhat creepy revenge song “There’s Something on Your Mind” with their straight up “There’s Nothing on My Mind

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The Teen Queens

Whether it was LaVern Baker propositioning Elvis the Pelvis or Ginger Davis putting down Dion’s put-downs answer songs were often a welcome comeback in a time with such rigid gender roles.

You could even reply to your own song– The Bobbettes did so well with their song “Mr Lee” (apparently about a Maths teacher they didn’t particularly like– the record company made them re-write the original lyrics dissing the teacher) they followed it up with “I Shot Mr Lee” (I guess he hadn’t gone up in their estimation in the meantime).  Their last hit was also an answer song– this time a reply to Chris Kenner’s “I Like it Like That” pointedly called “I Don’t Like it Like That”

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The fabulous Lesley Gore also answered her own songs– most successfully with the sad story of “It’s My Party (and I’ll Cry If I Want to)” which she updated with the wonderfully bitchy “Judy’s Turn to Cry“.  These songs were firmly in the world of teenage drama and high stakes necking/partying/exchanging of rings but the weren’t the full melodrama of the teenage death song.

That tragic sub-genre held the likes of “Teen-Angel” “Leader of the Pack” “Give Us Your Blessing” and “Ebony Eyes” and for myself the crossover between answer song and teenage death song in this pinnacle of both sub-genres.

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Lesley Gore

I can’t remember the first time I heard “Tell Laura I Love Her” but I certainly heard it many times over the years sung at me by the parents and older siblings of friends.  Even through the cringing self-consciousness of adolescence I loved the song with its dark romantic story of death at the race track.

It was almost inevitable that an answer song would be penned in response to Ray Peterson’s over the top ballad, but it wasn’t until I heard Skeeter Davis singing the tearful-prayerful reply that I really fell in love.

Skeeter Davis had already made several answer songs that were more in the country music line– her songs “I Can’t Help You (I’m Falling to)” and “Lost to a Geisha Girl” were both answers to Hank Locklin songs, and “I Really Want You to Know” was a reply to Eddy Arnold’s “I Really Don’t Want to Know”.

“Tell Tommy I Miss Him” was a Marilyn Michaels song, and it was also recorded by Laura Lee but is Skeeter Davis who does the song full justice for me.  Her voice has that suggestion of a catch, that suppressed sob while at the same time the strength and resolution that perfectly delivers the melodrama of the song.  It is the same quality that makes “The End of The World” everybody’s favourite heartbreak.

Answer songs didn’t end with the sixties of course– but to my mind it remains the golden age of this art form.  But tell me– what is your favourite musical comeback?