Day 149: A song that features an unusual instrument.
“James K. Polk” – They Might Be Giants
I have an affinity for American History. I like history in general, and—get this—I’m American. I know, it’s way out there, but there you go. And, can you believe this? I’m also interested in Presidential history!
That said, pretty much everything I know about James K. Polk I learned from this They Might Be Giants song. Which is sad, really. But true. There’s this gap in the early- to mid-1800s where things just get fuzzy in terms of the presidency, at least for me. James K. Polk falls into the “fuzzy zone.”
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Turns out he was one of our better presidents. As the song will tell you, in four short years he met all his goals:
- He seized the Southwest from Mexico
- Lowered tariffs
- Made the English sell the Oregon Territory to the US
- He (re)built an independent treasury
- And “having done all this he sought no second term” (which is good, he died three months after leaving office)
Not bad considering nowadays all a president can get done in four years is run for re-election. Oh, and make people hate them. Regardless of their party.
In terms of the song, I was first exposed to it in the mid-90s. It was released as a B-side on TMBG’s “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” CD single, along with “Ant” and “Stormy Pinkness.” (It should come as no surprise to anyone that I had to buy the single to get these tracks.) For my loyalty and hard-earned money I was treated to… three mostly uninteresting (and not very good, in my opinion) songs. But of the three, “James K. Polk” was the best.
So imagine my surprise when I bought Factory Showroom (released some ten years later) and saw “James K. Polk” on the tracklist. “How lazy!” I thought. “Recycling ten-year-old B-side tracks for an album. They must be desperate.”
So, I listened to the CD expecting it to be the same version. But it wasn’t. It was pretty much the same song, with virtually the same lyrics, but it was completely re-recorded and had a different arrangement. I liked it much better this time around. Somehow the new version had more life than the previous one did. Especially the break in the middle. (They would do this again with “Spy” from the Why Does The Sun Shine EP/John Henry album, but that’s a different post.)
Whereas the original had the Johns singing “Da-da-da”s (not like the Trio song) the new version had a… something solo there. For many years I assumed it was a weird keyboard voice. Judge for yourself:
I recently learned it was, in fact, a singing saw.
Yes. The solo of the song is performed on a saw.
Apparently the technique is to wiggle a saw blade back and forth so that it “sings.” I think you’ll agree it’s a unique tone. (If you try this at home be sure to use a hand saw and not a blade in a running power saw. I cannot be held liable for injury or idiocy.)
So there you have it. A history lesson and a funky instrument solo, all in the same song. These guys are geniuses!
And now the “fuzzy zone” is slightly less fuzzy.