Jesus Christ Superstar and Popular Songs of the 16th century

Here’s an interesting one submitted by a reader – a parody to the title song from Jesus Christ: Superstar. The first couple of lines are easy enough to sing to the tune, but after a while I imagine that there’s a tune change?  I suspect there’s a line missing here, and I’d added it into parenthesis

 The reader learned in in 1980 from a cousin who lived in Bakersfield, CA:

Jesus Christ: Superstar
streaking down the hill on a Yamaha
The cops were there
they didn’t care
they wore bulletproof underwear
if I die, (bury me)
hang my balls on a cherry tree
if they fall
catch them all
send them all to juvenile hall 
if the judge
says they smell
tell them that he can go to hell

What’s interesting here to me is how many lines from other playground songs show up here; I’m reminded of the Bart Simpson line about how Christmas is a time when people of all religions come together to worship Jesus Christ. This is a rhyme where Jesus brings together lines from all sorts of songs.

First of all, we’ve got the “streaking down the hill in a yamaha” bit, which reminds me of an occasionally-heard rhyme (traced back to about the 60s and appearing on of Bruce Sprinsteen’s spiral-bound notebooks from when he was writing Darkness on the Edge of Town):

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the lord
he is tearing down the highway in a black and yellow Ford

Then there’s the old: “When I die, bury me / hang my balls on a cherry tree.”  This one comes up in many rhymes, perhaps most commonly in Abe Lincoln Was a Good Old Man.  This connects it to much older rhymes, including an old folk/blues song known as “When I Die,” which is included in a couple of early 20th century collections of such:

The Journal of American Folklore collected one like this from “mountain whites” in Tennessee in 1907:

When I die, bury me a tall
soak my body in alcohol
When I die, bury me deep
put a quart of liquor at my head and my feet

The same source traced another version to “Mississippi negroes” in 1908:

When I die, don’t bury my at all
preserve my bones in alcohol

Another version collected from a similar source (“Mississippi negroes”) around the same time went:

When I die, bury me deep
tell the gamblers I’ve gone to sleep
put a pair of bones in my right hand
and i’ll throw seven in the promised land.

A similar version collected in Alabama in 1915 was the same as the above, with “bottle of booze at my feet” substituting for the second line.

You see variations on this in lots of blues songs, “Dying Crapshooter’s Blues” by Blind Willie McTell comes right to mind (and I think he himself said he stole from all sorts of sources to make that song, which, itself, was similar to “St. James Infirmary Blues,” which itself grew out of even older songs like “The Unfortunate Rake,” “Streets of Laredo,” etc).  So what we’ve got here is basically a progression of a 16th century British ballad growing into a playground rhyme sung to the tune of Andrew Lloyd Weber.

There are entire books about how these particular songs grow into each other, including a couple at the right:

Now, it’s easy to make the inference here, based on the above examples, that despite the dates, the “negro” version came first, as “bury me a tall” is clearly a corruption of “don’t bury me at all.” However, figuring out which came first, and who’s appropriating from who, is just about impossible in these things. Those 19th/20th century folk and blues songs are just about the perfect example of a pure hybrid, as African rhythms mixed with European melodies. Since Pete Seeger died the other day, it seems like as good as time as any to mention that in 2000 I interviewed him over the phone on a radio show (my co-host, who’d been active in the folk world for ages, had his home phone number), and he said something about how the upside of our country’s abominable racial history is that it gave us this hybrid music: “Sometimes the call it rock, sometimes they call it folk, or gospel, or blues, or jazz….”

Anyway…anyone else know this one?

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4 Comments

  1. Hannah Taylor

    Wonderful your writing.I love you very much Jesus song.That is a most popular song.Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber's counter cultural Christ musical demonstrates its age yet at the same time procures its Hosannas in this amped-up organizing, which comes to Broadway by means of Canada's Stratford Shakespeare Festival and La Jolla Playhouse. Good Day!!
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    http://livinghappyonline.com

    Reply
  2. Josh K-sky

    We did this (suburban Philly, early 1980s) as:

    President, superstar
    I got away with a stolen car
    Cops are here, I don't care
    I got bulletproof underwear
    When I die, bury me
    Hang my balls from a cherry tree
    When they're ripe, take a bite
    But don't be surprised if you die that night!

    Reply
  3. huma

    In the UK in Manchester 1970’s we sang

    Georgie Best, superstar
    He walks like a woman and he wears a bra
    He looks so big , he wears a wig
    And thats why we call him a dirty pig.

    Offensive to the great Irish footballer who played for Manchester United at that time!! The song was probably from the terraces of the rival Manchester City supporters.

    Reply
  4. Christina Bishop

    Vincent Price Horror-star

    Women being torn in dread

    Just like fresh pieces of bread

    This is going

    Way too far

    For Vincent Price Horror Star!

    Reply

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