Beer, Guns, and Rusty Chevrolets: The Comedy Music of the Upper Midwest
Comedy music already occupies its own little segregated neighborhood — elitists might say a ghetto — within the larger music community. And within that isolated precinct, largely overlooked by historians and critics, there is yet more specialization. Some comedy acts stick to one style of music, like country (Homer & Jethro) or hip-hop (M.C. Chris). Others prefer to focus their music on certain topics, like movies, TV shows, and video games. The easy dissemination of MP3s and videos over the internet has led to even greater specificity within the field: sub-genres within sub-genres. If songwriters want to compose odes to just one video game, like Fallout 4, sites like YouTube help them reach an audience. There is practically no such thing as “too niche” anymore.
And then there is a strain of musical madness particular to the Upper Midwest, that oft-beautiful, oft-bleak part of America known for its harsh winters, artery-clogging cuisine (lots of cheese and sausage), and fierce devotion to certain professional and collegiate sporting teams. States like Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, and Michigan have bred their own special form of novelty songs played by rowdy, proudly undignified bands like Da Yoopers, Bananas at Large, and the Happy Schnapps Combo. Taken in total, these acts and others like them represent a musical movement every bit as cohesive as those from Liverpool or Seattle.
Like the British Invasion or grunge, the comedy music of the Upper Midwest — a genre so underreported it does not even have a name — is defined by certain persistent themes and motifs. Lyrically, these crudely humorous songs tend to address a few popular topics: hunting, fishing, the consumption of beer and other alcohol, and snow. Vocally, these tunes tend to be talk-sung with heavy Scandinavian, Norwegian, and Polish accents. And musically, these compositions tend to be (with a few exceptions) very basic, often hewing to a no-frills march or polka beat. Luke Sienkowski, a parody artist who performs as the Great Luke Ski, simply refers to it as “North Woods humor.”
Origins of the Movement
Now distinctly out of favor in these sensitive times, ethnic comedy has deep roots in the history of American entertainment. In the middle decades of the previous century, numerous comics found public favor by spoofing the accents and customs of Scandinavians and Eastern Europeans in their acts. A half-German, half-Irish vaudeville comedian named Elmer “El” Brendel (1890-1964), for instance, became a fixture in low budget movies of the 1930s and 1940s with his exaggerated Swedish immigrant character. El kept popping up in TV guest roles well into the 1960s. Brendel’s career is directly traceable to the tradition of Scandinavian dialect humor that began with the ethnic poetry of William F. Kirk.
One pivotal figure in the Kirk tradition is Harry Stewart (1908-1956), a songwriter and comedian who found fame with his Yogi Yorgesson character, a silly, cartoonish version of a Swede. Unlike Brendel, Stewart was genuinely of Scandinavian descent. What makes Stewart special is that he recorded a number of popular novelty songs as Yogi Yorgesson: “I Yust Go Nuts at Christmas,” “Yingle Bells,” and “Who Hid The Halibut on the Poop Deck?” While Stewart was actually from the West Coast (born in Tacoma, WA), his heavily-accented songs presage the Midwestern comedy music of later decades, much as the Yiddish song parodies of Mickey Katz (“Duvid Crockett”) presage the later, more accessible recordings of Allan Sherman and “Weird Al” Yankovic. It would take another generation of musical madmen, however, to take Yogi Yorgesson’s material in a decidedly ruder direction.
One person uniquely qualified to talk about this subject is Barret Hansen, aka Dr. Demento, whose syndicated radio show brought “mad music and crazy comedy” to radio listeners for decades. His program now lives on via the internet at DrDemento.com. Contacted through Facebook, the good doctor — a formidable musical scholar in his own right — was happy to share his thoughts on the topic. “Being from Minneapolis myself,” he enthuses, “I’m definitely aware of this!” Not even Dr. Demento, it turns out, has a convenient label for this type of music, though. “I just tend to think of it as Northern humor,” he writes. “One could say Northern Soul but that name has been taken!” Hansen, too, sees Yogi Yorgesson as a possible but very distant forefather of the genre.
“Yogi Yorgesson was from Seattle but his records sold well in the Upper Midwest, and you could easily discern his influence, but there was a 20+-year break between his death in 1956 and the rise of Da Yoopers in the late 1970s, and not much of a direct connection.”
And that brings us to the definitive name in comedy music of the Upper Midwest.
The Beatles of Ishpeming, Michigan
Every musical movement needs its “Smells Like Teen Spirit” or “Anarchy in the U.K.,” the song which sets off a chain reaction of imitators and wannabes. When it comes to comedy music of the Upper Midwest, that song is “The Second Week of Deer Camp,” a 1987 track by a group called Da Yoopers from the small city of Ishpeming (population: 6,532) in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. A loosely-affiliated comedy collective with six current members and at least 16 past members, Da Yoopers (the name is a regional slang term for residents of the U.P.) have been around since 1975 but didn’t actually start making albums until 1986, when they released their debut disc, Yoopanese. It was “Deer Camp” from their sophomore LP, however, that established them as a true comedic force. Even Dr. Demento recognizes the song’s impact: “To me this genre began with Da Yoopers, whose ‘Second Week of Deer Camp’ was a hit all across the northern tier of states.” Despite its title, the song has little to do with deer hunting, though one unfortunate buck gets run over during the third verse. It’s more about a group of men who use hunting as an excuse for some much-appreciated R&R and male bonding: “We drink, play cards, and shoot the bull but never shoot no deer,” goes the jolly, sing-along chorus. “The only time we leave the camp is when we go for beer. Oh, the second week of deer camp is the greatest time of year.”
To date, Da Yoopers have released a baker’s dozen albums through their own You Guys Records label, including discs with such tell-tale titles as One Can Short of a Six-Pack and Songs for Fart Lovers. In addition, Da Yoopers own and operate a small gift shop and museum in Ishpeming called Da Yoopers Tourist Trap. According to an interesting official bio of the band, Da Yoopers’ “music and comedy is both a reflection and a celebration of the culture found in… the Upper Peninsula of Michigan — as well as exaggerating some of the stereotypes that are attributed to the residents of the U.P.” So some cultural satire is indeed intended here. As for the reach of their songs, the Michigan musicians say that they have “managed to strike a chord with people outside the Midwest with radio stations all over the world regularly playing their music.” Apart from “Deer Camp,” the group’s most enduring and endearing track is probably “Rusty Chevrolet,” a parody of “Jingle Bells” with new lyrics about the pains and pleasures of driving an ancient, unreliable vehicle in inhospitable weather. A sample: “Rust and smoke! The heater’s broke! The door just flew away! I light a match to see the dash, and then I start to pray!”
Beyond Da Yoopers
While the fellows from Ishpeming certainly provided the template for the genre, they are far from the only name in the game when it comes to “North Woods” rock. The clearest descendants of Da Yoopers are Wisconsin’s Bananas at Large, best known for their own musical hunting epic, “Da Turdy Point Buck.” The five-minute song is sort of like a comedic version of Moby Dick, only with an elusive deer instead of an elusive whale and an inept, beer-addled, semi-incoherent Wisconsin hunter instead of Captain Ahab. So informal is the recording that, before he even gets to the first verse, the lead vocalist goes off on a rambling tangent about Wisconsin football: “You know, the Packers are, uh… Gosh, I like the Packers. I’d do anything for the Packers. Who can forget Vince Lombardi, you know? Back in the glory years? Not me, boy.” The song has a great deal in common with “The Second Week of Deer Camp,” musically and thematically. Both compositions are about guys who seem to do very little actual hunting on their hunting trips. For them, it’s about drinking, swapping stories, and escaping from their humdrum lives for a few days. The group’s sprightly “Spring Fishin’ Blues” continues that theme.
Possibly the most musically adroit outfit in this strange sub-genre is Manitowoc, Wisconsin’s very own Happy Schnapps Combo, a super-charged polka band originally formed in 1988 by Jim “Bruiser” Krueger, a musician and songwriter whose best-known composition, “We Just Disagree,” was recorded by Dave Mason. Though Krueger died in 1992, the Combo carried on his mission of making party-hearty music with humorous lyrics celebrating some classic themes: drinking and football. One pungent example of the latter is “Da Bears Still Suck.” Like any good Wisconsinites, the members of the Happy Schnapps Combo are rabid Packers fans with a lifelong grudge against the Chicago Bears. But it was the imbibing of alcohol that inspired the Combo’s best (and best-known) tune: “No, I Don’t Wanna Do Dat.” The song’s lyrics are mostly a litany of activities that the guys in the band do not want to do: working, buying insurance, getting married, eating sushi, etc. So what do they want to do? Well, a shot would be nice. Basically, they’re up for anything involving alcohol. Just don’t make them do anything productive.
And then we come to the oddballs and outliers. Minnesota’s Hula Poppers recorded a parody of the Rawhide theme called “Walleye.” (“Trollin’, trollin’, trollin’. Lakes and streams are swollen. Fingers nearly frozen. Walleye!”) In Wisconsin, Shad-Rapp (a self-described “hunting and fishing comedy rap parody band”) brought the distinctive “North Woods” sensibility to hip-hop with tracks like “Shoot! Der It Is!” and “Big Bucks.” Dr. Demento also says that North Dakota musician Mylo Hatzenbuhler (who bills himself as “the original rock and roll farmboy”) “definitely belongs in this area as well” with his distinctively rural tunes like “A Loan Again.” Meanwhile, the doc says, Wisconsin folkies Lou and Peter Berryman “have a certain homeyness in common” with these other Midwestern comedy bands but probably do not “feel much connection with the likes of Bananas at Large,” despite their geographic proximity.
A crucial factor in defining any musical category is deciding who’s in and who’s out. Not necessarily “who’s good” and “who’s bad,” but whose music best conforms to the agreed-upon standards of a given category. The lines admittedly get blurry sometimes. One act Dr. Demento would leave out of the “North Woods” sub-genre is Krypton of Moorhead, MN, best known for the cold-weather revenge tale “Let’s Blow Up the Tow Truck,” a song born of real-life vehicular frustration to which many Midwesterners could relate. “I would not include him in this group because there’s no distinct Northern European influence in his music, and nothing about hunting or other rural activities.” And it’s true. “Tow Truck” has more of an ‘80s synth pop sound, and the situation described in the song is definitely more urban than rural. But Krypton’s Minnesota accent is nevertheless unmistakable. Just listen to those long “o” sounds in “blow” and “tow.” You’d swear you were watching Fargo.
The most surprising artist Dr. D would include in a survey of the genre? Bob and Doug McKenzie, the beer-swilling SCTV characters played by Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas. They found huge success as recording artists in the 1980s with their popular Great White North album. “Northern culture,” he writes, “does not stop at the border. Bob and Doug were invented characters, but then so was Yogi Yorgesson.”