Sex elbowed its way into American popular culture during the early years of the twentieth century. I learned more about this while researching my novel, Into the Suffering City, which is set in 1909 Baltimore.
Romance had, of course, long been a staple of music played in the home and other venues. Songwriters a tacit agreement with moral guardians: focus on chaste courtship and keep the euphemisms and double entendres subtle. A song such as “Cuddle up a Little Closer, Lovey Mine” (1908) could tease with lyrics such as “she grew more cold, and he grew more bold” and “like to make you comfy, cozy/’cause I love from head to toesie, lovey mine.” No real harm done–-everyone assumed the cuddling couple were engaged and merely exploring the bounds of premarital affection.
Cracks were appearing in the surface of this placid conformity. Ragtime music, with its lively sound, appeared in the mid-1890s and was growing ever more popular. Young people found excitement in the music’s syncopation–displaced beats from the typical beat sequence of a song. “Syncopation caused an individual to feel a propulsion, a swing,” states the Library of Congress, “and if played correctly, a musical looseness generally unknown to the public.” Many older people found ragtime disreputable and dangerous due to its association with “low-class Black music” associated with brothels and saloons; no doubt this disdain only encouraged many others to embrace the sound.
Newspapers of the era document plenty of ragtime outrage. The Sioux City Journal of March 9, 1903, carried a story declaring the music immoral. “It’s rhythm is pernicious, it’s words abominable. If mothers want their boys to be good they must teach them to tune their whistles to ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ and spank them into abandoning … “[Just Because She Made Dem] Goo-Goo Eyes.” The St. Louis Republic on June 13, 1904, reported “the influence of ragtime music on the morals is like that of absinthe–it kills the better understanding,” and “the plague of trashy music is upon us like a fever epidemic, and its evil effects can be heard at all times and most places.”
The article was right about one thing: the audience for provocative music was expanding by leaps and bounds. New York’s songwriting capital, Tin Pan Alley, certainly noticed. In May 1909 Harry Von Tilzer and Jimmy Lucas released (actually, they stole it) “I Love, Love, Love My Wife, But Oh! You Kid!” a variation on a more innocent 1908 song. The lyrics were spiced up considerably:
Now Jonesy was a married man,
Oh yes, he was,
Sweet girlie on the single plan,
I guess, she was,
Now Jonesy stopped and spoke to girlie,
Just as old friends often do,
And he said “I’m married,
But, that but my dear means you.”
This casual acknowledgement imminent sex–-extramarital at that-–was rocket fuel for the song’s popularity. “Oh, You Kid madness” ensued with neckties, buttons, pins, figurines, and dishware. Everyone, so it seemed, was flinging the catchphrase around with a grin and a chuckle, impervious to the condemnation reigning down from clergymen and other upright citizens.
Issues cropped up when men used “oh you kid” on the street to flirt. Some recipients were indignant; the October 3, 1909 Detroit Free Press recorded one woman’s rejoinder as “you low down, cock-eyed street loafer!” The August 31,1909 Baltimore Sun says a judge fined users of uninvited “kid” comments $25.
Bigger problems took place when the catchphrase was lobbed at a woman within hearing range of a male gallant. The October 28, 1909, New York Times states that a stranger beat up a man who called out “oh you kid” to a young woman–even though the two were married. The judge hearing the case stated “he would not fine any man who administered” such a whipping. At least one fatality is attributed to such street interactions: the October 17, 1909, Baltimore Sun tells of a husband shooting a man to death in Atlanta after a “kid” remark.
The song and its related street altercations epitomized a fundamental contradiction in cities of the era. As young people flooded in to find work, there were naturally more of them out and about in public savoring freedom they never could have experienced back on the farm. This inspired a sense of adventure for most and boldness on the part of some. But an older social code that called for enforced female chastity still held sway.
The success flowing from “Oh! You Kid” opened the floodgates for racy songs, which chipped steadily away at staid social convention. Performers such as Sophie Tucker led the charge with tunes such as “That Loving Soul Kiss,” “Moanin’ Low,” and “I’m the Last of the Red Hot Mammas.” Tucker even turned the tables with a female meditation on adultery called “My Husband’s in the City.”
Thankfully, there are no known reports of street fights taking place over the lyrics of any Tucker songs.