March 5, 2016

Everyone’s Favorite Bullsh*t Song About Japan!

YorkSpace Library
Four of six members of the Au Brothers Jazz Band are of at least half Japanese descent. Yet—and this may wrinkle a few brows—one of their favorite songs to perform is Harry Warren and Mort Dixon’s 1928 hit “Nagasaki,” or, as I like to call it, everyone’s favorite bullshit song about Japan! (Plug: I should mention that the Au Brothers recorded the song on their forthcoming album—more info here.)

For those of you not yet wrinkling your brows: Surprise!—“Nagasaki” contains some lyrics that are frankly cringe-inducingly offensive. Forget politically incorrect: these are OMFG incorrect.

With sweet kimoner, I pulled a boner, I kept it up at high speed.
I got rheumatics, and then sciatics,
halitosis, that’s guaranteed.
Not too gentle and not too rough,
but you’ve got to tell them when you’ve had enough

So how can anyone perform this song in good conscience, in this day and age? More to the point: how can a band with so many Japanese Americans not only perform, but SING this song, and repeatedly, with gusto and glee?

The answer, as with so many real-life things, is: it’s complicated.

The Melody

“Nagasaki,” even when performed instrumentally, is an audience favorite at trad jazz festivals. The melody, by the profilic composer Harry Warren, is undeniably strong: It is rhythmic. It is zany. And it is catchy as hell, embodying what Time Magazine called “Warren’s effervescent syncopation dragging folks on to the dance floor.”1 It is not sheer chance that this song was beloved by some of our greatest musicians:

Arguably, “Nagasaki” could exist as an instrumental composition on the strength of its music alone. Now what of Mort Dixon’s contribution?

The Lyrics

First, some context, again from Michael Lasser1:

Here is the Au Brothers’ version of that lyric, which you can hear on their forthcoming album:
Fellows, if you’re on, I will spin a yarn
that was told to me by able seaman Jones.
Once he had the blues, so he took a cruise
far away from night clubs and from saxophones.
He said, “Yo-ho, I’ve made a certain port,
and when you talk about real he-man sport—

Hot ginger and dynamite, there’s nothing but that at night,
back in Nagasaki where the fellas chew tobacky and the women wicky-wacky-woo!
They way they can entertain, would hurry a hurricane,
back in Nagasaki where the fellas chew tobacky and the women wicky-wacky-woo!
In Fujiyama, you get a mama, then your troubles increase.
In some pagoda, she orders soda, the earth shakes, milk-shakes, ten cents a piece.
They kiss you and hug you nice; by jingo it’s worth the price,
back in Nagasaki where the fellas chew tobacky and the women wicky-wacky-woo!

Now when the day is warm, you can keep in form
With a bowl of rice beneath a parasol.
Every gentleman, has to use a fan,
And they only use suspenders in the fall.
That’s where the girls don’t think of rings and furs.
Gosh, it’s the nicest place that ever were.

They dress you up to the shins, so you can hide your sins,
back in Nagasaki where the fellas chew tobacky and the women wicky-wacky-woo!
They sit you upon the floor; no wonder your pants get sore,
back in Nagasaki where the fellas chew tobacky and the women wicky-wacky-woo!
Those pretty mamas, in pink pajamas, they try to give you a kiss.
Those torrid teases, in—heaven help a sailor on a night like this!
You just have to act your age, or wind up inside a cage,
back in Nagasaki where the fellas chew tobacky and the women wicky-wacky-woo!

With an ice-cream cone and a bottle of tea,
You can rest all day by the hickory tree,
But when night comes round oh gosh oh gee,
Mother, mother, mother, pin a rose on me.
The first chorus here is just as you would hear it on historical recordings, with one adjustment: “They kiss you and hug you nice” instead of the original published “They huggee and kissee nice.”

The second chorus here, however, is a conglomeration of the least offensive parts of several subsequent choruses (as best as I can tell—the full lyrics are extremely difficult to track down). Among the lyrics the Au Brothers skip over, in addition to the horrifying ones at the beginning of this post, are:
They never hop-step, they never cross-step, when they be shakin those hips.
The way they kickee, and wacky-wicky, would milk some hot [unintelligible] off of your lips.
They make you come out so fast, your future becomes your past,
back in Nagasaki where the fellas chew tobacky and the women wicky-wacky-woo!
What are we to make of all this? Well, first, let’s look at our inventory of things mentioned here, and categorize them by their predominant association:
seaman ⚓️
the blues 🎡
a cruise 🚒
saxophones 🎷
dynamite πŸ’£
chewing tobacco
ten cents ¢
rings and furs πŸ’
pants πŸ‘–
pink pajamas
a sailor ⚓️
an ice-cream cone 🍦
a bottle of tea

night clubs
a port
chewing tobacco 🚬
a mama
a parasol πŸŒ‚
a gentleman
a fan
the floor
a cage
a hickory tree
a rose 🌹

Mt. Fuji πŸ—»
a pagoda
a bowl of rice 🍚
a bottle of tea 🍡

So this song is about, more than anything, good ‘ol Western soda and milkshakes and suspenders and underpants. Of the 5 of 35 ‘Asian’ items here, how many are uniquely Japanese—that is, not originating in and also found in China, for example?
Mt. Fuji is the single thing mentioned in “Nagasaki” that is purely Japanese. There’s a problem, however: Mt. Fuji lies between Shizuoka and Yamanashi Prefectures on Honshu Island. Nagasaki is on the island of Kyushu, over 500 miles away. So if you “get a mama” anywhere NEAR Fuji-Yama, you’re definitely NOT “back in Nagasaki.”
That is to say: there is nothing in this song truly about Nagasaki. There is hardly anything in this song actually about Japan. Most of this song isn’t even about Asia. This song is some bullshit.

Morever, Nagasaki (-sockee) doesn’t even rhyme with tobacky and wacky.

The Song

Perhaps Harry Warren himself said it best1

“Nagasaki” isn’t about Nagasaki. It’s about the crazy orientalist fantasies of a 1920s American. The music happens to be terrific, and the lyrics happen to be mildly-to-extremely slanderous against the Japanese people.

When the Au Brothers perform (their mostly cleaned-up version of) this song, we take the time to point this out. With this understanding aired, shared between performers and audience, I believe it’s OK to perform it. Would we ever sing the extra, most offensive lyrics? Probably not.

We have drawn the line here, according to our own taste and judgement. Are there other politically incorrect songs about which we would feel differently? Absolutely. I’d sooner be caught dead than caught singing this song, from 1896:
New York Public Library

What about “Limehouse Blues” with its tales of “yellow chinkies”? The Au Brothers do perform this, and even recorded it, but we have never included the lyrics. “My Little Bimbo Down on the Bamboo Isle”? We do perform this one, and sing it as well, but always with explanatory notes and disclaimers.

Looking outside of jazz now: what about the entire oeuvre of Wagner, who was extolled by the Nazis, and probably a racist and anti-semite? Should his works, including those with racially stereotyped characters, be performed?

In general: when you discover that an artist you admire is, on a personal level, less than an upstanding person, how does this, and how should this, influence your evaluation of their art? Are you zero-tolerance, such as my friend who swore off listening to Keith Jarrett ever again, after a video surfaced of the jazz pianist cursing out an audience member? Or do you draw a dotted line: after his public drunken anti-semitic tirades, we can continue watching old Mel Gibson movies, but not make any new ones?

Hypothetically now, what if the most beautiful mural of all time, an inarguable masterpiece, were to be painted using the blood of innocent victims? Could we allow ourselves to appreciate it, or even to judge the art itself? How should we feel about ART BY ASSHOLES, such as Hitler’s famously-unpeopled landscape art?

I think one crucial factor here, and perhaps the one that excuses “Nagasaki,” is INTENT, ever inseparable from art. “Nagasaki”—at least the Au Brothers’ version of it—feels wacky and crazy. Once we make sure the audience is in on the joke, the utter bullshit of it, then you could argue that its defamatory elements are mostly harmless. Did Mort Dixon have any clue about what the Japanese people, Nagasaki, Japan, even Asia, were like?—No. So did he make shit up, at the expense of the Japanese people?—Yes. But was he a raging dickhead racist?—Probably not. You get the impression that his fever dreams could just as well be set in China, or Egypt, or the tropics, or on Venus. “Nagasaki” is titillation and exotic fetish, surely; but I doubt it is unforgiveable sin.

So can a band with Japanese American musicians take up this song and share it with modern audiences, showing them how ridiculous it is, how fun it is, how offensive it is, how strange and unfortunate a marriage of great music and harebrained lyrics it is, a weird amalgam gemstone of quartz and shit, crystallized in time in 1928?

I think we can.

I will likely add more thoughts to this, as comments or subsequent posts. In the meantime, please look forward to hearing the Au Brothers Jazz Band’s forthcoming album Birds of a Feather, featuring their rendition of NAGASAKI…everyone’s favorite bullshit song about Japan.

1. America’s Songs II: Songs from the 1890s to the Post-War Years by Michael Lasser


  1. I don't enjoy performing the songs mentioned. I applaud the Au Brothers for such a mature approach. I've always considered these songs as part of an almost Jim Crow mentality. These songs are easily avoidable in the book.

  2. I really wish more people would take the attitude of the Au Brothers, and examine the intent of the lyrics, and amend them (or delete them) if necessary but still celebrate the beauty of the music by playing it. Thank you!

  3. Thank you for taking the time to analyze the awesomeness and weirdness of Nagasaki, one of my favorite tunes as well. I would add that the song has elements of the faux-Hawaiian. There was a "hawaiian" hit song from the 1910s called "Oh How She Could Yacki Hacki Wicki Wacki Woo" and then Wicky-Wacky Woo became kind of a catch phrase. And "By Jingo its worth the price" refers to the song "Oh By Jingo" which was another 1910s hit about some kind of vague hawaiian-ish people. So Mort Dixon was just making some more silly rhymes with pseudo-hawaiian cliches that already were out there, and he probably just realized that Nagasaki rhymed with "Wicki Wacki" and voila, a song lyric was born. Sure its part of a racist trend of making fun of all hawaiian-japanese-island people and lumping them together, but on the other hand, it just comes off as silly nonsense from a more racist time, and there is so much worse stuff out there from that time (and from what we hear today!), i would say it comes off as pretty benign to a well-educated listener who does not want to hear racist things.

  4. Would be interested in your thoughts on "Mississippi Mud". I "discovered" this song this year, learned it, even wrote an arrangement. Was "shocked" to realize it was Tram and Bing singing it. Certain words get changed, thankfully. On YouTube I found vids of an elementary school singing it (they incorporate action stuff like foot stamping) and, maybe the hottest, Sesame St did it! Cheers!

    1. Thanks for your comment, and good question. The original lyrics, which pretty plainly compare African American (and likely enslaved) people to animals, are totally unacceptable. One could also argue that the whole conceit of the song, with happy oblivious workers dancing in the mud amusingly, perpetuates racist and harmful stereotypes (similar to the Southern ‘mammy’). So my personal answer is that the lyrics should not be performed, and I’m undecided about whether it’s OK instrumentally.