Sunday, April 10, 2016

The Jitney In Song, 1915-2011

Continuing the jitney-related theme of last month’s posts, let’s explore the history of jitneys in song.

"He packed them on the fenders/ And he packed 'em on the hood;" Sheet music for Mister Whitney's Little Jitney Bus.

Jitneys,” named after the slang term for a nickel, got their start in late 1914 in Los Angeles, where down-on-their-luck auto owners first got the idea of driving along street car routes, giving rides for the same 5-cent price as the streetcar. The idea caught on quickly due to a rise in unemployment that came with the beginning of World War One. The “jitney craze” was matched by a slew of songs giving voice to the excitement, romance, and frustration of the early jitneys.

Many of the early jitney songs share a common narrative. In the first verse, everyone is complaining about the poor economy:

O'Grady phoned to me
In great perplexity
That the times are getting harder ev’ry day
And said with moans and sighs
That he must economize,
Cut out the booze and throw his pipe away;

Mister Hiram Whitney he was feeling very sad,
His business was so bad,
He lost near all he had.

The song’s protagonist starts driving a jitney, and economic success, mixed with occasional hilarity (and lots of nickel/pickle rhymes), quickly follows:

He used to save the coupons that cigar stores give away,
And that was all that he had left upon the fatal day.
He gathered all the coupons and he tied them with a cord,
He took them down, and turned them in and got himself a “Ford.”
(Mister Whitney’s Little Jitney Bus, 1915)

Father is driving a Jitney bus from the station to the park,
And soon I know he'll be a millionaire,
The stove in the kitchen has been ignored,
Dear mother is renting a "Can't Af-Ford"
For a half a dime she'll take you anywhere;
(Father Is Driving A Jitney Bus, 1915)

The fuel he used was very queer,
He ran the car on “Ehret’s” beer;
His engine was in perfect tune,
The car would stop at each saloon.
(Mister Whitney’s Little Jitney Bus, 1915)

Plenty of songs told of the joys of riding in a jitney bus. For many people this was their first experience riding in an automobile, which had previously been a privilege known only by the rich:

Take me out in a jitney bus and pose as a millionaire,
I know a man with a Ford machine who will take us anywhere;
We can see the sights of the city, and have loving here and there,
You don’t need to feel blue, for a nickel will do
When you’re out in a jitney affair.

One of the best known early jitney songs, “Gasoline Gus And His Jitney Bus,” paints a more questionable view of the jitney. Gasoline Gus (named after a taxi-driving comic strip character of the day) buys an extremely cheap jitney bus for a dollar and 20 cents (most jitney drivers did buy used cars, but these started at around $300 at the time). Not only does he fuel his car with gasoline and gin (and hilarity ensues), he packs as many customers into the vehicle as possible:

He packed them on the fenders
And he packed ‘em on the hood;
He packed ‘em by the dozen
And the other dozen stood.
From out the heap there came a cry,
Please take that suitcase outta my eye!”

Prudes of the day worried that jitneys promoted immoral behavior, so it is perhaps fitting that, in the song, Gasoline Gus ends up in Hell, where he elopes with the Devil’s wife.

The devil frowned; said, "Take him out
And let him ride my imps about."
In fifteen minutes, big as life,
He was making love to the devil's wife.
Oh, Gus, Gus, Gasoline Gus,
Gasoline Gus and his jitney bus.
(Gasoline Gus And His Jitney Bus, 1915)

With the low fare of only a nickel, and intense competition from unlimited numbers of other jitneys, many jitney drivers ran their vehicles into the ground pretty quickly. Some songs joked about the likelihood of breakdowns while riding:

Come along with us, we’ll hop a jitney bus
And then we’ll ride all over town
Just get aboard, any old Ford,
Find one that never breaks down! (It can’t be done!)
Hear the driver calling us, he’ll soon be hauling us
Upon a nickel spree,
So for that car let’s start,
Before it falls apart,
Come on and hop a Jitney with me!

The idea that you could hop into “any old Ford” for a 5-cent ride didn’t necessarily sit well with everybody. A parody of the famous anti-war song “I Didn’t Raise My Boy To Be A Soldier” tells the story of a man driving his private car who is repeatedly accosted by would-be passengers; he responds:

You’d better take the streetcar right away, sir,
You’re the meanest man I’ve ever seen;
You’re in an awful pickle,
Take back your goll darned nickel,
I didn’t raise my Ford to be a jitney!

There were perhaps dozens of songs written about jitneys in 1915—after 1915, not so many. Like the jitney craze itself, the jitney song craze came and went in the blink of an eye. Jitneys, of course, did not die out everywhere, and continued to make occasional appearances in song, such as in Cole Porter’s 1934 “Anything Goes,” lamenting the Depression:

When folks who still can ride in jitneys
Find out Vanderbilts and Whitneys
Lack baby clo'es,
Anything goes.
(Anything Goes, 1934)

A hardworking jitney driver is the protagonist in “The Jitney Man,” recorded by Earl Hines and his orchestra in 1941:

You don't even have to call,
Look like you're going somewhere,
And I'll be there with the door wide open,
Waiting to take your fare.

I'm the jitney man,
Take you and bring you, my friend;
I'm always up and down the street;
A jitney driver's got to eat;
I'm the jitney man!
(The Jitney Man, 1941)

But outside the dwindling number of cities in which jitneys still plied for hire, the jitney bus was being forgotten. By the time the teenage newlyweds in Chuck Berry’s 1964 “You Never Can Tell,” buy “a souped-up jitney, a cherry red '53,” the word “jitney” just means an old car.

But the jitney hasn’t disappeared from song entirely. Let’s end with a 2011 song by Nina Katchadourian, about a California girl who moves to New York City. She has heard all about this exotic "jitney" they have there, and is excited to ride it... only to discover that, to her disappointment:

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