Stan Freberg Presents The United States Of America, Vol. 1, The Early Years, And Vol. 2, The Middle Years
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Stan Freberg Presents The United States Of America, Vol. 1, The Early Years, And Vol. 2, The Middle Years
When Stan Freberg released The United States of America in 1961, it was one of the first comedy concept albums ... and perhaps the funniest musical comedy never performed onstage. With a cast that included Jesse White and June Foray (as well as a dead-on Orson Welles impression by voice-over master Paul Frees), Freberg presented a madcap version of history that began with Christopher Columbus's insistence that "It's a Round, Round World." His crew, however, was unconvinced:
Crazy kind of scheme
It's a cockamamie dream
If we don't sight land we're gonna scream.
Later, a cautious Ben Franklin would express suspicion of the declaration Thomas Jefferson brought by for him to sign: "You go to a few harmless meetings, sign a few harmless petitions, and forget all about it.... Ten years later you get called up before a committee. No thank you! I'm not going to spend the rest of my life writing in Europe!"
For decades, fans were frustrated by the lack of sequels that would carry the story beyond the Revolutionary War. (After attempts to turn the material into a real Broadway musical were ruined by heavy-handed producer David Merrick, Freberg went on to a lucrative career in advertising.) Finally, in 1996, Freberg went into the studio with the surviving members of his original cast--as well as stars David Ogden Stiers, Sherman Hemsley, Tyne Daly, Lorenzo Music, and John Goodman--with a new batch of songs and skits that covered the period from the founding of the United States government in 1789 to the end of World War I.
Volume 2 is not quite as strong as volume 1, but that's like saying that Babe Ruth didn't hit as many home runs as Hank Aaron. There's still plenty of great material in "The Middle Years," like Francis Scott Key's first draft of his most famous composition: "Rumplemeyer's horseshoes are the best you can use, what so proudly he's nailed onto all kinds of horses." Or Ulysses S. Grant demanding a drink so he can keep on...
Pursuing the South
Over the hills
Fearless and brave, minus a shave
And crocked to the gills.
The two-CD set includes the original liner notes from the 1961 release; a 1989 CD reissue of the first volume; and the notes by Freberg, Dr. Demento, and Ray Bradbury for the sequel. It also contains a complete lyric sheet. Although some of the jokes on the first CD may be too arcane for younger listeners, The United States of America can still be called, without overstatement, a work of genius. --Ron Hogan
Top Customer Reviews
more than anything else, i think was made me appreciate history was comedy. i've always loved comedy movies and tv shoes, and sporadic jokes about significant historical events did more to make me understand them than whoever was responsible for those Valium textbooks ever could. more than that: since you had to understand the event to get the joke, they actually, albeit by default, sparked an interest in me. and i have to say, my favorite type of history is still revisionist history in comedy form.
as it happens, no, it wasn't Stan Freberg who molded me thus. i was already that way before i'd even heard of him. so i was ripe for the show when this charming burlesque's existence came to my attention.
Stan Freberg was the preeminent "novelty" recording artist of the 1950s. his spoofs of contemporary pop hits were a unique brand of auditory Looney Tunes. (which makes sense, given that he also did voice-over work at Warner Brothers.) his version of "The Banana Boat Song," for instance, features a lengthy debate as to how far away the one singer has to be so as not to hurt the other's ears when he goes "Daaaaaaay-O!" his version of "The Yellow Rose Of Texas" is sung in the character of the most rambunctiously proud Texan the world would ever see.
his biggest hit, though, was "St. George & The Dragonet," a delightful amalgam of the St. George legend and Dragnet. it was such a hit, in fact, that it's line "just the facts, ma'am" became synonymous with Jack Webb, even though he'd never actually said it. like "play it again, Sam" before and "beat me up, Scotty" after, it somehow became a pop-culture representative for a show it never actually appears in.
and sure enough, his eventual history lesson made history come alive in a way our teachers could only dream of. (so much so, in fact, that teachers across the country stunned Freberg by incorporating his album into their lessons.) Freberg presents an askew but reverential account of the birthing pangs of the good ol' U.S. of A., with no small help from a top-flight cast. his most frequent foil is Jesse White (of Harvey and/or Maytag commercial fame) as a variety of troublesome ninnies and fast-talkers. rounding out the ensemble are the likes of June Foray, Peter Leeds, Walter Tetley, Helen Kleeb, Barney Phillips, Colleen Collins, and Paul Frees.
the almost cartoony atmosphere hides some pretty biting satire. Benjamin Franklin hesitates to sign The Declaration Of Independence, for instance, in an obvious reflection of the previous decade's "red scare." the Pilgrims who invite an Indian to lunch don't even try to deny that this is pure tokenism and intended as a publicity stunt.
there's also some pretty sly inside-jokes. in "Thanksgiving Story," for instance, we learn that the eagle became our national bird only after the chef confused the eagle and the turkey. it turns out there was actually a campaign at some point to appoint the turkey to that exalted position, and that no less than Benjamin Franklin was among it's supporters.
and of course, this is no simple sketch comedy, it's a complete musical review, lively showtunes and all. this, i must confess, i have mixed feelings about. making a musical out of the whole thing strikes me as a case of lily-gilding. i've heard that Freberg tried to mount a stage show version, and maybe he should've saved the songs for that. but on the other hand, as long as we're stuck with 'em, the melodies are pleasant enough, and Freberg proves as biting a wordsmith as any Tom Lehrer or "Weird Al" Yankovic.
what makes it genuinely revolutionary, though, is that it was the very first "concept" album. several years before Pet Sounds and Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band established the album (as opposed to random collection of cuts) as an art form in it's own right, and the better part of a decade before the likes of The Who and David "Ziggy Stardust" Bowie took to telling stories with their albums, Stan Freberg was the first to cut an album with a single overriding theme. the resultant cult-classic is, at least according to several generations of Dr. Demento's listeners, the greatest comedy album of all time.
then comes the belated sequel. the first album only made it to The Battle Of Yorktown, and as it happens Freberg's liner notes outline plans for further albums in the series. alas, a series of unforeseen circumstances, most obviously his career's lateral shift into advertising, kept any follow-up from materializing until 1996. (to describe Freberg's progression from The Battle Of Yorktown to World War I as taking as long as the world itself had might seem pretty stupid, but admit it: you were thinking that, too.)
again we find a marvelous cast completely in step with Stan's vision. such old pals as June Foray and Peter Leeds return, with such newer luminaries as Tyne Daly, Harry Shearer, Sherman Helmsley, John Goodman, and Lorenzo Music rounding the ensemble out. Jesse White manages to make one appearance, but his role as recurring foil is passed to M*A*S*H's David Ogden Stiers.
while not quite as consistently inspired, Vol. 2, "The Middle Years," does manage to reclaim the old spirit and run with it. highlights include Alexander Graham Bell's tussle with the first telephone operator, songwriter Stephen Foster's struggle with writer's (composer's?) block, Abraham Lincoln's unfulfilled dreams of a career in showbiz, various inventors being indoctrinated on "planned obsolenscence," lest their everlasting inventions cripple the economy, and the announcement from the stewardess (played by Freberg's daughter, Donna) on the Wright Brothers' prototype airplane.
where it misfires is mostly in it's attempts to reflect the contemporary world. sometimes it works, such as Lincoln's insistence on keeping his beard because "it's a guy thing." clumsier efforts include Samuel F.B. Morse's "internet," a net rigged outside the window lest someone fall out.
actually, my only real beef with the album isn't the content so much as presentation. the first disc presents it skits intact, whereas the second breaks several of them up, making the songs tracks in themselves. this may not sound like much, but i'm most apt to listen to snippets of my entire cd collection on my Sansa, and the truncated skits make for a rather surreal listening experience.
this time Freberg makes it to World War I. sadly, he apparently had further material as he promised a Vol. 3, but shuffled his mortal coil before he had the chance. it's not quite as tragic as, say, The Fellowship Of The Ring and The Two Towers would be without The Return Of The King, since it's not a single collective epic story. but even so, the notion that it's not quite complete (and never will be) can cast a rather bittersweet feel if you let it.
fortunately, it's an inspired and towering work as far as it goes. this is the finest hour (or two hours as the case may be) of one of comedy's great iconoclasts.
something else just occurred to me: does this make Stan Freberg the American Blackadder?
Ever since then, I had hoped that a) Vol. 1 would someday come out on CD, and b) that he would eventually make good on his promise in the original album's liner notes to bring out a Vol. 2.
Well, both of my wishes came true. Vol. 1 is out on CD and as good if not better than I remember it. Plus, they added back in some parts that were cut so the original recording could fit on one LP. Vol. 2, on the other hand, is a *major* disappointment.
Vol. 2 simply tries too hard. It tries to tackle a huge amount of American history (from the late 1700s through the end of World War I) in 34 tracks on one CD (a virtually impossible task). It tries to satirize events during the Civil War (a hopeless task). And, its satire lacks the "let's not take ourselves too seriously" light-heartedness of Vol. 1, which is another way of saying it is trying to be Politically Correct.
It's a shame Vol. 2 wasn't written and produced soon after Vol. 1. I honestly believe Stan and Co. would have come up with another classic.
I too wish Rhino still offered Vol. 1 separately. From a marketing/business standpoint, I understand why they don't do it.
Still, if you don't have Vol. 1, it's worth the sacrifice to buy the two-volume set just to get it. Who knows? You may end up liking Vol. 2. If not, it makes a good (albeit expensive) coaster.