Garry and I were watching “Oklahoma,” the 1955 musical Saturday night. I grew up with this album playing and it’s embedded in my psyche. I think my mother wore out the grooves on one LP and bought another to replace it. I know every word to every song in the movie.
When the movie ended, I commented to Garry that it was a song from this movie — “Give me all or give me nothin'” — from which I discovered the meaning of the expression “spittin’ image.” I heard it and I remember asking: “Mom, what’s a spittin’ image?”
Then I remembered another word I learned from a song. It was a verse from the 1920s “Barney Google” song where they talked about a dog who could stand on his hind legs if you held his forelegs up.” I was probably in first grade or maybe kindergarten and that didn’t make any sense. So I asked Mom how a dog could stand at all if you held all four legs up? My mother had to explain that it wasn’t the number four, but the word “fore” — as in forward. If you held his front legs up, he could stand on is hind legs.
I hadn’t yet learned to read, so until I could look it up, I just had to take her word for it. I must have been a real pain asking endless questions. All this made me remember how, a couple of years ago, I did a teeny bit of research to see if by any chance, Google got its name from “Barney Google.” It rang a bell because I remembered back when Google began, its motto showed two googly eyes in the double “O” of its name.
That seemed too coincidental to be a coincidence.
My mother sang the Barney Google song a lot. It has a lot of verses and I think she knew all of them. It may have been the only song she sang for which she used the right words. Ask any member of my family and they will tell you — my mother never ever remembered the words to any song.
Except Barney Google.
She would sing words from other songs to whatever melody was bouncing around in her head, but she knew all the words to this one. It’s such an earworm, once you listen to it, it just sort of sits in your head and spins around and around and around.
To complete your earworm of the day, here’s that song again, but this time, you get to hear it and see the cartoon pictures! Also, you can hear a bunch more verses.
(Barney’s horse was named “Spark Plug.” You can’t quite hear it clearly on these two sound tracks.)
Google’s explanation of how they got their name (obscure, to say the least) versus the probability that that they took the name from what was, for many years, America’s favorite comic strip? What do you think? I’m betting on Barney Google with the goo-goo-googly eyes!
And now, for the cartoon heads in my vast audience, a brief explanation of this type of cartoon and what it meant in America in the 1920s and beyond.
I’ve often talked about my fascination with history because everything and everyone are part of history. We each have a personal history, a family history. Our histories fit into wider and longer histories. Your town, your nation, your religion.
History isn’t a “subject.” History is the story of what happened, sometimes told accurately, but more often is a little truth wound up in a lot of lies. Anything and everything has history. You, me, and even Google. History is what makes time travel fascinating. It’s not the science but that time travel puts you into another time so you can experience “then” as if it were “now.”
This is history. It’s not American, world, or medieval history. It’s just a wee bit of history about a big corporation that started not all that long ago and grew from do-good company to seeing how much money it can extract from everyone in the world.
There’s history here. I think this history begins with a big-footed cartoon character called “Barney Google.”