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JEAN SHEPHERD–Head Music

 “I’VE GOT A SECRET” HEAD-THUMP STORY

Oh how we Shep-cuckoos have sought the elusive video of Shepherd performing by thumping on his head (kopfspielen) as his secret on that early TV game show, I’ve Got a Secret, originally aired August 31, 1960.  Seated with host Gary Moore, the guest would be questioned by a celebrity panel of four until they guessed the secret or time ran out.  “The Game Show Network” occasionally replays that program but despite entreaties by hordes of anxious fans, they won’t say when it or the I’ve Got a Secret anniversary broadcast of June 21, 1961, containing just the Shepherd performance itself, would be aired.  The only way to snatch a copy would be to set one’s video recorder going day after week after month, search while running the recordings at fast speed, and some year luck out.  You see the kinds of things that make anxious fans spend fitful days and sleepless nights.  Eventually a couple of fans managed to capture a showing of the anniversary program and it’s now part of the Jean Parker Shepherd Historical Record.

1960-08-31_022_secret-2

In that visual record, in glorious and blurry black and white, Gary Moore introduces: “Here is Norman Paris and his quartet [piano, drums, guitar, and bass] featuring Jean Shepherd on head, playing ‘The Sheik of Araby.’”  Shepherd, in front of the musicians, wears a suit, white shirt with cuff links, and tie.  As the music starts, he quickly massages his short crew cut (part of the tuning process?) and then rapidly thumps his knuckles on his head, mouth opening and closing to various degrees, performing the piece.  At the end he bows his head slightly, gives one of his shy smiles, and it’s over.

1960-08-31_022_secret-3

Shepherd with knuckles and head.

Anyone who has heard Shepherd head-thump on the radio knows how it sounds.  The song is recognizable by the rhythm and the rise and fall of the “notes”—tune-appropriately—though nowhere near on pitch.  Shepherd shows off his skill by rapid embellishments to the base “melody.”  This talent is extraordinary and one must remain in awe—he can thump out at least a half-dozen notes, but on the many occasions I’ve given it a shot, I manage only two notes and a sore head.

On a radio broadcast he comments that he performed head thumping on several other programs and was “always well-received critically.”  He muses:

The only problem is, they typecast me.  They never ask Zsa Zsa Gabor to thump her head.  And I can be funnier than Zsa Zsa, although I’m consciously so.  She’s unconscious, but that’s something else.  And so I’ve given it up….What if the word had gotten out that Ernest Hemingway, for example, used to make music by cracking his knuckles?  What if Hemingway sat around and played “Columbia the Gem of the Ocean” crackin’ his knuckles, and he was invited on Bookbeat to do that?…No one would take his writing seriously.  No way.  No way.  And if tomorrow morning, say, Norman Mailer suddenly announces that he is a fantastic, secret, closet tap dancer.  And the next thing you know he’s out there tap dancing on the “Sonny and Cher Show.” (April 12, 1976)

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KAZOO

KAZOO

Another bizarre instrument in Shepherd’s bag of musical tricks is the kazoo. Sometimes he plays it straight, sometimes he does a jazz rendition, and sometimes he does the equivalent of “scat.” The extraordinary Italian composer/performer, Paolo Conte, in about 1988 performed with his group, his “Lo Zio” (“Uncle”) , on the piano, singing, and playing the kazoo (and for some moments, playing two kazoos at once!) See YouTube for his “Lo Zio,” plus his “Come With Me,” and “Sotto le Stelle del Jazz.”

P.Conte LoZio kazoo

Shepherd: “I think the kazoo is a kind of amalgam of all of us,” adding:

You know there’s something very irritatingly, maddeningly true about the kazoo.  I think the kazoo in a very real way, Don—I think it takes the human voice, it takes music, it takes it all and puts it together in one almost unbelievably, realistically, irritating package.” (June 1964)

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NOSE FLUTE

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The nose flute is played by placing the instrument (frequently seen as a small brightly colored plastic piece) flat against the nose and mouth. One exhales through the nose, adjusting the tone by changing the volume of one’s mouth cavity. Preferably one plays when one does not have a drippy nose. (I can get about three distinct notes, Shepherd gets a lot more than that.)

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JEW’S HARP

jaw_harp

Shepherd played the jew’s harp from time to time, and claimed that Lincoln was an expert and played it frequently. According to Weldon Petz, one of America’s leading Lincoln scholars, “Lincoln played the jews’ harp at the debates with incumbent Democratic U.S. Senator Stephen Douglas during the 1858 Illinois state election campaign.”

lincoln.jews harp young mr. lincoln

Henry Fonda as “Young Mr. Lincoln”

(1939 film) playing the jew’s harp.

Shepherd claimed that he made his first entertainment money at age 15 playing jew’s harp for the Colorado Cowhands group. Describing a letter he’d gotten accusing him of pandering when playing his strange instruments and that it wasn’t the “real” him, he responded:

Baby–this is the real me in spades!

Recently I discovered on a blog (see below) Leonard Cohen in Ghent (August 12, 2012.) playing the jew’s harp for about 10 seconds! WOW! http://onboogiestreet.blogspot.com/2012/08/magical-moment-leonard-cohen-playing.html.

jews harp l. cohen

Leonard Cohen in concert with jew’s harp 

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3 Comments

  1. Tom says:

    Wow, does this bring back memories! My grade school buddies and I drove our teachers nuts with our kazoos, nose flutes, and jew’s harps. And when those disruptive instruments were confiscated, we turned to head thumping instead. I still have my collection of jew’s harps in various keys and have picked up a few tricks over the years to improve the sound. For the handful of people who might require this information for their vast stores of useless trivia, here we go: First there’s plucking the instrument toward your mouth, not away, which allows you to play faster with a shorter interval between notes. Breathing heavily through your mouth while you play also helps to amplify the sound. This is especially helpful for larger harps with deep but dull bass tones. Smaller models tend to produce a louder sound (with more twang) on their own. Strum on, fellow harpists!

  2. mygingerpig says:

    Nice review, Gene.
    Joel

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