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Explaining complicated subject matter simply since 1986

In The Guardian, Issy Sampson described rap music as society’s lurch toward infantilism. His? Her? (but certainly not Their) many examples included language that disgusts most people. The British daily published every bit of it unbowdlerized, as is their policy. Thomas Bowdler wrote “The Family Shakspeare” (sic) two hundred years ago. He took it upon himself to produce a sanitized collection of Shakespeare’s works delicate enough for the ears of sensitive women and children. He began by removing everything he deemed vulgar, offensive, distasteful, objectionable, unsuitable, improper, or indelicate. A good start but not good enough for our Thomas, so he added whatever he liked and made sweeping changes everywhere he saw fit.


Today, to “bowdlerize” is to modify existing works by removing, adding, and changing original words and meanings. It is never meant as a compliment

Most U.S. media use euphemisms or scientific names for sex acts and some body parts. The first swear words I ever saw in print were the Herald Tribune Sunday Comics (in color!) spread open on the living room floor to the page where some knucklehead had just hit his thumb with a hammer and shouted, “?#@*&%!”

Muleskinner Blues

My first awareness of actual bowdlerizing came when I saw Dolly Parton sing “Muleskinner Blues” on Porter Waggoner’s television show. Alone on the stage, Dolly sang the opening lines, an exchange between the overseer and the mule handler:

“Good Morning, Captain.”

“Good morning to you sir.”

This came as a surprise, because I knew the lyrics to the original version as recorded in 1930 by Jimmie Rodgers, the Singing Brakeman:

“Good Morning, Captain.”

“Good morning, shine.”

It might have been Dolly, Porter, or a network executive, but someone had made the deliberate decision to bowdlerize Jimmie’s original lyric, changing shine to sir to eliminate a word that had come to be considered a racial slur. That censoring of half a century ago seems tame today, when at the core of so much urban rhyming music is the noxious language commonly used to describe body parts and sex acts. For the freedom to openly use what are considered by many to be offensive and vulgar words, present-day gutter rapping troubadours are obliged to Lenny Bruce’s standup routines and George Carlin’s “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television.”

One Saturday midmorning a third floor dorm resident wrestled two huge speakers up onto his window ledge and cranked up his stereo. A block away, I spun around toward the loudest amplified noise I had ever heard. All of us on the small campus instantly recognized the pop and hiss of a metal needle dropping into a vinyl groove. Then we all heard a recorded man shout to a recorded crowd, “Gimme an F!” One hundred thousand drunk, stoned, and tripping hippies, peaceniks, and music lovers shouted “F!” 

In Southern Baptist call-and-response style, the preacher shouted “Gimme a U!” and his flock shouted back, louder still, “U!”

Country Joe McDonald had no known musical style unless you call psychedelic folk country jug band blues acid rock protest a style. Joe was angry about America’s participation in the Vietnam war.  The live concert recording had been made at Woodstock in 1969. Country Joe’s song, “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag,” was an anti-war anthem.

“Gimme a C!” “C!” they roared. 

The song became known as the “FISH” Cheer because the bowdlerized version made for mass market distribution spelled out F-I-S-H. “Gimme a K!” He shouted. “K!” they screamed.

“What’s that spell?” Joe asked a hundred thousand delirious fans. Click here to watch the unbowdlerized YouTube intro and song.

That very same small Baptist college owned and operated a non-commercial FM radio station

A week after the midmorning FISH cheer incident, the Dean of Men had summoned to his office one of the disc jockeys. The DJ sat where the Dean pointed. Still without a word, the Dean leaned forward and pressed the play button. It was a recording of a public service announcement followed by a live station identification. Both are FCC requirements. “WRVG is the Radio Voice of Georgetown College,” said the recorded voice of the DJ. “Located in the heart of the Bluegrass, Georgetown is a small Christian college for small Christians.”

After a mild rebuke for making light fun of small Christians, it was agreed I would behave better as a radio DJ. I did not promise to behave better in my other on-campus jobs as photographer, bus driver, dorm counselor, and Dean’s Assistant, nor in my off-campus work as a motel desk clerk out on the highway, a seasonal tobacco field hand, and the janitor who swept out the Ford dealership every Saturday morning.

If you’ve seen Casablanca, you’ve heard Dooley Wilson sing “That’s Why They Call Me Shine

I say either use the original language you find printed by respected publishers or omit it, but don’t bowdlerize it.


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