HAPPY 4TH, MR. FREBERGby Rip Rense
(Originally published in "The Rense Retort")
On this anniversary of the birth of the United States of America, allow me to pay tribute to the greatest American history teacher I ever had -- a man who made learning such a pleasant experience that even today, I can almost recite his lessons, word for word.
Check that: actually, I can!
I do not speak of the tennis coach who taught me U.S. history for a year in high school. For a history teacher, he made a fine tennis coach. (OK, he was very good at making the class memorize dates, and I'll bet they stayed in my brain a full half-hour after every test.) Neither do I not speak of the U.S. history professor I had in college for a year. To tell you the truth, I can't remember his name or face. Or any of the many dates he made me memorize -- that also stayed in my head a full half-hour after every mid-term and final.
I do not refer even to my father, a well educated man and history buff who could converse with ease about everything from Gettysburg to the poets of ancient Greece.
No, on this special day,, I wish to salute, thank and otherwise extend a hearty handclasp toward the finest, most inspiring history teacher of my life:
It was Mr. Freberg, with his horn-rimmed glasses, dark suit and briefcase shaped like the continental USA, who made history real. It was Mr. Freberg who gave the inside scoop on country-shaping events, instead of the dry, comic-book propaganda found in shallow school texts. How did Queen Isabella inspire Columbus to head west? Why did the pilgrims invite Indians to the first Thanksgiving? Why was Manhattan sold for $24? Was the Boston Tea Party really just a cover story?
Mr. Freberg had the answers.
Take Benjamin Franklin. Why was he reluctant to sign the Declaration? Well, aside from the fact that he couldn't read Thomas Jefferson's handwriting ("All your s's look like f's," he told Jefferson.), Franklin thought the document a little subversive. Here, in fact, is the exact conversation that Franklin and Jefferson had on the subject, as passed on to me by Mr. Freberg:
"Sounds a little suspect, if you ask me," said Franklin. "You're advocating the overthrow of the British government by force and violence, aren't you?"
"Well, yeah, yeah, but we've had it with that royal jazz," said Jefferson.
"Well, all the guys?"
"Who's all the guys?"
"Oh, George, Jim Madison, Alex Hamilton, Johnny Adams, you know, all the guys. ..."
"Huh! The lunatic fringe. Bunch of wild-eyed radicals! Professional liberals. Don't kid me."
"You call George Washington a wild-eyed radical?"
"Washington? I don't see his name on here."
"No," said Jefferson, "but he promised to sign it."
"Oh yeah, that's George for you! Talks up a storm with them wooden teeth! Can't shut 'em off! But when it comes time to put his name on the old parchment-o-roony, try and find him. ..."
This is a just small segment from Mr. Freberg's teachings, which I first encountered in 1961 on a new Capitol Records album entitled, "Stan Freberg Presents The United States of America, Vol. 1 -- The Early Years" (currently available on Rhino). Right. Stan Freberg. He who flunked U.S. History at Alhambra High School in 1944.
Mr. Freberg, who is about 75 now, would be regarded as the country's most distinguished living satirist, were it not for the fact that the art of the parody has been compromised by the extreme absurdity that now passes itself off as the norm. Reality, in other words, has eclipsed satire. I mean, how to satirize the already ridiculous? How to make fun, for instance, of television news? A Bush speech? They're already a scream.
Mr. Freberg wrote "The United States of America," and most of his spoofs of American culture -- lampooning everything from what is today known as political correctness ("Elderly Man River") to advertising and politics -- at a time when satire was witty, and audiences had attention spans. "Saturday Night Live" and its contagious mentality long ago turned this precious comedic art into juvenile, scatological farce. Media "pundits" have made everything fodder for compulsive, lame ridicule, from the yap-artists of "Politically Incorrect" to (soon) "Monday Night Football." Knee-jerk attempts at the glib rejoinder now define the American art of conversation and commentary in the year 2000. One finds oneself yearning for ... seriousness.
Mr. Freberg's satire was not only elegant, imaginative, enlightened -- but musical. His original songs have been proudly hailed by Johnny Mercer and likened by critics to the works of Sondheim. And they're funny! Consider the skit in "The U.S. of A." where Mr. F. skewers the time-honored tradition of vote-pandering. Mayor Pennypacker, it seems, is up for re-election in Jamestown, but is worried about the "Indian vote." Pennypacker's aide suggests he invite an Indian to the big luncheon coming up (the first Thanksgiving). Hum a little of "Take An Indian To Lunch" the next time you see George W. Bush in a sombrero, or Al Gore mixing it up with African-Americans at a gospel brunch:
"Take an Indian to Lunch this week/ Show him we're a regular bunch this week/ Let's show him we're as liberal as can be/ Let him know he's almost as good as we ... Make a feathered friend feel fed this week/ Overlook the fact that he's red this week/ Let him share our Quaker Oats/ 'Cause he's useful when he votes ... "
You see, there was method in this madness. I don't mean to be too serious, but there was one thing I picked up from Mr. Freberg, as a kid, that I never picked up in a history class: the strong suspicion that things aren't quite as they seem. Maybe the government/corporation/newspaper isn't really doing what it says it's doing. Maybe there are hidden machinations and motives, and maybe they don't have much to do with life, liberty and the purfuit of happineff -- er, sorry. Jefferson's penmanship is lousing me up again. Make that pursuit of happiness.
Mr. Freberg retired from teaching in 1963, thanks to "Hello Dolly!" producer David Merrick, who was in the process of bringing "The U.S. of A." to Broadway at the time. Seems Merrick took so many liberties (so to speak) that Freberg revolted. (For instance, Merrick removed Lincoln from the Civil War sequence because, as he explained at the time, "he doesn't work.") Freberg, duodenal ulcer burgeoning, took himself out of the war with Merrick, and didn't work. He quit the business, or, as he puts it, "my wife (and producer, Donna) pulled me out of it."
He became a successful (and healthy) ad executive for decades (remember "Nine out of ten doctors recommend Chung King Chow Mein?"), and for decades, everyone -- from strangers who happened to bump into him on the street (like me) to old friends and colleagues -- asked the same question:
"Hey, Stan, when are you going to do Volume 2?"
Well, in 1996, another a bunch of Mr. Freberg's old pupils -- who happened to be in charge of Rhino Records -- enticed the man out of retirement. In short order, he assembled a new cast and finally recorded "Stan Freberg Presents The United States of America, Vol. 2." (Did you know that "The Star-Spangled Banner" began as an advertising jingle for Rumplemeyer Horse Shoes?) Vols. 1 and 2 are now available as one set -- and ought to be required listening for every U.S. History student.
A few weeks ago, I read that Mr. Freberg lost his wife and producer, Donna Andresen Freberg, after a marriage that lasted throughout much of, well, recent history. I would imagine my old teacher is going through a difficult time now, so I am writing this column not only that others might enjoy his "lectures" as much as I have -- but also in hopes that this might cheer him up a little.
Oh, and also to give me an excuse to ask one question:
Hey, Stan, when are you going to do Volume 3?
© 2002 Rip Rense. All rights reserved.