This little masterpiece was composed by Dwight Latham and Moe Jaffe, and first recorded by Latham’s vocal trio, the Jesters, who had a regular radio show on NBC in the 1930s. Latham said he found the original anecdote in a collection of pieces by Mark Twain, repeated it on the air, got a good reaction, and later turned it into a song with Jaffe’s assistance. The Jesters recorded it in 1947, then disappear from the story, because their record was promptly covered by a country comedy duo named Lonzo and Oscar, who turned it into a career-defining hit and have been associated with it ever since.
Unfortunately, there is not much more to be said about Lonzo and Oscar. They were the regular opening act on Eddie Arnold’s tours, and popular enough that when the original Lonzo (Lloyd George, not to be confused with the British Chancellor of the Exchequer who knew my father… [an old joke]) quit a couple of years later, he was replaced by another Lonzo, and there would be further Lonzos as the years went by… but they never had another hit to even vaguely equal this one.
As if that weren’t disappointment enough, it turns out the original anecdote was not from Mark Twain. It was circulating before Twain was born and appears in none of his collected writings, and seems to have become associated with him because it was included in various 19th century collections that also included snippets of his work. One example, at right, is from the charmingly named American Bibliopolist.
I think I first heard this sung by Erik Frandsen at the Speakeasy on MacDougal Street, but I may just have been particularly charmed by his version. In any case, I picked it up and was playing it pretty regularly by the early 1980s, always to an enthusiastic reception — if there’s a more surefire lyric in America’s musical canon, I haven’t come across it.
Meanwhile, to make up for the Twain disappointment, I recently learned that there is a celebrated example of this sort of familial complication in the rock pantheon: during the brief period when the ever-newsworthy Bill Wyman was married to Mandy Smith (his notoriously Lolitesque paramour), his son Stephen married Mandy’s mother. Hence, the erstwhile Rolling Stone and composer of “Je Suis un Rock Star” was briefly his own grandpa. (I got this from the Daily Mail‘s website, which is famously trustworthy, and therefore am discounting all the other sources that say Bill and Mandy were divorced by the time Stephen married her mum. They are obviously just spoilsports.)