from the desk of H. Bowie...

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"Settin‘ the Woods on Fire"

A song written by Fred Rose and Ed G. Nelson in 1952

45 RPM Single by Hank Williams

A couple of things that happened recently got me cogitating on the idea of language as playground.

First, I had a chance to hear Anne Curzan speak. Curzan is the talented and engaging dean of the College of Literature, Science and the Arts at the University of Michigan (my alma mater), and is also a linguist who studies the history of the English language. Her bio states that she “aims to promote a culture based in purpose and contributing to the common good, the power of learning, the value of play [emphasis mine], and the importance of well-being.”

Well, I’m here to tell you: any time you stir together the value of play and the study of the English language in the same pitcher, you’re mixing up a cocktail that I will happily imbibe.

Now I’m disappointed to have to report that my usual reference source has a rather dry and unsatisfactory definition of the word play, suggesting that the word means only to “engage in activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose.”

But it takes no more than a cursory review of a text such as Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World, to see the meaning of the word begin to unfold in a much more interesting way.

For me, the term means something like “to fashion something new or novel in an uninhibited manner, initially motivated only by the pure joy of creative experimentation.”

And, as a lifelong reader and English major myself, playing with language is something that has fascinated me for my entire life.

There are so many possibilities: different words, different combinations, different structures, different ways that the words interact with one another, different images that those words conjure up. And once you begin to speak as well as write, and sing as well as speak, the possibilities expand even further.

I was reminded of this field of play again this week while listening to Delbert McClinton’s latest album, Outdated Emotion. The work consists primarily of covers of material that Delbert learned to love while growing up, and I was already familiar with many of them, but one in particular caught my ear, called “Setting’ The Woods on Fire.”

It turns out that the song was originally recorded in 1952 by Hank Williams, and written by Fred Rose and Ed G. Nelson. It was a hit for Hank, and has been recorded by others since then, so you may already be familiar with it, but it was new to me.

Here are the lyrics, but I recommend you listen to the recording as well, not only to enjoy the music, but also to hear how Delbert delivers the words.

Comb your hair and paint and powder,
You sing loud and I’ll sing louder,
You be proud and I’ll be prouder,
Tonight we’re settin’ the woods on fire.

You’re my gal and I’m your feller,
Dress up in your frock of yeller,
I’ll look swell but you’ll look sweller,
Settin’ the woods on fire.

We’ll take in all the honky-tonks:
Tonight we’re having fun.
We’ll show the folks a brand new dance
That never has been done.

I don’t care who thinks we’re silly –
You be daffy and I’ll be dilly –
We’ll order up two bowls of chili:
Settin’ the woods on fire.

I’ll gas up my hot rod stoker,
We’ll get hotter than a poker,
You’ll be broke but I’ll be broker,
Tonight we’re settin’ the woods on fire.

We’ll sit close to one another,
Up one street and down the other,
We’ll have us a time, oh brother,
Settin’ the woods on fire.

We’ll put aside a little time
To fix a flat or two:
My tires and tubes are doin’ fine,
But the air is showin’ through.

You clap hands and I’ll start bowin’,
We’ll do all the law’s allowin’,
Tomorrow I’ll be right back plowin’,
Settin’ the woods on fire.

Boy, so much play going on here: where do I start?

First, of course, there’s the title and refrain, “Settin’ the Woods on Fire,” an invented expression that brings up images of working and playing hard in a rural setting, using an entertaining and imaginative turn of phrase.

Then there’s the usage of the words “daffy” and “dilly,” likely influenced by the Daffy Dilly cartoon about Daffy Duck, released in 1948.

Then there are the explicit references to play that somehow manage to include all the elements of the definition I offered above:

  • fashioning something new or novel…

    We’ll show the folks a brand new dance that never has been done

  • …in an uninhibited manner…

    I don’t care who thinks we’re silly

  • …motivated by pure joy.

    Tonight we’re having fun

Then there’s all the wordplay within the lyrics:

  • Interesting rhymes, such as silly / dilly / chili;
  • Fun word variants, such as sweller, broker and stoker;
  • Intriguing juxtaposition of imagery, such as the ways that the notion of heat is invoked, starting with the title, but then carried through with the promise that “We’ll get hotter than a poker.”

And then there are all the anachronisms within the song, which I appreciate as ties to an earlier time which is just out of my reach of experience, but brought within the reach of my understanding by the lyrics and style of the song, and helps me to better understand my own parents, now deceased but not forgotten.

But your reaction to all this may well be:

  • So what?
  • Who cares about such things?
  • What is being accomplished here?

To which I would first respond by quoting one of my favorite (although lamentably fictional) English professors, Gervase Fen, as recounted in Edmund Crispin’s novel, The Case of the Gilded Fly:

Fen sighed. “We are all becoming standardized and normal, Nigel. The divine gift of purely nonsensical speech and action is in atrophy. Would you believe it? A pupil of mine had the impertinence the other day to tick me off for reading him passages regarding the Fimble Fowl and the Quangle-Wangle as an illustration of pure poetic inventiveness! I put him in his place all right….” In the semi-darkness his eye became momentarily lambent with remembered satisfaction. “But there’s no eccentricity nowadays – none at all.”

And then, should Fen’s answer not suffice, I would again refer the reader to Steven Johnson’s treatise explaining how play is such a powerful force in our world, for, although the initial motivation for creative play may be pure joy, such activity often generates useful inventions that can enrich the lives of all of us.

And then, finally, I would remind the reader that language is the best vessel we have for containing and conveying important ideas, and that a useful diversity of thought, as well as a rich understanding of the human experience, cannot be achieved and sustained if we limit ourselves to an impoverished language made up only of common and obviously utilitarian elements.

We humans have been playing with language ever since we contrived ways of speaking to one another, and the fruits of this play have arguably made possible our entire pageant of human history.

Why stop now?

The worst that can happen is that we’ll have a little fun.

May 23, 2022