What does that song mean?

Cartoonist Robert Crumb : Vintage Music Hipster

Posted Nov 16th 2021, 13:16 by Penguin Pete

Robert R. Crumb was one of those lucky individuals in history who was at the right place in the right time with the right talent. A Baby Boomer of the first water, he came of age in the tumultuous 1960s, in a unique position to document the changing cultural times with his fertile imagination. He pretty much birthed the underground comix scene, gave popular culture some of its first memes…

...and was peeper-deep into the hippie cultural movement. You know Crumb as the controversial, edgy cartoonist and illustrator. But today we're here to talk about another aspect of his cultural influence…

R. Crumb & His Cheap Suit Serenaders

Yes, this was an actual band, with R. Crumb providing lead vocals.

The Cheap Suit Serenaders were Crumb and a colleague of his from the underground comix scene, Robert Armstrong, plus documentary film maker Terry Zwigoff, Al Dodge, and a few other hangers-on. They were initially billed as "R. Crumb and his Keep on Trucking Orchestra," circa their first actual record contract. The band was naturally a Ragtime / Jazz revival group, with - natch - Crumb providing the cover art.

Crumb's primary motivation in creating the band was not so much to become a rock star, as to have a hand in preserving and staying connected to the early 20th-century music scene. Crumb has also continued dabbling in music, playing mandolin in Eden and John's East River String Band, appearing on three of their albums well into the 2000s.

R. Crumb's Music History Preservation

He has since established himself, as a side gig, as one of the most passionate music historians invested in early 20th-century recordings. He has even gone so far as to publish extensive works of music preservation. As late as 2006, he produced R. Crumb's Heroes of Blues, Jazz & Country, a book with an accompanying CD.

He also produced a set of trading cards called "Pioneers of Country Music," with 40 pieces in total.

Perhaps at this point we should interject that "Country music," the genre, had just about the opposite reputation pre-1970s that it does today. Country was then a derivative of folk, jazz, and blues styles, and in the 1960s was mostly the domain of long-haired hippies. It wasn't until later that Country & Western fell to the rednecks and became all Republican jingoistic anthems.

Anyway, further education resources on early 20th-century music curated by R. Crumb include the compilation albums:

  • That's What I Call Sweet Music (1999)

  • Hot Women: Women Singers from the Torrid Regions (2009)

  • Chimpin' the Blues (2013)

Many tracks on these works constitute the only known digital recording of these songs preserved from their original 78-RPM record publication.

Crumb's Further Music Culture Tanglings

Of course, Crumb is also known for providing cover art for albums on a strictly freelance basis. The most famous being Cheap Thrills by Janis Joplin's Big Brother and the Holding Company:

This explosion of illustrated artistry manages to incorporate track titles and band credits into an action-packed comic page split into a spider-webbed layout. The original album cover idea was to have Joplin and company pose nude, piled onto a bed, but that idea got vetoed by the publisher, Columbia Records. Party poopers! Joplin was already a huge comics fan, so she opted for Crumb's artwork as a plan B. Here it is in more or less the same form in a Crumb interview:

Crumb may have turned down Mick Jagger out of pure pettiness, but he was down with the Grateful Dead. Enough to supply art for a tribute album:

He would go on to draw cover art for at least 17 albums produced by Yazoo Records and Blue Goose Records, among many other projects. And then there were plain old musicians Crumb paid inked tributes to, such as Frank Zappa.

Robert Crumb Knows What a Hipster He Is!

Modern readers might assume, given R. Crumb's prominence in counter-culture, that he was a free-wheelin' fan of Flower Power. But actually, he was notoriously conservative and cranky when it came to music, championing the WWI era and deeper roots while practically spitting on everything that has come after.

Nevertheless, Crumb is the kind of character who owns his flaws and warts rather publicly. This includes his crusade for music preservation, which he himself self-parodies in this panel:

Make no mistake, Robert Crumb knows exactly whom he is. His comic works reflect all his obsessions and quirks, including a notorious, sharply warped sexuality. He doesn't apologize for it, but own it, he does.



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