Yeah, But Do You Know What That Song Is Actually About? #1

goodie mob 2

“One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show”

Music has long been the medium through which mainstream Americans are most likely to become aware of, and then adopt, clever idioms used by those on the margins of society. A teenage Lil’ Wayne raps about his dental prosthesis circa 1998 and ten years later, it is national news when Mitt Romney uses the phrase “bling-bling” on the campaign trail. Watching from the safety of our cul-de-sacs, we fetishize everything poor minorities do as hip and exciting, especially if they are young and attractive. We have less interest in say, Tyler Perry’s archetypal “Madea” character, and generally prefer to remain unaware that it is usually older African American matriarchs who are the real progenitors of the aesthetics we co-opt.

I first heard the phrase “one monkey don’t stop no show,” around 2004 from two different sources: The Atlanta hip-hop outfit Goodie Mob and Nashville Americana songstress Gillian Welch. Why was this strange thing bubbling up on the edges of pop consciousness? And what does it mean, anyway?

goodie mobThe Goodies released One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show (with album art featuring crew members sitting in a theater and riding in a leather upholstered convertible with a smiling simian) in 2004, right after Cee-Lo Green left the group to pursue his solo career. The easy interpretation is that Cee-Lo is the “monkey” without which Goodie Mob goes on. The title track has Big Gipp, Khujo and T-Mo railing against the more commercially successful acts that imitate their style (“They do what we do/when we do what we do”) and re-asserting their commitment to artistic integrity even if it comes at the expense of selling records (“I make my music/for the ones who use it/hopped in the blocks and hear what they thinking”). The show stopped anyway, One Monkey was Goodie Mob’s last record.

Gillian Welch’s album “Soul Journey” came out the year before and featured the song “One Monkey,” which lyrically offers very little in terms of hints at its meaning.[1] Welch and her partner Dave Rawlings have crafted a career out of re-arranging, re-interpreting or just plain imitating folk, blues and bluegrass traditionals. Sometimes I wonder if they record certain tracks just to suggest that I dig deeper to find their origins, opening up secret, historic, Appalachian musical frontiers like two singing sherpas with degrees from Berklee College of Music.

Songs called “One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show” have been recorded dozens of times since the 1950’s, by a rag tag group of some of the dustiest artists who ever skulked around the outskirts of Relevanceville. Joe Tex, David Allen Coe, Eric Burden and the Animals, Sonny Terry, The Dramatics and a whole bunch of other people you are pretty sure you’ve heard of have laid down a “One Monkey” track over the years.

Equally unmemorable (if not for the front-slit, rhinestoned, white bell-bottoms) is the version the Holland-Dozier-Holland-produced girl group Honey Cone lip-synched on the Sonny Bono Show in 1971:[2]

Though I can’t find a video or recording on the internet, I know that there is a “One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show” by the gender-bending Dutch dance pop group Vengaboys. It likely sounds something like this:

As I’m sure you’ve assumed by now, there’s a Bette Midler version:

big maybelleThe version Midler is performing is probably the most well known, or at least most re-recorded version. It was made famous by Big Maybelle, a semi-legendary blues and gospel singer who had a big hit record in 1955 when a 31-year-old Quincy Jones produced her “A Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” two years before Jerry Lee Lewis made it one of the defining tunes of early rock and roll. The b-side of that record? “One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show.[3] In her lazy cadence, Maybelle relates the story of a chronically unsatisfied man who left her behind. In the chorus, she delivers the punch in her trademark throaty roar. Like the girls in Honey Cone, she refuses to shed a tear for her wayward lover. “I used to be chickenhearted/cryin’ when he walked out the door/I was just young and simple/I ain’t like that no more.” Is this the origin of the phrase as an assertion that life will go on despite loss of love, loss of bandmate, dream deferred, plans gone awry? If so, who is responsible for putting the words on paper?

rosie marie mccoyThat would be Rose Marie McCoy, one of the most prolific and successful songwriters of the 50’s and 60’s and, as the picture provided will attest, stone cold fox.[4] In the early days of rhythm and blues and rock n’ roll, professional songwriters wrote almost all of the music “the talent” recorded. Most of the composers were employed by publishing offices in the Brill Building on Broadway in Manhattan, including a young Carole King and Ms. McCoy. Rose was a farmer’s daughter from Arkansas who came to New York at age 19 with six dollars and took a job ironing shirts while she tried to make it as a singer. Ultimately, she would find success writing music for others, including Elvis, James Brown and Dinah Washington. She often collaborated with Big Maybelle, sometimes she would sing a part on her recordings (I can’t figure out if Rose is singing the verses on “One Monkey,” but I think it’s a possibility).

stick and brownieI would’ve been completely satisfied with Rose Marie McCoy as the end point of my etymological quest. But there’s another song called “One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show,” which was recorded in 1950, four years before by Granville Henry “Stick” McGhee. Stick and his brother Brownie came to fame in the 40’s playing guitar and writing songs that pushed the limits of uptempo blues and swing toward proto rock n’ roll. Their “One Monkey” confuses my interpretation of the original meaning of the phrase even further. The lyrics are a mash-up of cryptic, vague, folky wisdoms, none of which seem to have much to do with bouncing back from loss, romantic or otherwise. The only conclusions I can draw are 1. “One monkey don’t stop no show” was something people were saying prior to 1950 and 2. It was applied to different types of situations and had a flexible meaning.

I’m not the only person who is confused about this. Type “what does one monkey don’t stop no show mean?” into a search engine and you’ll find a handful of message boards with people offering a range of less-than-convincing explanations. Most of them declare that someone’s mother or grandmother used to “swear by” or “live by” the phrase.

I guess “one monkey don’t stop no show” is a perfect lyric for pop music because it shares so much in common with the music itself. It is ambiguous, emotional, catchy and supports introspection and interpretation. It is deeply meaningful to many, but its meaning is obscure.

[1] It’s literally just her singing “one monkey don’t stop no show” thirty times with some window dressing about freight trains and their conductors. At the time, I decided the monkey was George W. Bush and the train was the U.S.A., but that was definitely just me projecting my own twenty-three-year-old opinions onto a pretty songwriter I had a crush on. Still, thought I’d mention it.

[2] At the time I posted this link, about half the comments for this video on Youtube were from people who felt the need to simply write the phrase “one monkey don’t stop no show,” on the internet. There’s something about saying it, writing it or singing it that just makes a certain type of person want to do it themselves.

[3] This is my favorite performance of a “One Monkey” song. There simply aren’t female vocalists who are singing like this anymore. Maybelle pouts through the verses with the coy malaise of Billie Holiday or Erykah Badu, but she won’t allow herself to be a damsel in distress. The chorus is a brash eruption, a declaration that no man is man enough to give her the blues.

[4] It is telling of an era when music was still primarily listened to through a speaker rather than watched on a screen that a young cute thing like Ms. McCoy would be employed in an office writing songs for a more mature and robust beauty such as Big Maybelle to perform, for no better reason than Maybelle had a way better voice. Correct me if I’m wrong, but is this not the inverse of the plot of Dreamgirls?

12 thoughts on “Yeah, But Do You Know What That Song Is Actually About? #1

  1. This is a great article and it was obviously well-researched. I was left intrigued, stimulated, and eager to listen to more tunes that have this theme. I also can’t resist guessing as to the meaning of the phrase. Monkeys have been used throughout the history of show business as a prop or comedic foil. In Big Maybelle’s version, a monkey would represent the stooge who left her — the love she lost. I think these songs are in some sense tongue in cheek but they are also, in varying ways, supposed to be a comment on the folly of human existence, partying, and good old fashioned razzle dazzle.

    One monkey don’t stop no show. Yes, it is fun to say. The whole of human existence is based on comparing ourselves to other living things and taking quite a lot of pleasure in believing that we are better. I have spent a great deal of time in my life believing that a lot of other people were better than me. Now I am judging everyone without reservation and plan to listen to a lot more songs with the phrase “one monkey don’t stop no show.” Thanks for the history lesson Matt.

  2. I always thought it was related to the idiom for substance addiction, to have a monkey on [one’s] back. So then it’s something like: the performer has to keep performing no matter how strung-out/in withdrawal s/he is. Now that I type it out, it sounds like a preposterous stretch; but it’s how I instinctively hear it.

    1. Oh wow. I love that. I love that you took it there and I love that you typed it out. Do you have other preposterous theories you want to share?

  3. Joe Tex was always a great favourite of mine & I was listening to’One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show’ and after all these years decided to find out the meaning of the phrase. What a great article Matt.
    Stay cool and get that ‘Monkey Offa Your Back.”
    Peace & Love yo all music fans.

  4. Rose Marie McCoy was a independent writer in the 1950s when she wrote “One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show.” I can recall only two times in the 1960s, once for King and once for Aldon Music, did she write under contact. And each lasted less than a year each. Her biography Thought We Were Writing the Blues relates how she got to do the talking part,

  5. Great article, love it! Funnily enough, I arrived here by having heard the Gillian Welch song for the first time ever a month ago, and then hearing Goodie Mob singing their ‘One Monkey’ just now. 😀

    I had a look for the phrase in Brewster’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, but came up with nothing. I also like JSA’s interpretation (above) too. At any rate, certainly an intriguing phrase!

  6. ‘One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show’ is Satan referring to Jesus.
    After all, the Blues is the Devil’s Music.
    Start at the Crossroads, and travel deep into the Bottom Lands.

  7. Came here because I just love Gillian Welch song but its meaning has always baffled me.I thought it might be one of those message to someone(you know who you are)who crossed her in some way and she is just telling them screw you, you can’t hurt me you aren’t that important.By the way I quite understand your crush,hasnt she got the greatest smile?

  8. I’d always thought the phrase was a bastardization of “One dead monkey don’t stop the circus,” meaning that one “little” setback (like a monkey falling dead in the middle of an act) isn’t going to cancel the entire circus. In other words, “The show must go on.” Without the word “dead,” the phrase makes less sense.

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