Wednesday, February 5, 2014

TMFW 22 - "Mustang Sally" Grew Up in 19th Century England

(Today's TMFW is grown from a request from a reader to learn more about "Long Tall Sally."  This isn't quite that, but I like where it went.)

As a fan of space, as a father to a daughter, and as a fan of people who do jobs that vaguely resemble their names - hello, firefighter Les McBurney and McDonald's PR person Zoe Hamburger - Sally Ride was awesome in every way.  (But I suppose her story is best left for a True Space Facts Wednesday.)  

When listening to oldies radio as a kid, I recall distinctly noticing that there are several songs that feature "ride, Sally, ride" in their lyrics.  The first and most famous is "Mustang Sally," but it's also heard in Sly & The Family Stone's "Dance to the Music," (in that case, Sly anthropomorphizing his organ), in Lou Reed's "Ride, Sally, Ride," and in Al Green's song of the same name.  

Growing up in NASA's space shuttle era, I guessed that the lyrics were a specific reference to Dr. Ride.  (And in fact, when Dr. Ride made her historic launch, many in the crowd were wearing shirts that celebrated her with that very phrase.)  

But of course, "ride, Sally, ride" came to prominence in popular music after Sally Ride was born and before she was famous.  So, where does it come from?  What does it mean?  The answer, it seems, is that the lyric was born from a mondegreen heard in a traditional African-American folk song.  

That folk song is "Little Sally Walker," a traditional "play song" that was popular in the African American community at least as early as the turn of the 20th century.  Kids would form a circle and choose someone to be "Sally Walker."  That person kneeled in the center of the circle as the rest sang the lyrics

Little Sally Walker, sitting in a saucer,
Rise, Sally, rise; wipe your weeping eyes,
Put your hands on your hips and let your backbone slip,
Now shake it to the East, shake it to the West, 
And shake it to the one that you love the best.

"Sally" would shake her (or his) hips and point them in the direction of someone in the circle, who would take the role of Sally and the next round would start.  Here's Lead Belly explaining the game, and then playing the song (with slightly different lyrics), and here's the gospel singer Bessie Jones with her view of "Little Sally Walker." 

As this folklore site explains, "Little Sally Walker" can be traced back to 19th century England, where it was played with remarkably similar rules but where Sally's choice of "the best" culminated in a marriage ceremony and a kiss.  "Sally Sally Water," as it was initially called, is illustrated with music and lyrics in the 1894 book Children's Singing Games, published in London and compiled by British folklorist Alice Gomme.

So how did Sally Water move from the Victorian English playground into pop culture?  The "Mustang Sally" songwriter Sir Mack Rice tells the story that he was talking to a friend of his about cars.  Rice was lusting after a big Lincoln or Cadillac, but the friend - a band leader for Della Reese - had his eye on the newly-released Ford Mustang.  Rice teased the friend about the little car - suggesting that he was less manly for wanting it - and took to calling him "Mustang Mama."  He turned the tease into a song, and included the (misheard) line "ride Sally ride" from "Little Sally Walker."  

Rice originally called the song "Mustang Mama," until (allegedly) Aretha Franklin suggested "Mustang Sally" instead.  Wilson Pickett covered the song in 1966, and the rest is history.  


BONUS FACT: "Little Sally Walker" was a staple of doo wop and early rock and R&B groups.    Here's a pop-songified version by Bobby Mandolph.  And here are others by Syl Johnson,  Pete Seeger,  The TornadoesThe Bandits, a terrific demo from The Crystals, and Rufus Thomas.  Here's a more modern cover by Dom Flemons of the Carolina Chocolate Drops.

BONUS FACT 2:   "Put your hands on your hips, and let your backbone slip" was a widely-sung lyric in "Little Sally Walker" as early as the 1940s.  Wilson Pickett borrowed from the song to famously include that instruction in "Land of 1000 Dances." (Here is a live version of Puckett just destroying the song in Africa in 1971.)

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