Forgotten Muses: Faerie Archives
While shooting some material of Goatboy and Jombi (one of the Fairies from Short Mountain that sometimes helps out in Goat's shop and who writes for RFD) at work, Goatboy pointed out a picture on the wall. An old engraving, measuring about one by three feet, it depicted a group of classic Greek figures in various homoerotic poses and seemed to be a depiction of teachers and students at a Greek academy. Goat told me that he had bought from an older lady in Woodbury who was wanting to use the frame for a print of a Modernist painting. Later, he found out that the picture had hung in the lobby of a local high school for many years. "They would never let you do that nowadays," he said.
That recapturing of bits and pieces of the forgotten past of Lesbians and Gays holds a fascination and passion for Goatboy and manifests itself in his regular column for RFD magazine, "Fairie Archives". His use of many old books for design ideas, along with his interest in collecting myths and folktales about fairies throughout history, gives him much of the source material for the columns. Occasionally, Goatboy uses texts of songs he has discovered on piano rolls, recordings of vaudeville performers, or sheet music.
A Japanese folk tale, "Old Man Chrysanthemum", and a Native American folk tale, are good examples of stories that do not mention the words "Gay" or "Lesbian" but can be enlightening in their own way. "The spirit is there," Goat told me. The tales often deal with the artists or dreamers and their role in society or with people who did not fit the gender roles of their times.
Before World War II, there was a thriving Gay subculture; Gay nightclubs in major cities all around the country played host to a variety of openly Gay and Lesbian performers. (For more information, see historian George Chauncey's study Gay New York.) Dwight Fiske's recording of "Ida, The Wayward Sturgeon" is a good example of the sly, campy humor that would have been heard in one of these nightspots. (Goat's column on Fiske led me to research on the artist's life and career. I found that he trained as a classical pianist in France and was discovered by Tallulah Bankhead who encouraged him to form an act around his deadpan stream of consciousness monologues. Fiske's career lasted well into the 1950's and he was hailed as the "King Lear of the Nighteries" by Variety after his death. Research on Fiske led me to the outrageous drag performer Ray Bourbon, who worked with Fiske on numerous occasions.)
Songwriters and performers before the War also included references to Gays and Lesbians in their material (even when the performers were not Gay themselves). "I Love Me", a popular vaudeville tune, seems to be a take-off on the narcissic Gay male who says, "I'm wild about myself." "Masculine Women, Feminine Men" is a more direct example -- in this case, the singer is confused by women who act like men and vice-versa. ("It's hard to tell them apart today...")
In many cases, piano rolls of the tunes (on which lyrics are printed so that the user could sing along as the roll played) included "racier" lyrics not included on the recordings. Goat observed that the piano roll companies were run by musicians and the material was aimed at a more sophisticated audience, while the phonograph industry, run primarily by businessmen, had to aim their products at a mass audience and tone down the recorded versions of the songs. Many examples survive, however, of "gender-switched" tunes where men sing love songs to other men (or women to women) -- one wonders if a recording of "When I Take My Sugar to Tea" by the Boswell Sisters might have been picked up on by Gays and Lesbians and shared at parties of the period.
In his research, Goatboy noticed a "direct assault" on the Gay subculture beginning in the late 1930's. By the time of the Gay movement's reawakening in the late 1960's and early 70's, the ties to these early performers and ideas had been lost, creating a cultural gap in the community. Through his column, Goat is doing his part to ensure that the "Fairie" culture of earlier eras is not forgotten.