What You Probably Don’t Know About Robbie Burns

- January 25th, 2015


Today — Sunday, Jan. 25, 2015 — is Robbie Burns Day.

Or, to be more precise, Burns Night (as they call it in Scotland).

Scots and Scottish wannabes around the world will be celebrating the life and genius of Scotland’s greatest poet long into the wee hours by dressing up in strange outfits and eating even stranger food and probably getting ridiculously drunk as they try (usually with mixed success) to sing Rabbie’s lovely songs at Burns Suppers.

(Granted, some Burns assemblies are held on more convenient dates adjacent to Jan. 25 — but a real Burns Supper is always held on Jan. 25.)

Despite all that, the cult of Robbie Burns has taken on a rather stodgy, conservative mien over the centuries, even though the man himself was anything but stodgy or conservative.

In honour of the real Rabbie, I’m going to tell you some things about the man that you might not know — and that probably won’t go down well with the boring old drunks in kilts and other members of the Scottish or any other establishment who have appropriated Robert Burns for their own purposes.

Tough. It’s Rabbie’s day — and night — not theirs.

For starters, Robbie Burns had at least 13 children with at least five different women, only one of whom — Jean Armour — was ever his wife.

Most of the children (nine) were borne by the stoic Jean, but only three of those survived infancy and childhood. Three of his four (known) illegitimate children survived, however, and all three of those bastards had children of their own (whereas only two of the legitimate offspring had kids — and not as many), so most people today claiming descendancy from Robbie Burns come from the “natural” side of the family tree. Among those is fashion mogul Tommy Hilfiger.

There are quite a few of Robbie’s direct descendants in Canada, mostly with B.C. roots and most bearing the names Hutchison or Sabourin. and, yes, they’re from the illegitimate lineage.

Robbie was no hypocrite and never tried to cover up his philandering and resultant progeny. Quite the reverse. One of Robbie’s poems is entitled “The Poet’s Welcome To His Illegitimate Child” and includes the verse:

What tho’ they ca’ me fornicator,

An’ tease my name in kintra clatter:

The mair they talk I ‘m kenn’d the better,

E’en let them clash!

An auld wife’s tongue’s a feckless matter

To gi’e ane fash.

Basically he’s saying, “Drag my name through the mud all you want, but the more you badmouth me, the more famous I become.”

I’d like to say Robbie came up with the idea that there’s no such thing as bad publicity, but that honour probably goes to a Roman emperor — or a Greek god.

Here’s how his friend Allan Cunningham remembered Robert Burns decades after his death: “Burns in his youth was tall and sinewy, with coarse swarthy features, and a ready word of wit or of kindness for all. The man differed little from the lad; his form was vigorous, his limbs shapely, his knees firmly knit, his arms muscular and round, his hands large, his fingers long and he stood five feet ten inches high.”

Robbie Burns didn’t care a fig for many of the niceties of high society even though he was welcomed in the finest homes of Edinburgh and Glasgow and carried himself with a natural grace and dignity (even when terribly drunk, so they said).

And even though he made his living for a while as an excise officer (tax collector), Burns was an ardent supporter of the French Revolution and a radical critic of the establishments of both church and state in Britain (although, for some reason, he wasn’t an anti-royalist).

Despite his radical egalitarian outlook, Robbie Burns almost moved to Jamaica in 1786 to take a job as a bookkeeper and overseer on a slave plantation. In fact, he published his first book of poetry to pay for his passage to Jamaica.

His luggage was already on its way to Greenock (where the ship on which he was to sail was docked) when the enthusiastic reception of his book of poetry convinced Burns to remain in Scotland and pursue his literary career there.

His most widely known verses are probably “Auld Lang Syne” and “Scots What Hae,” but plenty of other Burns songs and poems are deeply entrenched in Scottish and English-language culture.

Abraham Lincoln could — and did — recite Burns poems for hours on end (sometimes to the regret of his friends).  And Bob Dylan says he considers Robbie Burns his single greatest influence, specifically citing “A Red, Red Rose.”

The title of John Steinbeck’s novel “Of Mice And Men” was lifted from the Burns poem “To A Mouse:”

Wee, sleekit, cow’rin, tim’rous beastie…

The best laid schemes o’ mice and men

Gang aft agley.

And J.D. Salinger’s novel Catcher In The Rye also takes its title from Burns — although with a twist.

Burns’ rather saucy song “Comin Thru The Rye” (about a rural seduction) includes the verse:

Gin a body meet a body

Comin thro’ the rye,

Gin a body kiss a body,

Need a body cry?

Which, in English, is usually sung as:

When a body meet a body

Comin thru the rye

If a body kiss a body

Need a body cry?

But Holden Caulfield, the young hero of Catcher in The Rye, misremembered the line as “When a body catch a body coming through the rye.” So, in his dream of saving children from falling over a cliff as they ran through a field of rye, Holden was the Catcher In The Rye.

Robbie Burns was quite a young man when he died — 37. Victorian writers tried to blame his death on dissolution and depravity but the real cause seems to have been complications resulting from the extraction of some bad teeth.

Infection ensued and endocarditis resulted — bacterial inflammation of the heart which, in the end, killed him.

Robbie Burns died on the morning of July 21, 1796, and was buried on July 25 — the same day his youngest son, Maxwell, was born.

The very first Robbie Burns Supper was held on Jan. 29, 1802, at The Mother Club in Greenock, Scotland — because that’s the date the participants thought he was born. By the following year, they had discovered his true birthday and held their second commemorative supper on Jan. 25 — the principal date of all subsequent Burns Nights.


I have to tell you Robbie Burns had a big head, a very big head — for the time.

I’m not sure exactly what difference that really makes, but 200 years ago they thought that was a big deal. In fact, by the 1830s, they thought it was a very big deal, as big as Robbie Burns’ head.

When Robbie died in 1796, he was buried in a grave in a churchyard. But within 20 years, his fame had grown and Robbie’s remains were exhumed and transported to an elaborate mausoleum for re-burial/re-encryption/re-whatever.

Nothing happened at that time, but…

About 20 years later — in 1834 — Robbie Burns’s beloved but hard-done-by widow, Jean Armour, died. So Jean — immortalized in many poems — was going to be laid to rest in the same crypt as the dear, departed Robbie.

But by this time the “science” of phrenology — the determination of an individual’s character and mental capacity based on the physical study of their skulls — had become a mania in Europe. So (of course) a team of crack phrenologists — the scientific whiz kids of their day — were on hand to study Robbie Burns’s skeletal skull when the tomb was opened to receive Jean Armour’s remains.

The “scientists” were delighted with the state of Robbie’s 40-year-dead skull. It still had mainly dark (but with a few grey) hairs attached to it. They cleaned those extraneous appendages off and make their “scientific” measurements.

And found that Robbie Burns had a very large head — for the time. Here are drawings made of Robert Burns’ skull from that examination.


Here’s a link to an 1834 report on that study as compiled by one of the examiners, George Combe, and published as “The Phrenological Development of Robert Burns” later in 1834.

All sorts of evaluations of Robbie’s character were made based on those measured studies and most of them concluded that Robbie was a big brain in every way. Here’s a taste:

“The Skull indicates the combination of strong animal passions, with equally powerful moral emotions. If the natural morality had been less, the endowment of the propensities is sufficient to have constituted a character of the most desperate description. The combination, as it exists, bespeaks a mind extremely subject to contending emotions—capable of great good or great evil—and encompassed with vast difficulties in preserving a steady, even, onward course of practical morality…”

Now, we all know today that’s complete and utter bullshit. You can’t evaluate a human being’s soul by the size of their heads and the bumps thereon. (But, of course, half the scientific “truths” we take to be gospel today  will be proven malarkey in 50 — maybe even five — years too.)

Still, numbers don’t lie. And the phrenologists measured Robbie Burns’s head every which way and concluded he had a very big head — compared to the average Scot of the time.

The phrenologists determined that Robbie Burns’s head was 22 and 1/4 inches in circumference. And that was considered large for the time.

Now I, personally, in this day and age, don’t consider that so big. Granted, humans have evolved. But I don’t consider my brain to be bigger than Robbie Burns’s.

Yet I have a bigger head than Robbie Burns. I just measured it and my skull comes in at an even 23 inches. That’s including hair, but I squeezed tight.

I don’t really know what to make of that. If I am called on to make a toast to Robbie Burns tonight, I will simply say:

“I may have a bigger head than Robbie Burns, but no man has a bigger heart or a grander soul. I raise my glass to the immortal memory of Robert Burns.”


Was I Wrong About John Tory? Maybe…

- January 21st, 2015


I’ve said some terrible, terrible things about John Tory over the years.

I’ve also said nice things too, but they’ve usually come as a condescending pat on the back after a serious face-slapping.

Here’s my typical stance on John Tory from back in 2010 (and later repeated in this 2013 Nosey Parker blog post if you want to delve deeper into my antipathy):

“John Tory is a really nice guy (I can tell you that from personal experience) with a razor-sharp intellect and great skills as a committee member, a facilitator and a mediator.

“But he’s a complete loser as a frontline street brawler and he has the political survival instincts of a rabbit.”

Doesn’t sound too, too bad really — but that was just the friendly warm-up to a piece listing “10 or 20 or 100 reasons why John Tory should, in my opinion, forever forgo the idea of running for mayor of Toronto or dogcatcher of Dogpatch or grand poobah of LOWB Lodge No. 26 or whatever.”

Here’s a bit more from that 2010 assessment:

“Tory has always reminded me of former (briefly, because of his own ineptitude) PM Joe Clark, a political junkie, a nice guy with a good mind, and a complete putz when it came to making the right political decision. Neither of them has the deep, driving gut feeling that they know the ‘right’ thing to do in any given crisis — sometimes even when the ‘right’ thing they know in their guts isn’t the thing they would rationally choose to do based simply on calculation and inclination…

“Tory’s decision (to not run for mayor in 2010) did not ‘open the field up’ — it just reduced the field of losers by one.

“Yesterday I heard John Tory described as ‘charismatic’ and ‘the best mayor Toronto never had.’ He is neither. He might have made a better mayor than David Miller. Maybe not. We’ll never know. But John Tory was never ‘best’ at anything in politics except ‘second best.’ I know that sounds rough and unfair, but politics is rough and unfair. John Tory took his lumps but never had the royal jelly to turn them into political sugar.”

So that’s been my very consistent stance on candidate John Tory through his long and disastrous political losing streak.

Right up until he finally won the mayor’s job, that is.

Now I didn’t change my opinion just because Tory finally won something. Far from it — I applauded Tory’s victory, but only because it meant that neither Olivia Chow nor Doug Ford got to wear the mayor’s chain of office and possibly hurt Toronto even more than Tory was capable of doing.

I still didn’t hold out much hope for anything good to come from John Tory’s term in office. I thought he would probably strut and preen and pontificate and service his friends and clients on Bay Street … and not actually do much to deal with the real problems eating away at our big, bumptious city.

It’s been less than two months since Tory assumed office, so it’s way too early in the going to draw a definitive conclusion, but I’ve already come to a tentative preliminary assessment.

I may have misjudged John Tory.

I’m not 100% convinced yet, but I have to admit I’m already very impressed by the many things the new mayor has done in just a few short weeks to improve the quality of life in Toronto, to make it easier for citizens to get around, to sort out some of the city’s administrative chaos — and  he’s done it quickly and confidently, efficiently and productively, without fuss or blather or wasted effort.

Just do it. That seems to be Mayor John Tory’s motto.

And he’s more than willing to take informed advice and admit when his previous positions are proven wrong by the reality of the situations he faces as mayor.

But mostly I’m impressed by how decisive and cut-to-the-core-of-the-matter he’s been.

I had been expecting Tory to be more than a little wishy-washy, to let the status quo slide along sluggishly, to push tough decisions off into endless committee debate and staff reports.

He’s done none of that — so far. He’s been tough and assertive without being brash or a bully. He’s grabbed the bull by the horns without shovelling the bull. He’s taking a few chances and calculated risks to shift the playing field without being reckless or irresponsible.

And he’s done it with relative good humour, excellent PR savvy, (perhaps genuine) modesty and charm, admirable consensus building, sharp calculation and undeniable energy. And all without taking his eye off his long-term goals for the city’s advancement.

Now some or all of that may change in the coming months and years. The current state of affairs may just be the exciting days and hot nights of a political honeymoon. Tory may get bogged down in the endless, inevitable political squabbles and personal pettiness of real-life council stable-mucking. He may lose his way and revert to the tepid, ineffectual behaviour I had previously been ascribing to him.

But I don’t think so. I certainly hope not, anyway.

I am truly coming to believe that the John Tory we see now is the mayor we’re going to get for the next four years (at least).

And, if that’s the case, I will be overjoyed to eat crow, to take back my terrible words, to admit my (continued) failure as a political prognosticator and student of human nature … and to apologize profoundly, profusely and genuinely to Mayor John Tory for all the bad things I’ve said about him over the years.

We haven’t reached that point yet, but it may be coming.

As I said before, two months is really too short a time to make a conclusive shift in judgement. I’m going to give it at least six months, maybe even the first year, before I jump to new conclusions with both feet.

After all, Rob Ford did some pretty impressive things during his first year as mayor — before going haywire, alienating even his friends on council, and choosing bombast, chicanery and self-inflation (not to mention drug abuse) over real leadership and accomplishment.

And Tory has a lot of big-ticket, controversial issues to deal with in his first year as mayor — from his own SmartTrack transit plan to the future of the Gardiner Expressway and the island airport to the inevitable fallout from the Pan Am Games to full privatization of garbage collection and a new round of municipal labour contract negotiations in the fall.

UPDATE: I’m going through Tory’s proposed city budget right now and I have more than a few concerns. He really seems to be going off in 30 different directions — and throwing money in every one of those 30 directions. Hmmm. We’ll see. Maybe he’s just trying to get a few of his many proposals passed. Maybe he’s striking while the iron is hot and getting some needed cash infusions into areas he’s concerned have been neglected in the Ford years. Maybe he’s … you get my drift. Why am I suddenly making shit up to defend a guy I was calling a loser short days ago? I want to hear HIM explain the where-as and what-fors.

So we’ll see. But at least now I’m looking forward to John Tory’s first term as mayor with more hope and optimism and not with so much cynicism and trepidation (although some still lingers).

Don’t let us down, John. I would much prefer that I ended up being the failure rather than you.


There Is No Middle Ground

- January 18th, 2015

I am mad as hell.

And sad. And more than a little ashamed to be part of the human species at the moment. And I have a cold, dark hole in my soul right now.

But mainly mad.

At ISIS, of course, or whatever that bunch of murderous, blasphemous cultists want to call themselves.

It really is true — a picture tells more than a thousand words. More than a million words.

More than anything except being there at the moment and seeing a bunch of masked psychopaths hurling a terrified, tortured, bound and defenceless human being from a rooftop to his death on a street far below. As a crowd — maybe involuntary, probably voluntary — waited and watched.

You know the picture I’m talking about. The one all over the place on social media and creeping into mainstream consciousness as a part of ISIS’s deliberate, manipulative, sophisticated campaign to spread its message of fear and loathing, terror and intimidation as far and as wide as the tentacles of the Internet reach.

And it’s effective. I don’t think anyone in his or her right mind can look at the picture of that poor man plummeting to his death and not shudder with anguish and revulsion. And burning-hot anger.

I know. I know. I know. One of the many purposes of disseminating that photo — and the other photos of crucifixions and stoning deaths —is to alienate and divide Western civilization from mainstream Muslims, to make an absolute and unequivocal  dividing line between Us and Them, all of us and all of them. One side or the other.

And I know, I know, I know that so many other terrible, horrible, monstrous inhumanities are happening constantly  throughout the world. Thousands dying. Millions in fear. At the hands — or at the orders — of ISIS. And al Qaeda. And Boko Haram. And Bashir Assad. And King Abdullah. And Vladimir Putin. And Barack Obama. And all the others.

But this photo, more than anything else we know or believe, DOES draw a line in the sand. There is no equivocation. There is no explanation. There is no wiggle room.

You are either on the side of the people who threw that poor man to his death from a rooftop. Or you are not. No ifs, ands or buts.

I don’t care if you’re a Muslim imam or a Pentecostal preacher, if you think it’s right and just to throw a human being from the top of an eight-storey building because he’s gay, you’re on the side of ISIS.

If you’re not on the side of ISIS, you have to say — loudly and clearly — THAT IS WRONG, IT BREAKS MY HEART AND I STAND AGAINST THE MONSTERS WHO WOULD DO THAT.

That is the dividing line. And everyone has to step in one direction or the other.



Freedom’s More Than Just Another Word For Nothing Left To Lose

- January 13th, 2015


After the initial, immediate shock and outrage over the Charlie Hebdo murders last week, an undercurrent of contrarian ambivalence began seeping through some of the commentaries I was seeing, both on social media and in the mainstream North American press.

An increasing number of commentators — not a majority, but a sizable minority — began to dump on Charlie Hebdo as being a publication not worthy of our support, even though the authors of these comments deplored the deaths themselves. “I am not Charlie” is the go-to hashtag for this view.

Charlie Hebdo, according to them, is itself a poisonous purveyor of racist, intolerant hate. Nobody in North America has actually said it, as far as I can see, but the underlying, unspoken message seems to be that, in its own way and on the opposite end of the political-religious spectrum, Charlie Hebdo is almost as bad and just as hateful as the murderous fundamentalist extremists who massacre people for their cartoons.

When Charlie Hebdo’s offices were firebombed in 2011 (with no casualties), some French commentators actually did say, more or less, “They deserved it.”

I obviously disagree vehemently with them, but I’m not going to get involved in that argument right now. If you want relevant counter views to that position, here are links to two French writers’ blogs, one aimed at American critics of Charlie Hebdo and one at British.

(And before you start yapping at my heels — yes, I find some of the Charlie Hebdo drawings very unpleasant, downright hurtful too. So what? Read on.)

In fact, Charlie Hebdo not only acknowledged — and dismissed — such criticism, it defiantly revelled in it. After the 2011 firebombing, Charlie Hebdo began running a tag line on its cover that said “Journal Irresponsable” — Irresponsible Publication.


Instead of me trying to explain why it’s so important to defend free speech — all free speech, not just the particular variety you or I approve — I’m going to quote some of the greatest (and perhaps some of the more subversive) minds of Western civilization on the subject. Hopefully their words will resonate more than mine.

As for me, je suis Charlie — still.

By the way, here’s a link to a good New York Times article giving an inside look at how the first post-massacre issue of Charlie Hebdo came together.

(And, yes, I know the “massacre” of 12 people at the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris pales in comparison to the 1,000-2,000 Nigerians slaughtered by Boko Haram — with relatively little world reaction — in towns and villages near Lake Chad around the same time. But a massacre is a massacre, a horrendous slaughter, regardless of scale. And both massacres were part of the same jihadist assault on the non-jihadist world.)

As we go through this, I’m going to drop in photos of some of the better-known Charlie Hebdo covers — and some you probably haven’t seen before because, well, they’re offensive.


Much as we like to boast about our traditions of freedom on this side of the Atlantic, we actually have a much lower tolerance for real freedom of expression than most European countries do.

And, much as I hate to say it, I’ve chosen not to show many Charlie Hebdo covers — that’s covers, not even inside cartoons, which are often worse! — because they were just too offensive for even me. I’ve imposed censorship and attempted to curtail free speech as surely as any jihadist or despot of another stripe. We all have a long way to go.


I think most people know Voltaire’s famous dictum:

“I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.”

(And it really is a Voltaire quote, despite what some trolls will say.)

Not so many people know Oscar Wilde’s amendment:

“I may not agree with you, but I will defend to the death your right to make an ass of yourself.”

And that’s the point: One doesn’t have to be right to have the right to say something.


Charlie Hebdo editor Stephane Charbonnier, murdered last week.


“If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”  — George Orwell

“If freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.”  — George Washington

“The relative freedom which we enjoy depends of public opinion. The law is no protection. Governments make laws, but whether they are carried out, and how the police behave, depends on the general temper in the country. If large numbers of people are interested in freedom of speech, there will be freedom of speech, even if the law forbids it; if public opinion is sluggish, inconvenient minorities will be persecuted, even if laws exist to protect them.”  — George Orwell again

“Laws alone cannot secure freedom of expression; in order that every man may present his views without penalty, there must be a spirit of tolerance in the entire population.” — Albert Einstein


“Once a government is committed to the principle of silencing the voice of opposition, it has only one way to go, and that is down the path of increasingly repressive measures, until it becomes a source of terror to all its citizens and creates a country where everyone lives in fear.” — Harry Truman

“If there’s one American belief I hold above all others, it’s that those who would set themselves up in judgment on matters of what is “right” and what is “best” should be given no rest; that they should have to defend their behavior most stringently … As a nation, we’ve been through too many fights to preserve our rights of free thought to let them go just because some prude with a highlighter doesn’t approve of them.” — Stephen King in a 1992 guest column in the Bangor Daily News

“Because if you don’t stand up for the stuff you don’t like, when they come for the stuff you do like, you’ve already lost.”  — Neil Gaiman


It’s probably a good time to remind ourselves of the words of Nazi resister Martin Niemöller (one version of Niemöller’s words, anyway — he said much the same thing in a variety of ways over the years):

“First they came for the communists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.

“Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.

“Then they came for the socialists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a socialist.

“Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.

“Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.”

Niemöller, a Lutheran pastor, had been a supporter of the Nazis in the late 1920s because of his strong anti-communism. But when the Nazis seized power in 1933 and Niemöller finally realized how monstrous they were, he organized opposition to Hitler among (some) church leaders. He was arrested by the Nazis in 1937  and survived the next eight years in Sachsenhausen and Dachau concentration camps before being freed by the Allies in 1945. After the war, Niemöller was much criticized for his early support of Hitler and slowness to resist the persecution of Jews, communists and other “enemies of the state.” He always admitted his guilt and expressed profound regret for not having stood against evil from the beginning.


“It was a shocking thing to say and I knew it was a shocking thing to say. But no one has the right to live without being shocked. No one has the right to spend their life without being offended. Nobody has to read this book. Nobody has to pick it up. Nobody has to open it. And if you open it and read it, you don’t have to like it. And if you read it and you dislike it, you don’t have to remain silent about it. You can write to me, you can complain about it, you can write to the publisher, you can write to the papers, you can write your own book. You can do all those things, but there your rights stop. No one has the right to stop me writing this book. No one has the right to stop it being published, or sold, or bought, or read.” — Philip Pullman, who wrote a fictionalized biography of Jesus, The Good Man Jesus And The Scoundrel Christ. Pullman is also the Carnegie Medal-winning author of best-selling children’s books.

“Most people do not really want others to have freedom of speech; they just want others to be given the freedom to say what they want to hear.” — South African philosopher and social critic Mokokoma Mokhonoana, himself a satirist and cartoonist who has been vilified and threatened for his work as well.

“My own opinion is enough for me, and I claim the right to have it defended against any consensus, any majority, anywhere, any place, any time. And anyone who disagrees with this can pick a number, get in line, and kiss my ass.”  — Christopher Hitchens.


Regardless of what you or I or the great (and subversive) thinkers of history have to say, the survivors of the Charlie Hebdo massacre will keep putting out their offensive publication, attacking, ridiculing, defaming and scandalously portraying targets of every political, religious, sexual, ethnic, social, cultural and judicial rank and variety.

As for their new-found sympathy and popularity, the Charlie Hebdo crew are not counting on that to last and certainly aren’t seduced by it.

Here’s what Dutch cartoonist Bernard Holtrop, a Charlie Hebdo mainstay who was not present at the time of the attack, said a few days ago:

“Wij kotsen op al die mensen die nu ineens zeggen dat ze onze vrienden zijn.”

(We throw up on all these people who suddenly say they are our friends.)


But, in the end, my very favourite quote comes from Renald Luzier, the cartoonist known as Luz, whose drawing is the cover illustration for this week’s Charlie Hebdo.

Luz had missed the editorial meeting where his colleagues were murdered because last Wednesday was his birthday; he stayed late in bed with his wife that morning and had stopped to buy a cake on the way to work. He arrived at the Charlie Hebdo offices soon after the attack.

And here are his words:

” I was saved by love and gluttony.”

I think I’ll get that printed on a T-shirt as my own personal Charlie Hebdo tribute and as a celebration of life.

I was saved by love and gluttony.

Je suis Charlie.


Button Up Your Overcoat

- January 6th, 2015

With an Arctic wind howling through the city yesterday, I found myself singing an old song. This is what I sang:

Button up your overcoat

When it’s cold outside

Take good care of yourself

You belong to me.

Button up your overcoat

When the wind is freezing

Take good care of yourself

You belong to me.

Now I’m not very good at remembering song lyrics. In fact I’m notorious for screwing them up. Which I did in this case. Quite a bit.

I’ll show you the real lyrics a little later (there are a lot of them, 12 verses in all) but first I want to tell you something about the song itself.

helen kane overcoat

For starters, it’s not really about the kind of weather we’re having right now. The wind isn’t actually “freezing” in any version of the song except mine. It seems to be more about a blustery autumn day. In fact stormy weather is just one little item on a long list of things — from traffic cops to hornet’s tails — the singer is warning her new lover to stay away from (because I actually got that part of the song right: “Take good care of yourself, You belong to me”).

Button Up Your Overcoat was written in 1928 by the songwriting team of Ray Henderson (music) and Buddy DeSylva & Lew Brown (lyrics), who also gave us other Tin Pan Alley classics like The Best Things In Life Are Free, Birth Of The Blues and Life Is Just A Bowl Of Cherries.

Button Up Your Overcoat was one of a dozen so songs the team wrote for an upbeat musical called Follow Thru that opened on Broadway in January 1929. It was the biggest hit of the show, performed by song-and-dance comedians Zelma O’Neal and Jack Haley (who went on to become the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz).


Jack Haley and Zelma O’Neal


O’Neal and Haley recreated their roles — and the song — in the film version of Follow Thru the next year. Here’s the link to a YouTube clip of that movie duet.

(The clip isn’t a colourized version of old black-and-white film, by the way. Follow Thru was one of the very first films shot in Technicolor, then an experimental process.)

Almost as soon as Follow Thru opened on Broadway, other singers began recording their versions of Button Up Your Overcoat. In 1929 alone it was on the pop music charts four different times.

Ruth Etting (who also introduced Shine On Harvest Moon to the world) was the first to record it, in March 1929, with her version hitting #15 on the Billboard chart. Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians made it to #11, Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra climbed to #5, and popular singer Helen Kane came out on top at #3.

(Just for the record, neither Helen Kane nor Button Up Your Overcoat made it onto Billboard’s top 50 hits for 1929, although Kane had been #2 the previous year with I Wanna Be Loved By You. Billboard’s top hits for 1929 were: 1. Eddie Cantor, Makin’ Whoopee 2. Fats Waller, Ain’t Misbehavin’ 3. Ethel Waters, Am I Blue? 4. Ukelele Ike, Singin’ In The Rain 5. Charley Patton, Pony Blues 6. Nick Lucas, Tip Toe Through The Tulips With Me (yes, the eventual Tiny Tim song) 7. Louis Armstrong, When You’re Smiling 8. Rudy Vallee, Honey 9. Bob Haring Orchestra, Pagan Love Song 10. Guy Lombardo, Sweethearts on Parade. You’re welcome.)


Helen Kane


Helen Kane’s version of Button Up Your Overcoat is almost certainly the one you know (even though it has since been recorded by everyone from Bing Crosby to Nancy Sinatra) because … well, she’s Helen Kane, “the Boop-a-Doop Girl.”

You’ll see what I mean if you listen to Kane (via YouTube) do her original 1929 Victor Records version here.

Kane was already a singing star, headlining in Broadway revues and recording hits, and was soon to begin making a series of movie musicals for Paramount Pictures that paid her $8,000 a week — a fortune at the time, equivalent to more than $150,000 a week now. (Her movie career quickly fizzled, unfortunately. She just wasn’t right for the close-up intimacy of film.)

And she was distinctive — both in looks and sound.

Born in the Bronx to immigrant parents (her German father was a mostly unemployed labourer and her Irish mother worked in a laundry), Kane — born Helen Clare Schroeder — kept her Bronx accent her entire life.

Coupled with the babyish, kewpie-doll delivery she affected and her trademark addition of the scat phrase “boop-boop-a-doop” to most of her songs, it was hard to mistake Helen Kane’s voice.

On top of that, she had a look that totally complemented the voice — the ultimate Prohibition-era Flapper Girl.

She was so distinctive and so popular that — of course! — many others tried to imitate her. Helen Kane look-alike and sound-alike contests sprang up all over the U.S. (More on that later.)

And I’m sure the voice and look remind you of someone else rather famous. Here’s the link to a YouTube video of another recording of Kane doing Button Up Your Overcoat with the addition of visuals of that other celebrity.



Of course! Betty Boop — the sex-symbol cartoon character who was as popular as Mickey Mouse in the 1930s.

Betty Boop’s career was taking off just as Helen Kane’s was slowing down.

By the mid-1930s Kane’s big-paycheque days were behind her, largely because the persona of a scatter-brained, carefree flapper was at odds with the cold, hard realities of Depression-era America.

That seemed to be a detriment only for live performers, however, since the fantasy giddiness and goofiness of cartoons reached a peak in the mid-1930s. Such was the case with Betty Boop.

Betty’s cinematic career would soon hit its own roadblock, but the Boopster was at the top of her game when Helen Kane launched a $250,000 lawsuit in May 1932, claiming Paramount Pictures (her former employer) and cartoonist Max Fleischer had ripped her off and damaged her career by basing the Betty Boop character on Kane’s own distinct sound and image. The lawsuit finally went to court in 1934.

Looking back now, I think you would have to agree that Kane had a pretty good case: Who could possibly deny that Betty Boop’s inspiration was Helen Kane, the Boop-a-Doop Girl?


Well, Paramount and Fleischer denied it. They cited other role models for the Boop character and even claimed Helen Kane was not the originator of her trademark boop-boop-a-doop scat. (There was probably some justification for that last claim, but “boop-boop-a-doop” was irrevocably linked in the public’s mind to Helen Kane, no one else.)


And Fleischer rolled out three of the singers who did the voice of Betty Boop at various times.

(For some reason, it never came up that all three had come to Max Fleischer’s attention through Helen Kane look-alike/sound-alike contests. The principal Boop voice actress — Mae Questel — had even been picked by Kane herself at a New York competition. Kane gave her an autographed picture that said “To another Helen Kane.” Questel, by the way, also did the voice of Olive Oyl in Popeye cartoons, a later Fleischer franchise. And get this: In the 1983 film Zelig, Woody Allen hired Mae Questel to do the voice of Helen Kane.)


Mae Questel — more Helen Kane than Helen Kane


Here’s another weird one for you: The Warner Brothers cartoon character Tweety Bird is also supposedly based to some extent on Helen Kane — who had a minor hit in 1950 with a cover of the song I Tawt I Taw A Puddy Tat, originally done  by Mel Blanc for a Tweety and Sylvester cartoon.

In the end — against all logic, to my way of thinking — the judge ruled against Helen Kane and a later appeal upheld that verdict.

Kane got a bit of revenge during the process when Fleischer was trying to get a syndicated Betty Boop newspaper comic strip off the ground. Kane beat him to the punch by going to newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst (the inspiration for Citizen Kane) to sell him on the idea of a cartoon strip based on Kane herself called The Original Boop-Boop-A-Doop Girl. The cartoon Helen Kane, by coincidence, looked and acted remarkably like Betty Boop. (And one of the comic strip’s plot lines was about Kane trying to get recognition that the Betty Boop character was based on her.)


The Betty Boop newspaper strip did go ahead a few months later, of course, and outlasted the Helen Kane version — but not by much.

Betty Boop took her own tumble shortly after the Helen Kane trial concluded when the prudish Hollywood censorship regime of the 1934 Hayes Code came into full effect. Immediately, Betty Boop’s mini-skirted, garter-wearing, hip-shaking, winking, seductive party girl was persona non grata. Within a year Betty Boop was a demur, covered-up (and rather boring)  office worker or housewife. Sometimes she was still a nurse, but a much less lascivious one than she had been in the early ’30s. And by 1939, Fleischer had stopped making Betty Boop cartoons altogether.



The Betty Boop character actually started out as a dog — a French poodle — who was the girlfriend of another dog character, Bimbo, then one of the stars in Fleischer Studios’ cartoon universe. Betty quickly evolved into a sexy human form and became the biggest Fleischer star of them all — until Popeye came along. (Her droopy dog ears became hoop earrings.)


Around the same time Betty Boop’s film reign was ending, Helen Kane opened a popular cabaret-restaurant with her third husband in New York City, where she lived for the rest of her life.

Her singing career had a bit of a revival in the 1950s, with Kane appearing on television (including frequent spots on Ed Sullivan’s Toast Of The Town show), cutting a new album of her 1920s and ’30s standards and a couple of newer novelty tunes on MGM Records, and doing voice work in Hollywood (covering for Debbie Reynolds on I Wanna Be Loved By You in the musical biopic Three Little Words). Kane died of breast cancer in 1966.


Helen Kane shortly before her death.


And that’s the story of Helen Kane and Button Up Your Overcoat. Strange this little excursion all started with me singing a song to myself on a windy Toronto street yesterday.

As for the song lyrics, forget my lines like “When it’s cold outside” and “When the wind is freezing.” They just don’t exist in the real song.

Here’s the Helen Kane version of Button Up Your Overcoat (the original didn’t have “boop-boop-a-doop” in it and a couple of other phrasings are slightly changed). Everybody sing along now …

Listen, big boy
Now that I’ve got you made
Goodness, but I’m afraid
Somethin’s gonna happen to you

Listen, big boy
You got me hooked, and how
I would die if I should lose you now

Button up your overcoat
When the wind is free
Take good care of yourself
You belong to me

Eat an apple every day
Get to bed by three
Oh, take good care of yourself
You belong to me

Be careful crossing streets, ooh, ooh
Cut out sweets, ooh, ooh
Lay off meat, ooh, ooh
You’ll get a pain and ruin your tum-tum

Wear your flannel underwear
When you climb a tree
Oh, take good care of yourself
You belong to me

Button up your overcoat
When the wind is free
Oh, take good care of yourself
You belong to me

When you sass a traffic cop
Use diplomacy
Just take good care of yourself
You belong to me

Beware of frozen ponds, ooh, ooh
Stocks and bonds, ooh, ooh
Dockside thugs, ooh, ooh
You’ll get a pain and ruin your bankroll

Keep the spoon out of your cup
When you’re drinking tea
Oh, take good care of yourself
You belong to me

Don’t sit on hornet’s tails, ooh, ooh
Or on nails, ooh, ooh
Or third rails, ooh, ooh
You’ll get a pain and ruin your tum-tum

Keep away from bootleg hooch
When you’re on a spree
Oh, take good care of yourself
You belong to me


The wind isn’t quite so Arctic-y and howling today, but it’s still freezing cold out there. Take good care of yourself.