Matt Brennan: University of Edinburgh
Towards a history of drummer jokes and stereotypes
ABSTRACT: This paper investigates the history of drummer jokes and stereotypes. Drummer jokes are abundant in popular music culture, and their punchlines hinge on stereotypes about drummers (I focus on seven in particular – drummers as dumb, noisy, illiterate, uncreative, male, broke, and replaceable.) This is not to say that drummers are universally perceived as low status musicians by any means. Instead, as Stephen Cottrell (2004) has suggested, “stereotypes require a certain suspension of disbelief; we persist in stereotyping even when confronted with evidence which defies or contradicts the stereotypical image created.” But musician jokes of all kinds employ humour which “also has its place in controlling behaviour, that is, it can be used to reinforce behavioural norms and values existing within a society or group; ridiculing socially inappropriate behaviour promotes social control because it emphasizes social conformity” (ibid). This paper sketches the history of drummer jokes and stereotypes and argues that drummer stereotypes are ultimately not just about drummers: we find similar stereotypes routinely attributed in wider narratives of “low culture” of all sorts. Making fun of the drum kit and drummers is therefore a useful lens to consider the historical construction of the divide between high and low culture.
Ref: Cottrell, Stephen. Professional music-making in London: ethnography and experience (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004).
Matt begins, contrarily enough, with his serious research questions – how do drummer jokes define perception of drummers, and are the jokes a cause or effect of their ‘lowly’ status.
He jumps straight into history, trying to find the earliest drummer jokes, starting from 1975 but immediately finding Keith Moon (1965) and Melody Maker (1928). In the early 20th century, if a vaudeville act could afford one musician, it would be a pianist. If they could hire two, it would include a drummer. Matt quotes from several vaudeville-era memoirs about how the drummer was perceived. He now explores the 1920s, and the two musical gig stereotypes of vaudeville/sound effect drumming vs jazz-style swing playing.
We see an earlier snarky gig review joke from 1915, featuring Victor Joyner’s Imperial Four, followed by a drummer-dissing passage from 1884 from the New York Times. The drummer is the first to arrive at the rehearsal, because he is also the band’s librarian, responsible for putting out the sheet music. The soloists (first violinists) arrive last (implicitly having been drinking) and open the show by dissing the drummer (who has done all of this hard work before the prima donnas arrive).
“Can we find a drummer joke earlier than 1884?” asks Matt. Answer: “yes, we can!”. In 1511, Sebastian Virdung compares drummers to barrel-makers and other low-status craftsmen, giving a variation of “what do you call a person who hangs around with musicians?”.
Joke #1: “How do you get a drummer to stop playing? Put sheet music in front of them.”. This joke, which Matt notes is applied to guitarists and bass players – to legitimize educated culture and delegitimize uneducated (or self-taught) culture.
He now takes us through the chapters for his book in progress, each of which is based on an established drummer joke to explore a different stereotype or prejudice. He’s asking for feedback from the assembled community regarding whether these prejudicial jokes might be good chapter titles.
Joke #1: What do you call a drummer with half a brain? Over-qualified.
This joke sets the tone for a discussion of the early 20th-century binary, between the educated classical musician (equates with the then ‘modern’ emerging kit drummer) and the ‘tribal’ (non-kit) drummer (with implicit racial allusion of the time).
Joke #2 “How do you get a drummer to start playing? Start tuning your instrument.”
Stereotype: the drummer as inconsiderate, with poor understanding of the ‘real’ or ‘higher’ musicians’ professional practices and needs.
Joke #3: What you do call the part of the gig when everyone goes to the bar? The drum solo”
By the logic of this joke, the only function of the drum kit is to play subordinate to other higher profile musicians, and it implies that to take a drum solo is an act of insubordination, to be punished with audience indifference.
Joke #4: What do you call a drummer who’s lost his girlfriend? Homeless.
Two stereotypes here – the destitute status of the drummer, and the assumed maleness of the drummer. The drum kit, Matt reflects, is the most consistently male-gendered instrument of the 20thC. Quote from a 1920s publication: “Watch out, boys – if girls play the drums we will all lose out!”.
Joke #5: What’s the difference between a drummer and savings bond? One will mature and make money.
More on the economics. Drummers were famously paid less in the early 1900s music hall gigs. Drummers were in a different pay bracket from all other musicians in the published rates.
Joke #6: What’s the difference between a drummer and a drum machine? With a drum machine you only have to punch the information in once.
This deals with the rise of technologies and the implication that drummers are dispensible [and, I infer, professionally unreliable and illiterate i.e. only understand violence].
Matt finishes by siting these stereotypes within the wider societal issues cited in Culture and Society 1780-1950. Issues of race, gender, art, technology, and economics have driven the development of drummer characterization, as they drive any specific and historically persecuted social group.
In questioning, we discuss gendered roles (and Karen Carpenter as a gender-stereotype outlier), and viola jokes (the classical equivalent of the drummer stereotype as ‘lowly quasi-musician’).