Dec 19, 2015

The Surprising Gay Origin of Pogo's "Deck Us All"

Every Christmas from 1949 to 1975, and then again in the 1980s and 1990s, the comic strip Pogo had the hayseed denizens of Okefenokee Swamp singing a mangled version of "Deck the Halls":

Deck us all with Boston Charlie,
Walla Walla, Wash., and Kalamazoo!
Nora's freezin' on the trolley,
Swaller dollar cauliflower Alleygaroo!

Don't we know archaic barrel,
 Lullaby, Lilla Boy, Louisville Lou.
Trolley Molly don't love Harold,
Boola Boola Pensacoola Hullabaloo!



Cartoonist Walt Kelly said that he chose that particular song because it was easily recognizable but not religious.  His Pogo version became extremely popular, with a life outside the comic strip, broadcast on the radio, recorded by pop artists during the Golden Age of Novelty Songs.

But what about the lyrics?  Fans clamored to know what they meant.

At first Kelly claimed that they were pure nonsense.  But fans persevered, and in 1963 Kelly published a book listing several possible explanations.

None of them the right one.



Ten years after his death, his close friend, CIA Agent Wilbur Crane Eveland, was interviewed in a Pogo-phile fan magazine, and revealed the secret:

Prison slang.

Deck us all with Boston Charlie
Hang the prison guards up on the wall, so they won't bother us.

Walla Walla, Wash, and Kalamazoo
Names of prisons

Nora's freezin' on the trolley
Nora, the subordinate partner in a same-sex prison romance, is "freezin'", in solitary confinement, according to "the trolley," the prison grapevine.

Swaller dollar cauliflower, Alleygaroo!
???

Don't we know archaic barrel
Homemade prison booze

Lullaby Lilla Boy, Louisville Lou.
Has facilitated the romance between Lilla Boy (another subordinate partner) and Louisville Lou.

Trolley Molly don't love Harold
But not Molly, according to the prison grapevine.

Boola, Boola, Pensacola, Hullaballoo!
???

I wonder how mild-mannered cartoonist Walt Kelly, who was never even arrested, knew all of this prison slang.  He was a language aficionado, so maybe he had reference books.

But why load-up his mangled Christmas carol with prison slang, including references to three same-sex prison romance?

In the 1940s, many prisoners were "prisoners of conscience," war objectors, political dissidents, gay men.  According to Eveland, this was the liberal, gay-positive Kelly's shout-out to them.

Kelly included same-sex desire all the time in Pogo.  Since his players were animals, it always slipped below the censorship radar.

In a long 1955 continuity, a male flea falls in love with Beauregard Hound Dog, and proposes marriage.  Five years later, in a commentary, Kelly wrote "I guess it would have to be a female flea.  That never occurred to me until now."

Way to cover your tracks!  But Kelly kept making the same "mistake" over and over until the day he died.

See also: Pogo, the Gay Possum of Okefenokee Swamp