By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by James Frise, April 29, 1933.
“This here Hitler, now,” said Jimmie Frise, scratching at his drawing board, “how do you explain him?”
“He is a romantic,” I replied. “If you ever heard a German band, you will understand Hitler.”
“But lookit here,” said Jim, “didn’t we knock that heroics stuff out of the Germans? It took the whole world to do it, but you would think they’d take the hint. Why don’t they just knuckle down to being a nice country people like the Germans in the fairy tales.”
“All you can beat up,” I said, “is one generation. You beat up a man. And what happens? His son takes boxing lessons.”
“You mean?” said Jim.
“I mean,” said I, “that Hitler is the leader of the generation that wasn’t in the war. That means everybody up to thirty years of age. The generation of proud kids who had to swallow defeat, financial ruin, unemployment, revenge. So they have been taking boxing lessons, to kill time.”
“And now?” said Jim.
“Now Hitler is the boss of a few million handy adults who say, “Aren’t we supposed to live, aren’t we the children of the past, the Old Gods, the romance, the racial spirit expressed by our poets, musicians, Goethe, Wagner?”
“I like Wagner music,” said Jim.
“Did you ever hear the Love-Death from Tristan?” I asked. “Or the Fire Music from the Valkyrie?”
“I suppose so,” said Jim. “I always know Wagner music because it makes me get up out of my chair and conduct an imaginary grand orchestra! With augmented drums and trumpets!”
“Well,” I said, “that’s Hitler. You’ve got Hitler right there.”
“They say,” said Jim, “that he is going to discard everything, just as thoroughly as the Bolsheviks did; and then, instead of introducing the New, he is going to revive the Old.”
“It has never been done,” I remarked.
“But it ought to be,” said Jim. “We have thrown, away all the old things and traded them for a lot of shoddy, machine-made new things that don’t last. I’d like to see somebody come along and revive a whole lot of the old things. Here it is nearly May Day, and instead of having the whole community dancing around the maypole, all we will have will be a few agitators trying to hold a parade, and a lot of police making sure they don’t.”
“And Morris dancers on the green,” said I, “and floral dancers galloping through the streets, with musicians, in and out doorways.”
“No wonder there are people discontented with life the way it is,” said Jim. “If we had some of the old things, everybody would be happy, working off their steam in harmless joy.”
Let’s Have a Maypole
“There is nothing we can do about it,” said I.
“Certainly there is!” cried Jim. “We could have a May Day celebration out in our neighborhood, and maybe from that start who knows how it might spread. “Let’s have a maypole!”
“In that little park up the street from my place,” said Jim. “A maypole, with a hundred ribbons, and all the young people dancing around it!”
“Not a bad idea,” said I. “We’d have to get permission from the parks department.”
“Bosh!” cried Jim. “Must people get a permit to be joyful!”
“Then, the music?” I asked.
“Tabers, dulcimers, flutes, zithers and horns!” cried Jim, leaping to his feet.
“It would be easier,” I said, “to get a radio and run wires out to it in the park.”
“Never!” shouted Jim. “You can play a fife, you Orangeman! We’ll have you play the fife, and then all the children and youths can sing, as they swing around the maypole. Music enough!”
Jimmie was all worked up.
“What would they sing?” I asked. “We would need to rehearse this, because I can’t imagine the youth of our time dancing around the maypole and singing ‘Underneath the Harlem Moon.'”
“We could rehearse,” declared Jim. “We’ve got several days before the first of May.
And that is the way it started.
After supper, Jim and I went up and had a look at the little park, and we picked a spot where we could set up a nice maypole. There were a lot of youngsters playing baseball, lacrosse and tag in the park.
“They’ll quit that soon enough,” said Jim, “when we put the maypole up.”
“To-morrow evening we ought to try it on them,” I replied.
So Jim and I went back to his house and started to work on the maypole. Jimmie thought red, white and blue would be good colors for the ribbons, while I favored green, white and yellow. Jim thought a clothes prop would do for the Maypole, but I thought we should go out in the country and get a good big pole that would not pull down too easily. We compromised by adopting red, yellow and pink ribbons and fastening them on a pole we took out of Jim’s rose arbor. It was not very tall, but it would do for a rehearsal.
“Now,” said Jim, “you go home and practice on your fife.”
The next evening, about the time the children came out for a bit of play and about the time the young people began to stroll along the streets to escape helping with the dishes, Jimmie and I carried the maypole over to the park and I dug a little hole into which we set the pole and braced it up with earth and stones. A crowd of children and large boys came and stood around watching us, to Jim’s delight.
“What is it, mister?” the kids asked. “A goal post?”
“No,” said Jimmie, “it’s a maypole. Would you like to dance around it?”
“Aw, I’m in the second book,” replied the boy Jim addressed. “I got out of the kindygarten years ago.”
“But next Monday will be May Day,” said Jim. “It is the day when all through the ages everybody danced and sang for the return of spring.”
“Is it a holiday?” yelled several boys.
Jimmie shook out the ribbons on the pole.
“Now while this gentleman plays the flageolet,” said Jim, “let us all see how it feels to hold one of these pretty ribbons and dance in and out around the maypole.”
Jim nodded to me and I drew out the fife and tuned her up.
The boys somewhat shamefaced took ribbons and stood around while I started a party tune on the fife.
“Altogether now,” cried Jimmie gayly, “here we go round the mulberry bush, tra-la, tra-la, tra-la!”
People started coming over to the park from the sidewalks. A number of young people, youths.
A few of the boys started awkwardly hopping around, while others stood still. A couple of larger boys dropped their lacrosse sticks and grabbed half a dozen ribbons and, yelling in cracked voices, tra-la, tra-la, began to muddle the thing up. I blew hard on the fife.
“Easy, boys!” cried Jim, “nicely now, nicely! No rough stuff. In and out, inside one and outside the other.”
But the spirit of the larger boys was weightier than Jim and my fife both, and in about thirty seconds, everybody was wound tight into a heap around the maypole and crowding around it they knocked it over. Jim was in the bottom of the heap.
By this time a quite goodly crowd was assembled, and people were running from all directions into the park.
Jim got the pole up again and the ribbons unsorted.
“Now, young people,” said Jim, “the idea is to dance in and out of each other around the pole, then when we get all wound up, reverse and start unwinding again, you see? Winding and unwinding. For the spirit of old England! For the spirit of Robin Hood and King Richard the Lion Heart!”
Jim invited several of the pretty girls and tall young men to take hold of ribbons, and form a circle, and he signalled me to start again.
“In and out, round and round!” chanted Jim, dancing in the lead.
“Hey, Mike!” shouted a gentleman bursting through the crowd, “git away from that!”
And he grabbed a little red-headed boy that was one of the dancers and hauled him out.
“What are you trying to do,” shouted the gentleman, “making my kid dance to them party tunes!”
“Play an old English tune,” said Jim.
So I started, “Here We Go Gathering Nuts in May.”
“Tra-la, tra-la, tra-la,” cried Jim, starting to hippetty-hop around the pole. But it was too complicated, and in a few jiffies everything was tangled up again, and the pole fell over.
“Hey, guys,” yelled a voice, “how about the ball game?”
A lacrosse ball hit Jim on the neck. Several boys in the crowd started pulling at the ribbons.
“Hey, guys, club colors!” cried a voice.
“Our side red and yellow, your side yellow and pink! Tie it around your arms!”
Jim made a grab but the may pole started off through the legs of the crowd, ribbons and all.
“Just a minute!” shouted Jim, holding up his hand. “Just a minute, friends! How about Merrie England! Listen! Can’t we revive a sweet old custom without having a gang of hoodlums smash everything all up?”
“Who’s a hoodlum?” demanded a neighbor, stepping forward. “Did you call my kids hoodlums?”
“Wait a minute,” pleaded Jim, “all we are trying to do – with Hitler bringing back the old customs to Germany – an attempt to do something besides a lot of Communists holding meetings – give us a chance–“
“Ha, so that’s it?” cried the man, and several others backed him up. “I thought these ribbons were a funny combination. Communists, are you?”
“No, no!” shouted Jim above the din of kids starting to form teams and young girls and men laughing.
“What’s this about Hitler?” the gentleman demanded loudly. “Are these German colors?”
“No, no, Merrie England! St. George and Merrie England,” shouted Jim. “This is a maypole, we are trying to rehearse for May Day. Give us a chance.”
“Our kids have enough distractions from their school work,” announced another man loudly, “without people starting riots in the public parks.”
“This was just a little innocent dance–” began Jim.
“Dancing, is it?” interrupted still another neighbor. “Well, you can just take your public dancing out of this, in times like this; you’ve got your nerve, me trying to hold my kids down as it is–“
I reached in and tugged Jim’s coat tail.
We beat a decent retreat, leaving the ball game and the lacrosse game somewhat brightened by sundry bandages of pretty ribbons, and groups of elders and youths standing conversing in the park.
So we went down in Jimmie’s cellar and there, sitting on boxes, with my fife, we recaptured the dear old days of yore, with music and songs, until Jim’s daughters hammered on the floor upstairs with their heels and told us they had to do their homework.
Editor’s Notes: Adolf Hitler just became Chancellor of Germany in January 1933. The Reichstag Fire took place in February, and the Enabling Act (which gave Hitler dictatorial powers) was passed in March. At the time of the article, the clampdown on other political parties was underway, and many commentators in the rest of the world were trying to figure out what was going on, and what the Nazis were doing. It was still very much unknown at this time.
May Day is an ancient spring holiday, but it was also chosen as the date for International Workers’ Day by the socialists, communists and labour activists.
“Underneath The Harlem Moon” was a popular song written by Mack Gordon in 1932. It has a lot of racist lines, the linked article has more information on why it might have been popular with Black audiences as well.