Sunday, March 07, 2010

Hey, Dude!

Category: Birthday Tribute

In 1926 a six-year-old boy picked up a mandolin that was lying around his home. His eight-year-old brother taught him the three chords of "Little Brown Jug." After that, the mandolin was never the same again.

The little boy was Kenneth Charles Burns, born nine decades ago March 10.

By the age of ten, Dude (pronounced "Dudie") Burns had learned every country song played on the radio in Knoxville. The music failed to challenge his playing sufficiently, so he turned to jazz; specifically, the brilliance of Django Reinhardt. The more he discovered the better he played. By the time he was twelve a talent judge threw him and his band out of an amateur contest because he sounded far too professional.

Something else heavily influenced the young Dude Burns: his father, who, prior to World War I, worked as a blackface Vaudeville comedian. The humor gene became very prevalent in the son a few years later on the radio, when he and his friend and musical partner Henry "Junior" Haynes began doing comical versions of pop songs. When WNOX announcer Lowell Blanchard forgot their names while introducing them for their segment on the Midday Merry-Go-Round he blurted out something else. The two boys liked the names Blanchard improvised and kept them. Those names were Homer and Jethro.

Homer and Jethro on the
National Barn Dance, 1957

Jethro Burns is a legend, and rightfully so. He was not only the master of the mandolin who could impersonate anyone's playing style (listen to him mimic Bill Monroe on Old Friends, the album he did with Red Rector) and play any genre of music, his humor was drier than the deserts he and Homer sang about in "The Sifting, Wimpering Sands."

And nobody was safe from Jethro's humor. When his daughter injured her toe at school the nurse suggested she go home after the toe turned purple. She phoned home and her father's reply to her plight was, "Do you want me to call you a toe truck?" He commented to a friend that he was perplexed as to why, when he came home from a tour, he always found the toilet seat up. And when an interviewer asked Jethro how he and brother-in-law Chet Atkins were able to differentiate between their wives, who were identical twins, Jethro commented, "We never try."

Jethro seemed to relish in letting people get in just nearly over their head -- then he'd throw them a cinder block. On one occasion, while touring with Steve Goodman, Goodman went after one of Jethro's less-than successful jokes. "Is that how these jokes went over when you told them back then?" Goodman said.

"No," Jethro replied sincerely. Sometimes they flopped."

Goodman laughed. "Homer stood here for forty years, huh?"

At that point Jethro executed his revenge. "We'd do all the old jokes. Ask this lady here, 'are you in show business?'"

As this joke was used in the film Blazing Saddles, Goodman should have seen what was coming; however, he obliged his friend. "Are you in show business?" he asked the woman in the audience. She shook her head.

"Then get your elbow off the stage!" Jethro commanded.

Goodman sank like a rock. "What I wanna know," he said through his laughter, "is how I got talked into setting that up!"

On another occasion Burns fenced with his longtime partner at 35,000 feet. While returning from one of Homer and Jethro's engagements in Las Vegas Jethro was called to the cockpit of the plane. When he arrived he found the captain waiting for him. The captain informed Jethro he needed to be searched, and Burns consented. After he was patted down and his personal effects returned to him, the pilot apologized, "I'm sorry, but we had it on good authority that you were smuggling drugs."

"No problem."

As Jethro started back for his seat the first thing he saw as he passed through the curtain was Homer, in his seat, doubled over in laughter. As Jethro neared Homer's seat Haynes asked innocently, "Anything wrong?"

"Nothing," Jethro replied. "The captain wanted my autograph, that's all."

Celebrate the 90th anniversary of the birth of Kenneth "Jethro" Burns by spinning a few Homer and Jethro albums (you have to use albums, since there are only two compilation CDs in print). Here's one to get your funny bone warmed up:

Enjoy the musical and comedy magic that is Homer and Jethro.

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