In his book The audible past, Jonathan Sterne cites a spoof advertisement (p. 272) clipped from the Judge Magazine, for the new Orthophonic Victrola: “Every instrument sounds like a skeleton’s Charleston on a tin roof.” The Orthophonic Victrola was introduced in November 1925, so this undated fragment is likely from around 1926 – a reaction to Victrola’s product-launching ad campaign, which was unprecedented in history in terms of financial expenses.
In 1926, Sir Thomas Beecham was 47 years old. At that age, Beecham likely had his most favorite bon mots well-rehearsed and easily accessible stored on his hard drive. This would have included the one about how a harpsichord sounds. (if you are – unlikely, really – unaware of what I mean, enter the words ‘Beecham’ and ‘harpsichord’ in the search window of your favorite search engine and you’ll soon know.)
The urban dictionary explains that the phrase “two skeletons doing the Charleston on a hot tin roof” means “loud”; “outrageous” and “noisy;” “annoying loud sounds coming from two or more people.” Whereas this explanation rings true and, between the lines, points to a long tradition, the urban dictionary’s citation of the phrase includes an anachronism: the Charleston was introduced in 1923 and tin roofs surely were around for a while even before that (in fact even before the Judge Magazine’s establishment in 1881), but the specific hot tin roof was added to the whole only after Tennessee William’s play Cat On a Hot Tin Roof from 1955 had become famous. That is, at least, my theory (I have not been able to establish why, and from when on, some people let these skeletons do whatever skeletons do on tin roofs “during a thunderstorm,” or on “corrugated” tin roofs.).
The quoted spoof ad very clearly builds on a tradition that uses skeletons and tin roofs for describing a racket of sorts – this makes it actually quite unlikely that Beecham was the first who ever drew attention to the various other activities of skeletons on tin roofs (apart from doing the Charleston). Unfortunately it turned out to be impossible for me to fully disentangle the intricate history of tin roof and skeleton analogies, which leaves us with several unsolved philosophical puzzles. Was Beecham aware of the Victrola spoof, and did he perhaps specifically allude to the harpsichord’s inherent capacity of sounding like a sound-reproduction machine, like an “as if” musical instrument? (There are more questions about reproduction here that must be left unanswered). We do know that he refers to harpsichords from before the time when historical building became the norm – they might have made some noise, but unlikely any racket at all. What kind of tin roofs, then, did he have in mind? The addition “corrugated” doesn’t seem to be the whole answer here; neither is the “thunderstorm.” Historians of technology or forensic science may think of many other questions.
On the other hand, it seems likely that it was Beecham himself who was the founder of a tradition of a specific manner of delivery. One recites this silly comparison with a tone of voice that must be almost-but-not-entirely out of control (because of the sheer brilliancy of having thought of it at this specific moment while nobody else is talking); with slightly rosy cheeks; a somewhat accelerated pulse; and while trying to catch everyone’s eyes at once. In prolongation of the “f” of “roof,” the deliverer expels his nervous reserve air supplies, pants slightly and takes a sip of wine (this needs some exercise. Try practicing drinking wine after telling various jokes in front of the mirror. Never begin with the wine before your nervous grin has completely faded).
Let’s now turn to the reactions that are expected from the harpsichordist who is made to listen to yet another version of Beecham’s story. Depending on how sorry one feels for the person who just told it, one can do one of the following things:
1) one can laugh heartily, or at least with a “we-among-chums” type of rasping-breath laugh that brings the waitress to the table with more drinks.
2) one could smile politely and say in a very self-effacing manner “how true this sometimes is, however, I believe I have heard this story before.”
3) one can look the speaker in the eye and begin drinking one’s own wine, before the other’s grin has faded.
4) one can begin a lengthy tale about how annoying it is that the paint on the tin roof at home has begun to flake and that one ought to sue the manufacturer.
5) one could, of course, also say: “I really don’t know what’s so funny with this story.”
6) one smiles and is silent. However, in the next CD booklet or announcement text, one includes a witty line of one’s own such as the (fictive) following one: ‘Mr./Mrs. X’s achievement clearly shows that Sir Thomas Beecham’s description of the sound of the harpsichord (add quote) was not the last word said on this matter. The instrument on this recording sounds (add juice) and one wishes that Beecham had the opportunity to hear these truly ensnaring (or whatever) results.’ It is, after all, not: ‘Bach would have preferred the Steinway.’ It is ‘Beecham would have loved the historical tin roof.’