Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Random Rules: John Hodgman

Illustration for article titled Random Rules: John Hodgman

In "Random Rules," we ask our favorite rockers, writers, comedians, or whatevers to set their MP3 players to "shuffle" and comment on the first few tracks that come up—no cheating or skipping allowed.


Shuffler: John Hodgman, writer, occasional guest expert on The Daily Show, and author of the excellent fake almanac The Areas Of My Expertise, which details dubious facts about such topics as the nine presidents who had hooks for hands, a comprehensive analysis of hobo culture (including 700 hobo names), a thorough analysis of squirrel types, and lots more strange stuff.

k.d. lang, "So In Love"

John Hodgman: From the Red, Hot + Blue Cole Porter compilation, which got a lot of action in my household 10 years ago. I think it was one of the first CDs my wife or I actually loaded into the computer, because it was hanging around a lot. This also reveals something about me, I suppose. [Comedic songwriter] Jonathan Coulton and I met in college. We went to Yale University. He was a Whiffenpoof [a member of a Yale men's singing group referenced in The Areas Of My Expertise], and was into Cole Porter, and I was not a member of any singing group—mainly out of resentment of their tuxedos. There's probably a part of me that yearns to be one, and that's why I tend to, on one hand, make fun of Jonathan Coulton relentlessly for being a Whiffenpoof, and on the other hand, secretly own Cole Porter compilations.

Cat Power, "Names"

JH: Like Chris Ware, all I do is listen to old string bands, ragtime, and Argentinean tango. No, but I write for The New York Times Magazine, and I was asked if I would be interested in profiling Antony of Antony And The Johnsons. I agreed to do it, because I went out and listened to Antony, and I was like, "This is kind of undeniably cool, crazy stuff." I asked Antony what was on his iPod—because that's a nice thing to ask a musician, particularly when you know nothing about music and you don't want to admit it. You don't want to be, "Right, Cat Power, I dig," and you have no idea what he's talking about. So I asked him, and this was one of the things. This album, You Are Free, was on heavy rotation on his iPod.

"You Are My Lucky Star," Singin' In The Rain soundtrack

JH: Sung by Debbie Reynolds and the MGM Studio Orchestra. I've got the Cole Porter compilation and now this, and you're thinking, "John Hodgman is a gay person." Occasionally there are fragments of songs stuck in my brain, and "You Are My Lucky Star" is one of them. In part because I saw Singin' In The Rain when I was a kid and loved it, and in part because it's also what Sigourney Weaver sings at the end of Alien when she's freaked out. It sounds like I'm going really out of my way here to prove that I'm not gay. It's this really awesome scene where Sigourney Weaver has escaped from the big ship, and she's on the escape pod, and she realizes the alien's on the escape pod, too, so she immediately backs into a closet. She's already taken off her clothes to go to sleep, and she's very freaked. She's in this very revealing camisole set, and it's a very exciting moment for a young geek. I was already in love with Sigourney Weaver from the first scene—she had me from the moment she wouldn't let them back into the ship because they were contaminated with the alien—and now she gets into a spacesuit and starts singing, out of nervousness, the beginning of "You Are My Lucky Star." I was just like, "What an awesome character bit!" and "How did that song survive into the future? Is it just that great?" So every now and then I would just sing it around the house, and my daughter would say, "What's that?" I'd say, "Let's dial it up on the old Internet and see." So I have a few of those.


Raffi, "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot"

JH: I don't know a lot about music, but I have done my best to inculcate my children with good choices. My friend Amy gave me the Smithsonian compilation of children's music, and it was beautiful. We would play that, and I could enjoy these great American folk songs as reinterpreted by Dan Zanes or whomever, so I thought I could control this situation. Then, last Christmas, my wife's parents busted out the Raffi as a Christmas present. I thought, "She's already got a good foundation. She's not going to enjoy this." We threw it onto this computer and let it go, and it was instantaneous hypnosis. I could not believe it. Children's songs are often misappropriated folk songs, and many of them are drinking songs, which is very strange. Like "Little Brown Jug," when you read the original lyrics, I can't believe the children are singing this song of cheerful alcoholism. "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" is of course what used to be called a Negro spiritual, lamenting, I presume, slavery, so it's very weird to hear that filtered through Raffi, who's some kind of weird French-Canadian dude, a bearded guy.


There's a famous children's song called "The Big Rock Candy Mountain," but it's not a children's song at all. It's an old hobo folk song describing the hobo Valhalla where cigarettes grew on trees and streams of alcohol trickled down the rocks, and there'd be a lake of gin and whiskey. Handouts grew on trees. Harry McClintock [who popularized it] said a lot of people think this song was written by the hobos as a type of pied-piper tune to sing as they went through towns, to try to bring children with them. He goes on to explain that the most valuable possession a hobo could have would be a child who would do his begging for him—then McClintock said mysteriously, "and other things." I'm like, "What the hell?" I had been really worried that people were going to find the hobo material [in Expertise] offensive, because on one hand, they might confuse the hobo material with making fun of contemporary homelessness, which is the last thing that I'm interested in doing.

I felt the obligation to do a certain amount of research in this area, and what I discovered—quite to my horror and surprise—was that the hobos had this "road kid" culture, that hobos would have homosexual relationships with young men that they would lure onto the hobo road. I'm talking early teens. The hobo slang is so colorful and evocative, but I discovered this culture infected a whole different realm of hobo slang that was just awful and dispiriting, so a hobo's road kid might be called his "possesh." A road kid's life was much like a punk in prison—about serving the hobo master until he could become strong enough to become a hobo in his own right. I did a fair amount of casual research on hobos, and it never came up until I heard this song. When I do readings, Jonathan Coulton will come with me, and we'll do some comedic banter. Then I'll read about the hobos, and he'll play "The Big Rock Candy Mountain," and we'll sing about how this is a much darker story than even I imagined. We have a whole bunch of lyrics that we've written that purport to be the originals, all about how the hobo's singing to the child, "You won't miss your mom and dad," and the rocks are nice and sweet, and the dirt all tastes like sugar—you can taste some as you work the mines to bring me precious gems. "There's a hobo's shed and some paint made of lead / You know you're done painting when you're good and dead / On The Big Rock Candy Mountain." That was our version.