Praise The Lord And Pass The Geiger Counters

Posted: October 7, 2014 in Atomic Pop, Audio
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Howdy friends! Today we’re going to take a listen to the great old-timey cowboy/folk ballad, OLD MAN ATOM (Talking Atomic Blues). This song is totally in my wheelhouse, but unlike most things in my wheelhouse, it just fell into my lap. A couple of Sundays ago I was listening to Old Time Country and Bluegrass with Hazel the Delta Rambler on WWOZ, which if you like bluegrass even in the slightest, you should check out. (Also, WWOZ streams on the web, for those of you out of broadcast range.) This particular episode featured Banned Songs in honor of Banned Books Week. Hazel played quite a few gems, as always, but none shone quite so shiny as OLD MAN ATOM.

OLD MAN ATOM is an anti-nuke song. And when the song first came out, we were so solidly on the nuclear bandwagon, that it caused quite a stir–blacklistings, bannings, all sorts of fun!

Vern Parlow was a newspaperman who penned the song in 1945. It took a bit to percolate, but when the song finally hit the airwaves in 1950, it was a big hit; I mean several different versions by several different artists in several months’ span. But link most things that come in with a bang, the song’s popularity burned hot and fast and met an abrupt end when it was pulled from distribution by Cold War crazies, because if you weren’t with us (The Bomb) you were against us (The Commies).

So why was this song so…bad?

Let’s deconstruct! (This is the Sam Hinton version of the song. I heard the Sons of the Pioneers version on Hazel’s show. )

The song’s style is kind of a rap. But a folksy, bluesy cowboy sounding one, so get ready for some spoken word!

First the song starts of with the chorus:

Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Alamogordo, Bikini

Yeah…Hiroshima and Nagasaki where were Fat Man and Little Boy leveled Japan, of course. Alamogordo was the site of the Trinity Test (first nuclear weapon test, ever), and lots of atomic testing took place at the Bikini Atoll. And Spongebob lived there.

So, all in all, it’s a cheerful way to begin a song.

Then we’re hit with:

Well, I’m gonna preach you a sermon ’bout Old Man Atom,
I don’t mean the Adam in the Bible datum.
I don’t mean the Adam that Mother Eve mated,
I mean that thing that science liberated.
Einstein says he’s scared,
And when Einstein’s scared, I’m scared.

Okay, so we’re talking about the particle, not the man. Got it. I really like the religious/science clash here–preach, sermon, Eve, Adam/atom, datum. Plus datum is a weird word. And Einstein’s basically the atomic fear canary in the coal mine I guess.

Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Alamogordo, Bikini

Here’s my moral, plain as day,
Old Man Atom is here to stay.
He’s gonna hang around, it’s plain to see,
But, ah, my dearly beloved, are we?
We hold these truths self-evident
All men may be cremated equal.

Wow. Just, wow. A-Bombs are here to stay, but are we going to blow ourselves to smithereens? Old Man Atom seems to think so, with probably the best play on words I’ve read in quite some time: “All men may be cremated equal.” SO. GOOD.
Back for more of the cheery chorus:

Hiroshima, Nagasaki — here’s my text
Hiroshima, Nagasaki — Lordy, who’ll be next.

And then:

The science guys, from every clime,
They all pitched in with overtime.
Before they knew it, the job was done;
They’d hitched up the the power of the gosh-darn sun,
The put a harness on Old Sol,
Splittin’ atoms while the diplomats was splittin’ hairs…

So basically the scientists worked really hard and were able to harness the power of the “gosh-darn” sun, which isn’t technically true, because the sun uses fusion while atomic bombs use fission. Hydrogen bombs are fission, but still. Anyway I get what he’s going for–Alpha and Omega/world-changing/all life ending power. And the contrast between splittin’ atoms and splittin’ hairs is great!

Also, Old Sol, reminds me of two things: Ol’ Roy dog from Walmart and that Twilight Zone episode (The Hunt) where the old dead hillbilly and his faithful hound dog are out for a stroll when the gatekeeper tries to convince him to cross over to Elysian Fields. The old dead man declines the gatekeeper’s offer because his dog is not allowed to come with him. Sure enough, further down the road an angel finds them and asks if he can take them to real Heaven, and of course the dog can come along too, because it’s Heaven. Stupid gatekeeper to Hell.


Hiroshima, Nagasaki — what’ll we do?
Hiroshima, Nagasaki — they both went up blue.

Nice use of blue = death, and Cherenkov Radiation (faint blue glow around a reactor).

Then the cartel crowd put on a show
To turn back the clock on the UNO
To get a corner on atoms and maybe extinguish
Every darned atom that can’t speak English.
Down with foreign-born atoms!
Yes, Sir!

I just…don’t know. I think UNO is the United Nations Organization, BUT I did find that there is a UNO clock, which is a contemporay single handed clock, so…maybe a shout-out to Mid Century design? No I think it’s United Nations. And, check out that blatant Western stance!

Hiroshima, Nagasaki…

But the atom’s international, in spite of hysteria,
Flourishes in Utah, also Siberia.
And whether you’re white, black, red or brown,
The question is this, when you boil it down:
To be or not to be!
That is the question…
Atoms to atoms, and dust to dust,
If the world makes A-bombs, something’s bound to bust.

Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Alamogordo, Bikini…

Oooookay. A lot to take in here. Hysteria. I guess because we didn’t want anyone but ourselves to have the atomic bomb?

Utah! This comes several years later than the song, but it’s still worth noting. The Conqueror was a John Wayne movie filmed in St. George, Utah, in 1953. (Wayne played  Genghis Khan (Khan!) and it was filmed in Utah, so I mean it has to be good, right?!) Atomic tests were performed at the Nevada Test Site, a heartbeat away. The filmmakers knew this was going on with filming but kept going anyway. So, what happened? Well, many of the people involved with the film died of cancer, including John Wayne. There’s no way to conclusively link the cancer deaths with the fallout from the tests, but it certainly didn’t help anything.

 “To be or not to be!” is not in fact phrased as a question as the previous line states, and tbqh, sounds kind of lame. I do like the swap of atoms for ashes in “Atoms to atoms, and dust to dust,” though.
Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Alamogordo, Bikini…
No, the answer to it all isn’t military datum,
Like “Who gets there fustest with the mostest atoms,”
But the people of the world must decide their fate,
We got to stick together or disintegrate.
World peace and the atomic golden age or a push-button war,
Mass cooperation or mass annihilation,
Civilian international control of the atom — one world or none.
If you’re gonna split atoms, well, you can’t split ranks.
Hiroshima, Nagasaki…
Are you guys tired of this yet? Thanks for sticking with me to this point. There’s some pretty good word and idea play going on here. I particularly like the representation of Atoms for Peace: World peace and the atomic golden age vs. a push-button war. Also, more clever “split” usage.
It’s up to the people, cause the atom don’t care,
You can’t fence him in, he’s just like air.
He doesn’t give a darn about politics
Or who got who into whatever fix —
All he wants to do is sit around and have his nucleus bombarded by neutrons.
Yeah, atoms are everywhere. But this verse doesn’t really do much of anything for me except the last line, which sounds kind of dirty.
Hiroshima, Nagasaki…
So if you’re scared of the A-bomb, I’ll tell you what to do:
You got to get with all the people in the world with you.
You got to get together and let out a yell,
Or the first thing you know we’ll blow this world to…
Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Moscow, too,
New York, London, Timbuktu,
Shanghai, Paris, up the flue,
Hiroshima, Nagasaki…
We must choose between
The brotherhood of man or smithereens.
The people of the world must pick out a thesis:
“Peace in the world, or the world in pieces!”
I like it. Particularly the city/A-Bomb hit list, which reminds me a lot of “We Didn’t Start the Fire.”
So. What did you think? Pretty interesting stuff, right?


  1. Blathering says:

    LOVE Hazel. Have you heard her play anywhere yet?
    And I love Love LOVE that episode of the Twilight Zone.


  2. Drew Simels says:

    The version I listened to as a kid in the 1950s was a Columbia 78 rpm and it started with guitar strumming and Mr. Hinton launched into his ‘rap.’ The chorus came between the raps. The first time I heard the 78 rpm, I became quite frightened when the explosion happened at the very end of the record.


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