Even squares can have a ball
The Lawrence Welk Show performance of One Toke Over the Line
One toke over the line was a comic song written and performed by the usually more serious folk rock duo Brewer & Shipley. It became their only big hit in 1971. US Vice President Spiro Agnew denounced the song as “blatant drug-culture propaganda” that “threatens to sap our national strength.” Agnew went on to threaten radio stations that played such songs with Federal Communications Commission penalties leading to a number of other songs also being effectively black listed from public airplay including Eight Miles High, Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds and Puff the Magic Dragon.
It was at precisely this moment in early 1971 that the song was performed on the Lawrence Welk Show, the squarest music show on American TV- the show that kept aging Republicans tapping their toes. Lawrence Welk was a piano accordion playing bandleader whose TV show catered for a more conservative musical audience for over 30 years until he retired in 1982, performing what he called lighter style “Champagne music”. The Welk performance generated even more publicity for the song and Brewer & Shipley have since worn the banning and the Welk performance as a badge of honour. The FCC did not penalise Lawrence Welk for broadcasting the song.
The $64 question is whether or not anyone knew what was going on with the song- what it really meant. Or was Welk just suckered into thinking of the song as a “modern spiritual” by the “sweet Jesus” and “Mary” references in the song? There are no explicit references to taking drugs in the song itself, just a wasted comment that the singer is “one toke over the line”.
The word toke is credited by Merriam Webster with a first known use in 1968, so it was a pretty new sub-culture word at that stage. The whole point of code words for illicit substances is that they are not supposed to be recognised by those who are not part of the in-group. The late 1960’s and early 1970’s saw some significant cultural divergences in American society between those opposed to the Vietnam War and those supporting “my country, right or wrong”.
Lawrence Welk’s core audience was older, whiter and more rural than America as a whole. There was no crossover with the teenagers who protested against the Vietnam War, smoked dope and drove the popular music charts. On one side of the cultural and generational divide younger people turned the movie Easy Rider into a hit. The end of the film saw some southern rednecks murdering hippie dope dealers for no apparent reason other than a visceral dislike. A couple of years after this intergalactic pansexuals were corrupting a young couple who looked suspiciously like Welk performers in the Rocky Horror Show. On the other hand, Merle Haggard was telling country music fans what people did and didn’t like in Muskogee, Oklahoma (“a place where even squares can have a ball”) 200 k up the road from Durant.
In 1971 Lawrence Welk was almost 70, a religious man who went to Mass every week and controlled the dress standards of his musical family. And didn’t they look so “cool” in the clip. One popular female singer was dropped from the show in the late 1950’s for flashing a bit much leg, although some suggest that she was dropped when she asked for a pay rise.
Some Youtube commenters think that Myron Floren, the accordion player doing the intro, may be in on the joke as he introduces “one of the newer songs” and coughs at the same time. On the other hand he was over 50 and like Welk had grown up in an immigrant family in the Dakotas and become an accordion player. Accordion players are not renowned in the annals of popular music as wild men or prodigious drug users.
The two singers are introduced as an attractive couple, Gail Farrell from Durant, Oklahoma and Dick Dale from Algona, Iowa. These are small country towns a long way from any major city. Gail was 23 but she was born on a cattle farm and had gone to college locally prior to doing some additional musical training in New York at Juilliard School before moving to Los Angeles. Once she arrived in Los Angeles she managed to find a way to audition for Lawrence Welk and after three guest appearances she became a regular performer, a member of Welk’s “musical family”. She stayed with the show until it ended in 1982 and has retained links to the Welk brand ever since, performing as part of a Welk alumni group – the “Wunnerful Girls”. Gail also met her husband at work on the Welk show later in the 70’s.
For Gail, appearing on the Lawrence Welk Show wasn’t something she did until something else came along. It plainly reflected the musical tastes and inclinations that she had grown up with back in Oklahoma. No way was she a rock’n’roll chick striving to get out from under the easy listening tag, she was easy listening all the way. Her first musical move in LA wasn’t to go to the bars where the guys who would form the Eagles or worked with Frank Zappa hung out looking for some musical jobs; it was to audition her way on to the Lawrence Welk Show.
Dick Dale was a nicely preserved 45 when the song was broadcast and had been married over 20 years. He is not Dick Dale, surf guitar icon, but rather Dick Dale long time member of the Lawrence Welk show with several teenage kids. Looking at Dick you do not get the impression of a suburban dad who would joke about hippies and marijuana with his kids. He also kept working on the Lawrence Welk Show right to the end of the TV show and continued to work with other show performers after it ended.
Mr Welk gave us his opinion of hippies in the first show of the 1969 season – a sample of music we’re not going to play. Mr Welk then went back to the “polka jazz from squaresville” which was what his audience expected from him. A popular TV performer who knowingly laughed at his audience would not have sustained a 30 year TV career and then generated a continuing stream of residuals from repackaged repeats. You can’t make fun of your audience because they’ll see through you eventually. Lawrence the Hippie was encouraging his audience to laugh along with him at those crazy young people playing that loud music we don’t much like. Everything about Welk suggests he was sincere in his squareness and in the way he catered to and respected his core audience.
So let’s take the performance on its merits. A bunch of squares hear a song on the pop charts which name checks Jesus and has a catchy tune. They perform it in their own style as a country tinged gospel duet for an audience who may never have heard the song before. And that, in their world, was that. Maybe someone mentioned it to the performers at a social gathering “Did you know …”, or maybe no-one ever did.
There was no such thing as a resale market for TV shows in 1971 – no VCRs, no DVDs and no online streaming. At most there may have been a repeat viewing of the show itself. So all the performers would have gone to work the following week and looked to perform the next song on the list. If the musical directors were still looking to the pop charts for a cheery positive sing along song maybe they considered Three Dog Night’s “Joy to the world” which was also a “newer song” riding high in the charts.
We could wonder if Dick Dale’s kids had a few laughs at dad not knowing what the song was about as they passed the joint around, but even if they did they probably didn’t let dad in on the joke.
Brewer and Shipley were in the UK when the Lawrence Welk Show aired “One toke” so they did not see it at the time it was broadcast. For a long time they could not locate a recording of the performance but they finally found one and uploaded it to Youtube in 2006 since when it has been viewed more than 900,000 times. It is even possible that Gail and Dick don’t know they are Youtube stars for a song they may only ever have performed once.
By all means have a giggle at the culture clash, but take the performance as a sincere rendition. You can’t retro-actively apply 21st century media irony to everything you see from the 20th century. Sometimes you just have to take them at their word.