Remembering the Forgettable Nick Hathaway

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THE FAMOUS DOOR APRIL 1, 2011

Remembering the Forgettable Nick Hathaway

Jameson “Nick” Hathaway, the Tin Pan Alley tunesmith who died this week at age 96, is most memorable for his forgetability. Among song composers of the pre-rock era, Hathaway was such a marginal figure, even in his time, that his name long ago drifted off the margins, off the desktop, out of the room, and took a drive to a place populated only by minor academics, nostalgaists, and other people like me. Although he is understood to have written dozens of songs in every mode from country and western (“If You’re Running Away from Me, I’m Behind You All the Way”) to psychedelia (“The War Between the States of Mind”), he is best remembered by a small but diminishing group of Hathaway enthusiasts for his generic masterpiece, “Ooka Dooka Dicka Dee.”

Members of the postwar generation who know the title at all know if from Bob Dylan’s mordant reference to the song in an interview Dylan did with Gil Turner for Sing Out magazine in 1962. “I don’t have to be anybody like those guys up on Broadway ... writin’ “I’m hot for you/You’re hot for me/Ooka Dooka Dicka Dee.” By failing to mention Nick Hathaway by name, Dylan suggested that he did not know his name, and Hathaway’s few protectors have wondered if Dylan’s attitude toward “Ooka Dooka Dicka Dee” might have been affection or even envy posing as contempt. When I heard about Hathaway’s death, I reached out to Dylan, through his manager, to let him know that I was thinking of writing this, and he said, “Great idea.” (It’s not much of a quote, I know; but that’s really what he said. This is true.)

Born Jameson Babcock in Chester, Pennsylvania, Hathaway is known to have taken the name “Nick” for his habit of taking things from people, and to have gotten his stage surname from the label on one of his shirts. “As a man, Hathaway was hard to catch, but his music sure was catchy,” says Geoff Muldaur, the virtuoso guitarist, composer, and scholar of early 20th-century vernacular music.

Since his early days with the Jim Kweskin Jug Band, Muldaur has applied respectful seriousness to the performance of music once dismissed as disreputable, and his rendition of “Ooka Dooka Dicka Dee” captures the song’s utter inconsequence without a moment of inflation. (I am posting here both a bootleg of Muldaur singing the song and the only studio recording I know of the tune, an instrumental by the contemporary jazz multi-instrumentalist and arranger Jon Weber.)

It is a testament to the enduring unfamiliarity of “Ooka Dooka Dicka Dee” that even musicians who know the song play it completely differently. John Doe, the gifted former punk from the band X, and the wonderful singer-songwriter Jill Sobule, are currently touring to support their first album together. Backstage before a performance in New Jersey this Wednesday night, they heard about Hathaway’s death. (Sobule had once stumbled into Hathaways circle while doing a show in Mifflintown, Pennsylvania, hometown of the actress Nancy Kulp, whose character on The Beverly Hillbillies is said to have been named in honor of Hathaway.) Here, in a cell-phone video they recorded that night, Doe and Sobule remember pop’s icon of unmemorability.

Happy April Fool’s Day!

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posted in: the famous door, music, bob dylan, geoff muldaur, gil turner, nick hathaway, pennsylvania

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