Bear music

Joan Armatrading was on NPR’s Morning Edition Sunday today, which got me reflecting on her song “Eating the Bear”, from the 1981 album Walk Under Ladders. That led me to follow up the music of ruin (here) by attending to bear music, in particular the source of yet another formula (la, sir, how you do go on!), the one in:

Some days you eat the bear, some days the bear eats you.

(roughly ‘win some, lose some’, but with more of an edge), as in the title of the 1974 album by rock/folk singer Ian Matthews (in a variant with and between the two clauses).

In Armatrading’s version, the clauses are inverted and put in the future:

Some days the bear will eat you, some days you’ll eat the bear.

offering the hope of triumph; in fact, in Armatrading’s song the singer eats the bear, hence the title.

The song begins:

He had me down
But I put up a fight
I saw those teeth
And I groped for my knife
Big brown bear
With the juice from his mouth
He could taste my leg
And he thought he’d got me

But I am eating the bear

He lurked around
‘Cos he knew where I lived
I’m in the jungle
and he means to eat me

He means to eat me
He’s a hungry bear
He touched my arm
And he thought he’d got me

But I am eating the bear

Some days the bear will eat you
Some days you’ll eat the bear

And I am eating the bear

There are other variants around with sometimes instead of some days. Lots of subtle and not-so-subtle differences conveyed by the different formulations. But I have no clue as to the origins of the bear-eating figure.

What is the song about? you ask. Some people think it’s about power struggles in relationships (and there are specifically lesbian interpretations out there). In my house, not long after the song came out, it was taken to be an encouraging message about the possibility of recovering from affliction (specifically breast cancer, though in the end the bear ate my wife, something she noted wryly in her last months of life; the song was a great favorite of hers).

I’ve been on the trail of musical bears before — Uncle Walter waltzing with bears. On my iTunes, there’s “The Teddy Bears’ Picnic” (I have three versions on my iTunes), which is older than you might think, with a melody from 1907 and words from 1932. And “(Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear”, as sung by Elvis Presley in 1957. And The Mamas and The Papas’ “Dancing Bear” and Randy Newman’s “Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear”. Stravinsky’s “The Bear and the Peasant” from Petrushka. And William Billings’ song “Bear Creek” (Sacred Harp #269).

That exhausts the musical resources on my iTunes, though I also have two comedy routines, “The Preacher and the Bear” by Andy Griffith and “Bear Whiz Beer” by Firesign Theatre.

Bears are powerful figures in lore and legend, of course. Despite cutification in teddy bears, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Winnie the Pooh, and Yogi Bear and Booboo, they can still summon up strong emotions, as in Armatrading’s song.

9 Responses to “Bear music”

  1. ShadowFox Says:

    How far is it from Mr Peanut’s slogan?

    [(amz) Mr. Peanut’s slogan?? “Relax. Go Nuts.”? Nothing came to mind, nothing remotely similar to the bear-eating figure came up in web searches, and I could find nothing of the sort in the cavalcade of ads on the Planter’s website. I’m feeling extraordinarily dense.

    There is a question about whether we’re dealing with something snowclone-like here (with some model expression as the historical kernel), or (instead) independently devised sentences based on reversing words or phrases (“eat to live, not live to eat”) — sometimes classified as chiasmus, other times treated as a different type of figure, antimetabole.]

    And here’s one from Lebowski Studies:

    “Sometimes you smoke Lebowski; sometimes Lebowski smokes you.”

    [(amz) This one is sufficiently hard to work out semantically that it’s hard not to think there was a figure to draw on, or at least a model.]

  2. ShadowFox Says:

    Here’s another–

    sometimes you bogey sometimes you birdie

    Sometimes you draw deuces. Sometimes you draw aces.

    sometimes you lead, sometimes you follow

    Sometimes you move forward; sometimes you move backward. Sometimes you shuffle to the left; sometimes you shuffle to the right.

    The above are all of the same kind (some you win, some you lose). There are some closer to the bear:

    Sometimes you drive, sometimes you ride.

    There are actually several formulas hidden here and some of them mean quite different things.

    First, the bear–
    Sometimes you Xv Yn, sometimes Y X you.

    Second, consider the version where Y is null, e.g.,

    Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose.

    Actually, although the intent is there, it’s not quite the same. It’s actually of the second type:

    Sometimes you Xv, sometimes you not-Xv.

    This is exemplified by the ride/drive example above. So is the lead/follow example, even though the semantics are somewhat different between the two.

    The Planters/Mr. Peanut slogan is also of this type, but with a reduced [not-X]

    Sometimes you feel like a nut, sometimes you don’t [].

    Whether one notices the pun, the result is the same.

    Are the first two examples the same? (golf and cards) I don’t think so, actually. In both cases, the contrast is between two extremes, in a way (there are things worse than a bogey and better than a birdie), but the two are certainly not “opposites”. Also note that one of these has just verbs (bogey/birdie) while the other comes with a complement.

    Next, there is a more complicated formula.

    And this one is somewhere in between:

    Sometimes you sell, sometimes you buy and other times you have to improve the way those assets are managed.

    Sometimes you bleed, sometimes you shit, sometimes you do both.

    Note that the former involves two opposites, followed by a compromise, while the latter has just two alternative actions followed by a compromise, of sorts.

    Think these are isolated cases?

    Sometimes you shoveled. Sometimes you wheeled. Sometimes you did both.

    Sometimes you retreat, sometimes you attack and sometimes you’re reasonable.

    Finally, there is the simple option enumeration:

    Coming up with an answer is the tough part. But, you know what? That’s alright. It’s the tool of the improviser. Sometimes you fly away. Sometimes you get lost. Sometimes you get beaned with a curve-ball.

    So in conflict, sometimes you confront, sometimes you listen, sometimes you understand, sometimes you agree to disagree.

    Sometimes you inform; sometimes you persuade.

    I doubt these are exhaustive and I have not labeled them. But I was not trying to come up with a semantic theory of formulaic alternatives.

  3. arnold zwicky Says:

    Larry Horn posted a comment on ADS-L (where I’d posted a link to this posting). Since the readership overlap between that mailing list and this blog isn’t that big, I’m copying it here. Note: everything that follows in this comment was written by Larry Horn, not by me.

    And, speaking of musical renditions, there’s the related observation:

    “Sometimes you’re the windshield, sometimes you’re the bug.” (as in the song by Dire Straits)
    (Continues in the same vein: “Sometimes you’re the Louisville Slugger, sometimes you’re the ball”. But I’ve always thought the windshield/bug scenario was especially vivid.)

    Then there are the preference statements:

    I’d rather be a hammer than a nail.
    Yes I would.
    If I only could,
    I surely would.
    (Paul Simon, El Condor Pasa)

    Not quite the same, but there is an implication that one is sometimes the hammer/windshield and sometimes the nail/bug. (But then again, getting nailed in this situation is not that different from getting hammered.)

  4. arnold zwicky Says:

    Just to report that at this afternoon’s Palo Alto shapenote singing, someone — not me — happened to pick “Bear Creek” for us to sing. Synchronicity and all that.

  5. Notes: euphemisms 7/26/10 « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] purpose – fulfilled its function, done its work, performed its role – I moved on to writing a posting on “bear music” for my blog and watching Visconti’s Death in Venice, eventually posting a note […]

  6. ShadowFox Says:

    Correction: Mounds/Almond Joy, not Planters or Mr. Peanut

  7. Arnold Zwicky Says:

    “ShadowFox” corrects part of his Mr. Peanut comment — there are no peanuts involved, only almonds — but unhelpfully neglects to supply the actual slogan, or to explain what these U.S. candy bars have to do with it.

    Which is

    Sometimes you feel like a nut, sometimes you don’t.

    the point being that an Almond Joy has nuts (as well as chocolate and coconut) in it, while a Mounds doesn’t, and some days you prefer Mounds. (The slogan was used in tv ads for Mounds back in the 70s, and has now been revived.)

    The ads play on the ambiguities in feel (like) and nut.

  8. Fear the beard « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] see the posting “Waltzing with bears” in this blog, with some follow-up in the posting “Bear music” and, on AZBlogX, “Hairy in Gayland”, […]

  9. Bodies politic « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] by “Sometimes you eat the bear, sometimes the bear eats you”), discussed on this blog here. Trying to take the figure back in time leads to a pile of ways of conveying ‘Sometimes you […]

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