The name on the label might be Don Byas’ Ree-Boppers, but the song is written and sung by Slim Gaillard. His main claim to fame outside of jazz circles is that he appears in Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, which is about the only good thing I can say about that book. Gaillard wrote a bunch of extremely strange songs, of which “Cement Mixer” is both the best known and most linear. It was performed with greater sobriety but less wit by Frank Sinatra and Mel Tormé. All little kids love heavy construction vehicles, and there are not nearly enough songs about them. Also, there are not enough songs using the lyrics “slurp, slurp, slurp.” As for the line “turkey tonsil sandwich, whole wheat,” Gaillard loved random words for the sake of their sound. He had a whole personal language of slang based around “vout” and “o-roonie.”
To get the best sense of what Gaillard might have been like in person, check out a recording called “Slim’s Jam”. The band plays a simple turnaround progression while Slim spouts amiable nonsense and introduces Jack “McVouty” McVea on tenor sax, Charlie “Yardbird-o-Roonie” Parker on alto, and Dizzy “Zzzzdazz McSkibben Vouts-o-Roonie” Gillespie on trumpet. You can also see plenty of Gaillard performances on YouTube. In this TV performance, he plays piano with his hands upside down. He has absolutely enormous hands, because he was six feet nine inches tall.
There’s a disturbingly large overlap between drug music and kids' music. I don’t know whether Gaillard was under the influence of anything, but he certainly sounds stoned out of his mind. And yet, “Cement Mixer” is an innocuous as “Puff the Magic Dragon”. Maybe the point of all the drugs is to put yourself back in the mindset of being a little kid, when everything is fascinating and hilarious and all the emotions are enormous.
You can learn more about Don Byas here:
About the Curator - Ethan Hein
Ethan Hein is a Doctoral Fellow in Music Education at New York University. He teaches music technology, production and education at NYU and Montclair State University. With the NYU Music Experience Design Lab (https://www.musedlab.org), Ethan has taken a leadership role in the creation of new technologies for learning and expression, most notably the Groove Pizza (https://musedlab.org/groovepizza). In collaboration with Soundfly, he has developed a series of online music theory courses (https://soundfly.com/courses/unlocking-the-emotional-power-of-chords). He maintains a widely-followed and influential blog (http://www.ethanhein.com), and has written for various publications, including Slate, Quartz, and NewMusicBox.