Saturday, November 28, 2009

Of hunting carols, Turdy Point Bucks and the cultural currency of the Upper Midwest

I have never been a deer hunter. As a matter of fact, I’ve never so much as held a gun. That made me quite the anomaly growing up in my neck of Western Wisconsin. In that particular nook of the Upper Midwest, deer season is a half-step removed from being a religious holiday. Maybe not even that – I know plenty of people who devote more zeal to buck-bagging than most folks ever do to church, state or fellow man. It was pretty much a given that the populations of classrooms and workplaces would drop drastically for a couple of weeks every November. “Gone huntin’” wasn’t regarded as a medical excuse per se, but there was an unspoken understanding.Even though I didn’t hunt, it was impossible to avoid the impact of deer season. The normally quiet woods and fields surrounding my family’s house suddenly teemed with blaze-orange blobs, their stocky frames standing in sharp contrast with the dirty white snow of early winter. Every time I left the house, the sound of rifle shots echoed in the distance, making the trek to the school bus feel like a bit like a sniper scene in some Vietnam movie. When we took our dog (a Viszla whose coat was only a shade redder than that of your average deer) out for a walk, we tied a red bandana around her neck and popped bright orange stocking caps on our own vulnerable noggins. November was an unusually tense month around the Brooker compound.

But the oddest manifestation of deer season, culturally speaking, would have to be the hunting carols. That phenomenon is exactly what it sounds like. Every year, all of our local radio stations, regardless of format, slipped two hunting-themed tunes into their regular playlists. For two weeks a year, “The Second Week of Deer Camp” and “Da Turdy Point Buck” dominated the airwaves just as surely as “The Little Drummer Boy” and “Feliz Navidad” would a few weeks later.

“The Second Week of Deer Camp” is a venerable classic, an accordion-driven, ramshackle accounting of how a bunch of shiftless hunters spend the titular time period. (Spoiler: They “drink, play cards and shoot the bull, but never shoot no deer.”) This one has been getting major play on Wisconsin airwaves for two decades now, even though the band responsible, Da Yoopers, isn’t technically Wisconsinian. “Yoopers,” in fact, is a nickname for the residents of that eerie no-man’s land called the Upper Peninsula, more commonly known as the U.P. Technically speaking, it’s part of Michigan. Geographically speaking, it should be part of Wisconsin. Realistically speaking, it’s not much more than an afterthought for anyone but the people who live there and the scads of hunters who invade its teeming woodlands every November.

Anyhow, Da Yoopers have actually recorded a fair number of musical comedy albums and garnered a cult following in the upper Midwest. “The Second Week of Deer Camp” is arguably the shiniest jewel in their crown (their Christmas carol “Rusty Chevrolet” also gets a good bit of airplay come December). An amiable romp through a drunken week when most of the sportsmen have given up all pretense of actually hunting, the song is punctuated by frequent belching, Spike Jones-y sound effects and some unfortunate outhouse imagery. The action, such as it is, unfolds over a simple accordion rhythm and is narrated in a thick Northwoods accent that makes Fargo seem subtle. It’s appreciated both by hunters who don’t take themselves too seriously and by the folks at home who always assumed there wasn’t a whole lot of deerstalking going on. It’s lowbrow for sure, but the rhymes are pretty funny and it succeeds in making a week of drinking in a cabin sound like a lot of fun.

If “Deer Camp” is the tried and true classic, “Da Turdy Point Buck” was the glitzy blockbuster. Often mistakenly credited to Da Yoopers, this laconic rap parody is actually the work of another U.P. group called Bananas at Large. A loose narrative of one hunter’s ill-fated encounter with a deer “created by God just for outdoor magazines,” this song was absolutely unavoidable in Wisconsin the winter of ’92. The cassette single – packaged in a blaze orange label, naturally – never got widespread distribution, but it was available at all of your finer gas stations and convenience stores.

The song essentially takes every element of the Yoopers tune and cranks it up a little: the accordion accompaniment is even sparer, the accent even thicker, the belching even ruder. In other words, it contains all the elements of a Wisconsin cult classic. Most of my middle school classmates (the male ones, at least) could recite the “Turdy Point Buck” lyrics word for word, adopting a deep-woods ‘Sconnie accent that really wasn’t too far removed from the way most of us talked normally. In fact, listening to the original recording now, I realize the cadence I’ve stored in my memory banks is actually that of Tim Schendel regaling me with his version during lulls in Mrs. Gatzke’s Earth Science class. I can’t deny that I loved it wholeheartedly when I was a youth, or that some of the imagery has proven remarkably enduring. Living in Chicago made me especially appreciative of the passage about the narrator’s “no-brother-good-in-law… from Illinoise.” (No offense to my actual brothers-in-law in Illinois.)

Putting it in hip-hop terms, “The Second Week of Deer Camp” is “Fight the Power” and “Da Turdy Point Buck” is “U Can’t Touch This.” The former feels lived-in and true-to-life, while the latter is just kind of derivative and silly. “Buck” is probably the more widely known amongst Midwestern rifle-toters, but both have worked their way deep into the fabric of Wisconsin’s holiest holiday.

Don’t think I’m being dismissive of either. In their own way, these hunting carols represent a unique piece of Midwestern culture. They’re a bit of a throwback to the early days of rock and roll, when radio stations were allowed to choose their own playlists and it was possible to have such a thing as a regional hit. Sure, these songs fall quite a bit farther on the Blue Collar Comedy side of the spectrum than my usual tastes, but I like having a pop culture reference point that’s instantly recognizable to every one of my rural grade school classmates and completely foreign to my big city friends. Call it flyover country all you want, but we’re every bit as capable of producing a distinctive musical mythology as anyone else is. Ours just involves a bit more beer and deer than most.

1 comment:

  1. Who would have thought that a blog post about the Da Yoopers would make me homesick for the great lakes? I too have never hunted, and I always used to think people's obsession with it was silly, but living in the south will make you appreciate even the worst parts of living in the upper midwest.