His name was Yuba. He was homely, he was dumb…he wouldn’t do-a so much as chew a piece of gum. What happens next? Conveniently named Yuba buys a tuba, bums his way to Cuba where he plays the rumba on the tuba and is such a smash hit and financial success that every peanut vendor’s jealous. After all, the crowds prefer Yuba’s oom-pah oom-pah oom-pah to the boopa-doopa-doopa (whatever that means). Why, all Havana loves this funny looking boob-a, who plays the rumba on the tuba down in Cuba.
If you were alive in America in 1931, you probably heard this song on the radio—a lot. Or, if you grew up in a household with a tuba enthusiast for a patriarch as I did, “When Yuba Plays the Rumba on the Tuba” seems like a perfectly normal ditty that you assume the rest of the world knows too. The assumption is not as outlandish as it might seem; the tune has been used over the years as a generic tuba lick. Even Bugs Bunny discovered its usefulness in the cartoon “Long-Haired Hare” when he whipped out a sousaphone and began playing “Yuba” loudly to annoy a rehearsing opera singer.
Here in the days of Lady Gaga and Miley Cyrus, it’s funny to think about a pop song featuring the tuba, and funny, too, to think of the song’s composer, Herman “Dodo” Hupfeld churning out novelties like “Yuba” alongside pieces for Broadway shows, like “As Time Goes By.” In other words, the same mind that dreamed up the romantic “You must remember this / A kiss is just a kiss / A sigh is just a sigh” tinkling away in Casablanca also concocted “With his oom-pah, oom-pah, oom-pah / He can knock eleven ladies for a loop-a.”
“When Yuba Plays the Rumba on the Tuba” seems, on the surface, all goofy charm. But it got me thinking: just when and how has the tuba been represented in pop culture? Those of us inside the tuba world aren’t insensible to the humor of our instrument, but that’s not foremost on our minds. To us, the tuba is a perfectly viable instrument—why else would we spend hours practicing and sitting through rehearsal with our tubas on our laps? So then, what does the rest of the world see when they look at a tuba, and more specifically, what have they been taught to see? Is “Yuba” an example of tuba praise, or was it the start of what has become nearly a century of portraying the tuba as a misfit instrument, the antihero of the musical world, or, worst of all, the literal butt of the joke?
With its 1931 date, “Yuba” is the earliest mass pop culture phenomenon featuring the tuba that I’m aware of, and although the tuba’s oom-pah triumphs as a lovable craze, its player—besides being dumb, homely, and a funny lookin’ boob-a—is, according to the lyrics, “getting wealthy, strong, and hearty / Thanks to plenty of good Bacardi.” I decline to comment on how faithful a portrayal of tubists this latter point is, but my English literature background is screaming for me to consider the postcolonial subtext of the song. It seems that Yuba’s tuba was not successful until he took it to an exotic land where he outshines the “peanut vendors” and provides music for a sexually-charged rumba quite outside the well-dressed ballroom of American big bands.
A similar sort of removal from cultured environs is necessary for Tubby to find himself in Tubby the Tuba, a novelty song of a different sort that yet manages a charmingly bizarre quality. In this piece, written for orchestra with narration, Tubby leaves the auditorium after the orchestra makes fun of him for trying to play the melody. Tubby comes across as a sort of wounded innocent, pleading with the conductor in a waifish Oliver Twist manner, “Please, sir, I thought it would be so nice to dance with the pretty little tune instead of going oom-pah oom-pah all the time.” Laughed out of the orchestra, a rather existential Tubby goes to the river and stares moodily at his reflection, singing “Alone am I, me and I together.” Enter a friendly bullfrog who bids Tubby a good evening and commiserates with him: “No one pays any attention to me either… Every night I sit here and sing my heart out, but does anyone listen? (Ribbit.) No.” So the frog teaches Tubby a tune to play with the orchestra; Tubby returns to the orchestra, plays the frog’s song, and is instantly popular, the violins and piccolo now eager to take up the melody themselves.
Tubby was made into an animated short in 1947 and again in 1975, has been performed countless times by orchestras including the New York Phil and the Boston Pops (with Julia Child narrating in an early 1970s performance), and is even available as a picture book with accompanying CD. It’s a fun tale with a by now familiar and well-loved tuba melody. And yet, when I listened again recently, I realized that no sooner does Tubby play through the melody once than the violins do indeed take it, relegating the tuba to the usual slow accompanying notes. Sweet and endearing as Tubby is, he hardly comes across as a hero. He’s much more the underdog who stumbles into a single moment in the limelight, goaded there by not a lion nor a stallion but a lowly, unheeded bullfrog. And even if the whole piece ends with the bullfrog saying, “We’ve done it, haven’t we, Tubby?” and Tubby sighing “Oh, how happy I am,” the orchestration proves the pecking order has not been permanently altered.
Still, both Tubby and “Yuba,” creations of the first half of the twentieth century, go to some length to portray the tuba’s psyche and others’ reactions to tuba music. Novelty songs of the second half of the century, however, cut straight to the “it’s funny because it’s a tuba” humor. There are two I know of: “Dueling Tubas,” the #92 hit on Billboard’s Top 100 in 1973, and “Play that Country Tuba, Cowboy,” a 1990s song by The Vandals. “Dueling Tubas,” created by comedian Martin Mull, is a spoof on the dueling banjos scene from Deliverance and is simply that same banjo tune played on tuba and echoed on trombone. The whole gag hinges on the fact that it’s a tuba playing what people are used to hearing on the nimble banjo. “Play that Country Tuba, Cowboy” tends closer to the old model of a story told through clever lyrics: A tuba player encounters a mean-looking man who asks, “What is that, a garbage can?” Learning that the ‘garbage can’ is a tuba, the man demands that the tubist play some country music. In a moment of pure realism, the tubist says he can’t—all he plays are orchestral works. But when the man draws a gun, the tuba player lets out “some country licks I never thought I’d hear my tuba play.” Clearly a take-off of “Play that Funky Music, White Boy,” The Vandals’ version is funny because it replaces the rock n’ roll musician turning to funk with a tuba player turning to country—an unlikely pairing that draws its humor in large part from the involvement of the tuba.
So the tuba itself becomes a sort of joke. Things get a little stickier, however, when we consider other pop tuba appearances. If you visit www.sadtuba.com and hit the play button, you’ll hear a clip that’s familiar to most Americans: the theme for losing on The Price is Right. Oh, the looks of disappointment and despair those four tuba notes have accompanied over the years! I don’t know about you, but when something really upsets me, I occasionally surf to Merriam-Webster’s website, crank the volume on my computer, and make the pronunciation tool say “poop.” Since I discovered sadtuba.com, I have several times realized its potential for filling the same role. But doesn’t it break a little piece of my tuba-player heart that my own dear instrument’s sound has been made so synonymous with losing that it can substitute for a gentle bathroom curse?
That’s tame compared to the connection made in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. Bathrobe-clad Cousin Eddie (Randy Quaid’s character) is out by the curb with a beer and a cigar, emptying sewage from his RV down the storm drain because, as he so eloquently puts it, “the shitter was full.” As the camera shows a close-up of the brown liquid sloshing down the drain, the music starts “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” played on solo tuba. Eddie belches. The tuba plays on.
Which brings us to another major arena in which the general public encounters the tuba: movie soundtracks. Here too, a less-than-stellar pattern emerges—the times you can hear the tuba soloing almost always accompany the most bumbling of idiots, the fatso, screw-up, villain, or, in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the alien. In the 1978 Superman, the tuba accompanies not Christopher Reeves but Ned Beatty’s character, Otis, Lex Luthor’s blundering, overweight assistant. An extensive tuba solo accompanies corpulent Jabba the Hutt in Star Wars. Even one of my all-time favorite flicks, Jesus Christ Superstar, gives the tuba a prominent part only in muffin-topped Herod’s song as he jeers at Christ.
Jaws offers a more interesting spin on the tuba-villain connection. It’s not what you’re thinking: that two-note, lurking, bah-dum… bah-dum …is played by string basses, not tuba. But composer John Williams did give the tuba the melody in the shark’s theme. You have to listen for it, and it may not immediately strike you as a tuba because it’s written in a very high register. In fact, Tommy Johnson, the tubist who played for Jaws and many Hollywood soundtracks (and also played those four losing notes on The Price is Right), asked John Williams why he didn’t write the part for French horn. Williams answered that he wanted a “more threatening” sound. So there you have it—one of the most popularly recognized composers today hears menace in the tuba.
The tuba fares a little better in non-novelty pop music where there aren’t character associations to be made, but only a tiny portion of mainstream pop songs have used tuba. Of this miniscule number, most give the tuba typical accompaniment parts, as in The Beatles’ “Martha My Dear” or Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk.” There is the very rare exception, like Blood, Sweat & Tears’s “Go Down Gamblin’,” and rarer still, the pop euphonium solo, such as in “What the World Needs Now Is Love.” Interestingly, that one sparked some debate on the Tubenet forum as to whether the opening sound is a tuba or a euphonium, with the consensus being euphonium.
Back in October, when this column was in its infancy, I awoke one morning to find an email from the BBC, asking if they could interview me for a segment on appreciating the tuba for their Radio 4 Today show. I agreed, and before long I was doing a preliminary interview over the phone. I was just starting to explain that I enjoy tuba culture as much as the instrument itself when I mentioned that tuba players tend to have a sense of humor, intending the observation as a small detail in my larger point. But the interviewer stopped me right there. “Why?” the very BBC-sounding woman wanted to know. “What makes the tuba funny?” It just is, I wanted to say, but that didn’t quite seem to plumb sufficient depths, so I began to tell her about Mr. Deeds, Gary Cooper’s quirky tuba-playing character in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. “Good. Perfect,” she said, and before I could say another word, she’d expertly crafted the angle of the story: why doesn’t the tuba get the respect it deserves?
I suppose I’ve just given a whole heap of evidence proving that’s a valid question. But in the end, we tuba-players have as much fun exclaiming, “Hey! It’s a tuba!” as the rest of the world. That’s why the Tubenet has an entire section of the forum devoted to “Who played the tuba in that recording?” where many of the brief and obscure appearances of tubas get discussed and analyzed and treated with real interest. That’s why my dad used to spin “Yuba” on the old turntable until his little daughter knew “Any sap can sell an apple / but this chap would rather grapple / with his oom-pah oom-pah oom-pah” as well as she knew “Hickory Dickory Dock.” That’s why my high school tuba line convinced the conductor to let them come out on center stage and play the piccolo descant during “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” The spotlight is a rarity for us, and so when we have it, we milk it. We make it silly and memorable, fun and accessible, and the audience usually indulges us with the same excitement underdog sports teams inspire. And maybe, just maybe, we like occupying the margins for the freedom it gives us to rumba, duel, reflect, intimidate, or just bumble along with all the flexibility our secretly awesome instrument affords.