Walt Kelly (1913-1973) was the cartoonist responsible for the comic strip Pogo. John Linnell and John Flansburgh have frequently cited Kelly as an influence, and TMBG has covered two of Kelly's compositions: "Lines Upon A Tranquil Brow" and "Whence That Wince," which were both tracks on the 1956 album Songs of the Pogo. A Pogo strip also helped to inspire the song "Ana Ng."
Songs of the Pogo
In 1956, Kelly published the illustrated songbook Songs of the Pogo, with lyrics by Kelly and music by Kelly and Norman Monath. The songs were also issued on a vinyl LP of the same name, with Kelly contributing vocals as well. "Lines Upon A Tranquil Brow" became one of TMBG's earliest covers, and was released on TMBG Unlimited in December 2001. In January 2007, TMBG released a cover of "Whence That Wince" as a YouTube video created by Linnell.
Linnell on Kelly
Linnell has frequently mentioned the formative influence of Kelly (and the Songs of the Pogo LP in particular):
[Linnell:] "I think our deepest concerns have to do with music we listened to when we were nine. That's very conscious. In my case, one of the records I often think about is this Walt Kelly record of Pogo songs. We actually cover one of those songs, one of our few covers. It's called "Lines Upon a Tranquil Brow." There's something really wonderful about the way the melodies on that record are put together. They're all extremely short, the melody's up front, the words are hilarious. Those songs are the closest thing to the kind of songs we strive for."
— "They Might Be Giants," Spin, December 1985
What are your childhood musical memories?
John Linnell: There were a couple specific records -- first, Songs of the Pogo, it had lyrics by Walt Kelly, who wrote the comic strip and worked with a songwriter on the record. It came out in the '50s, before I was born. It was a followup to a songbook Kelly wrote. It had some crazy, non-sensical wordplay.— "Interview: John Linnell (They Might Be Giants)," Zooglobble, Aug. 27, 2009
Sounds like you...
Yeah... it was an important record in my childhood.
"As kids my siblings and were given educational records, which we dutifully listened to, sometimes out of sheer boredom. One I faintly recall exhaustively listed every instrument of the orchestra with pedagogical songs and musical examples. It was wretched. Conversely, a record I found truly exciting was Songs of the Pogo by Walt Kelly, which offered no straight information but which contained lyrics such as: Oh, the parsnips were snipping their snappers/While the parsley was parceling the peas/And parsing a sentence from handle to hand/Was a hornet who hummed with the bees. After 40 years it is still indelibly burnt into my memory. Some time later, I discovered that you could actually parse a sentence, which made me sit up and pay attention-clearly not the reason why Walt Kelly wrote the song."
— "John Linnell on fun as a lifelong education," Times of London, June 19, 2010
Linnell, who was born in 1959, got attached to music like the Beatles at a young age and the band was a big influence on They Might Be Giant's use of harmony. But an album that caught his attention early on was his mom's copy of "Songs of the Pogo," featuring songs from Walt Kelly's "Pogo" comic strip. "Pogo" was a comic that appealed to kids because of its funny talking animals and to adults for its allegorical messages.
"There was something really great, individual and idiosyncratic about 'Songs from the Pogo,' " Linnell said. "The lyrics are really interesting and sort of literary in a Lewis Carroll-y kind of way. Nonsensical, but interesting and thoughtful. I still have a copy."— "'Giants' bring same spirit for kids and adults," Des Moines Register, May 24, 2011
In a Pitchfork Magazine interview in 1996, Linnell recalled a Pogo strip that helped inspire the song "Ana Ng", specifically the opening lines:
"The other inspiration for [Ana Ng] was a Pogo comic strip. [...] Some of the characters are digging a hole. They decide they're going to dig to China, but one of the smarter characters pulls this huge revolver out of a drawer and shoots a hole 'in the desktop globe.' Then they look at the other side and the hole is in the Indian Ocean."
The Pogo strip appeared on Sunday, Aug. 9, 1953. Howland Owl has convinced Albert Alligator to shovel his way to China. When Pogo tells Churchy La Femme of the plan, Churchy shoots a hole in a desktop globe to see where Albert would emerge from the hole. When they see that the Okefenokee Swamp is diametrically opposite the Indian Ocean, they run to warn Albert.