One day in early 1957, a young blues harpist named James Moore took his place at the mike at Jay Miller’s Shreveport, Louisiana studio, gave the sign to Miller’s studio band — drums, guitar, bass — and, using the song name Slim Harpo, sang his bit : “well…I’m a king bee, buzzin’ around your hive…I’m a king bee, want you to be my queen…”
The song became an instant hit, a classic later covered b y almost everybody with a blues gene in his or her flesh, including, famously, the Rolling Stones. However, it is not the song’s history that I want to talk about today but instead Moore’s use of the “king” and queen” metaphor. It is, of course, ironic: Moore is no king, and the lady he is seducing is no queen. It’s also, therefore, comic : bees do sting, and to prick with king’s venom the queen bee in a hive takes, perforce, a king bee — right ? Haha.
We Americans don’t have kings and queens. We don’t have titled nobility at all. Titles are expressly forbidden by the Constitution which we profess to honor. Why, then, do many of us find kings and queens a must to attend to ? Why is the British royal family of such interest to us ? It has a queen, and many princes, princesses and duchesses: so what ? We are not British but American. What does the Windsor family, on its throne and living in its palaces and dressed now and then in frou frou, medals, and gowns, to do with us ? Certainly they are not kings, etc. in the sense that Slim Harpo asked a “queen” if he might be her “king.”
Perhaps what interests us is that a Windsor prince, Harry by name, has married an American. Yet that isn’t a miracle. Many British high-ups have married American women. Winston Churchill’s mother was American — did our forbears go ga-ga about her ? If so, I don’t recall reading of it. American women have attracted the suit of many European big shots. Nazi Germany had no less than three Americans in its entourage ; the mother of Ernest “Putzi” Hanfstangl; the mother and both grandfathers of Baldur von Schirach; and the mother of Hjalmar Horace Greeley Schacht. Of course reference to Nazi Germany isn’t my resort here. American women have, since our nation’s rise to great riches and power, been sought after by titled European nobility and impoverished dandies everywhere. I am unaware that any of these women became media stars, or interview subjects of gossip hosts. Nor did any that i am aware of beget a frenzy for addressing as king or queen any American living in America.
There is, in the land these days, a custom now, among certain groups, of dubbing a young achiever as “King” or “queen.” Far from irony or comedy, the address seems slated to prop up those whom the society at large may overlook, or denigrate, or dismiss on account of skin color or national; origin., I have no doubt that such young people well deserve all praise and then some; denigrating anyone, much less an achiever, for his or her biology or ethnic history, is an absurdity. Nor am i certain that the young achiever applauded as “king”: or “queen” will not one day want to discard such a cloak and begin to dress him or herself in the ordinary clothes of achievement, which is its own reward.
Myself, I never do it. When faced with a young achiever’s achievement — assuming it is an achievement and not a matter of “everybody gets a prize,” a commonplace in today’s non-schools, in which actual achievement is cheapened out of existence because to applaud singular achievement is, so they tell us, to offend, or to wreak trauma, and perish forbid that we should ever offend anyone or wreak trauma — I always say “good job !” or some such; because actual achievement is its own reward and merits its own applause. Without frosting its cake with king and queen ersatz.
Which brings me back to Slim Harpo. Back then, in 1957, irony and comedy were understood as such. They were the courtship skills of rakes and flirts at a time when flirting was a serious art and rakery a notable gamble. “I am young and able, can buzz all night long,” cries Harpo, “let me come inside ?” The question mark is there, you can hear it in the down note that carries the word “inside.” She can definitely say “no.” He knows it; goes ahead to have his band prove his claim : “buzz awhile” — the bass line buzzes — and “sting it then” — comes a descant guitar lick. After which Harpo repeats his boast, and then adds “I can buzz better, baby, when your man is gone.” Yes, his plea is illicit, and it offers the lady the thrill of behaving badly, of doing forbidden mischief. Of such treats are the words “king’ and “queen” made here in an America, in which the Windsor family is an offstage irrelevance.
— Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere
Mike, you sound like more of blues expert than I am, though I do love that music form, along with jazz. I know (and own a copy of) Muddy Waters’ version of King Bee, and also remember John Belushi singing it on Saturday Night Live, in his bee suit–very funny!