A taxing poem mystery, Chapter 3
Take a glass of brandy to ward off the chill, Watson. Sit there -- comfortably near the fire.
Recall our reading together the Mellon Ditty as presented by Rep. Lankford to Congress in 1924. It is a permanent part of our public record -- an impassioned rejection of what is now called trickle-down economic theory. Was it that philosophy that contributed to the Great Depression? Let us not discount the idea.
Since 1924, the incessantly manipulated poem has cropped up regularly. In 1926, it appeared in the Lyons (New York) Republican and Wayne County Review, opening with "Tax the people, tax with care/ Tax to help the multi-millionaire" and closing with something new: "But close your eyes so you can't see/The coupon clipper go tax free." That last might have been a Republican protest against parsimonious housewives. We are left to speculate.
In November 1934, the poem appeared in the Golden Age, a Brooklyn publication of the Watchtower Society -- Jehovah Witnesses proclaiming yet again an imminent Armageddon.
The poem continued to be published in various places and years. In 1943, in the Hemphill County (Texas) News, it was titled "Tuned in," by Major Johnson, suggesting the major claimed authorship. (Texans do seem to want credit for everything.) It begins with what seems an original couplet: "Tax his head, tax his hide/Let the government officials ride."
The beneficiaries are no longer the rich, but "big government," which should strike us as a familiar refrain today..
At least in Texas, the word Ford was substituted for Henry in the original "Tax his Henry." Henry Ford, you know. Often called today as a "welfare-capitalist," Ford was credited with manufacturing inexpensive vehicles to commoners, and with paying his workers well enough to buy them.
Ten years later, in 1953, the poem aroused comment on the editorial page of the Clinton (Ill.) Advocate. (I'm waiting to receive a copy.)
In 1969, a version lamenting all taxes in general made print in the Logansport (Ind.) Pharos Tribune and Press. And the blog NewsOK, published by the Daily Oklahoman, ran a version in 1994.
Speaking of taking unwarranted credit, as I previously suggested Texans sometimes do, they're not alone. On seniornet.com, one Glen D. Michaels claims a 1999 copyright of much of the poem we're researching. Mail to his email address, email@example.com, is rejected for reasons as yet unclear. As you know, Watson, I am not a copyright lawyer nor have an interest in consulting one, but I do suspect Mr. Michaels' boast rests on dangerously thin ice.
I was intrigued to discover that also in 1999 an anti-tax version was actually read before the Canadian Parliament by Mr. Monte Solberg, representing the riding of Medicine Hat. He began, "Mr. Speaker, here is yet another poem from an overtaxed Canadian." The opening was rephrased: "Now he's a common, common man./ Tax him. Tax him all you can." and -- as Canadians are not linguistically shy -- it ended with "And do your best to make life hell." Hell! The overtaxed Canadian is not named.
Watson, you may recall my citing a version titled "About Tax Free Securities," the one which appeared in two publications of Norwich-born newspaperman Otto Curtis Lightner. In each case, the author was specifically cited as one Don Lupton and the place of original publication the Denver Post.
It would be presumptuous, Watson, to claim that all Kansas-born journalists are principled journalists who would take care to accurately credit the author of such an historic piece. There have always been, even in the Jayhawker State, those to whom political propaganda trumps principle. Oh, do stop snorting, Doctor.
Seriously, I do have a hunch that Lightner -- who for a time in early childhood may have lived in Illinois and later returned with his family to Kansas for two decades -- did in fact write the earliest version of the tax poem. I suspect it did appear in the Denver Post sometime in 1921 or even earlier. Perhaps I can prevail on local history researchers there to continue the search. I offer my magnifying glass, my last livin but weary bloodhound -- as well as my apologies for not being able to specify an exact date.
Regrettably, the search for the poet and the time and place of original publication has thus far been inconclusive. As inadequate compensation, we are left to note an obvious change in message over the years -- from a populist revolt against a tax structure benefiting the rich to a Grover Norquist'y protest against any and all taxes. At a minimum, I must conclude that -- author known or unknown -- the earlier versions are more relevant today than the edited variations. Understanding that has itself has been worth our effort.
But you know me for a stubborn man, Dr. Watson. The case remains open. Respectfully, Sherlock Hooper.
Bob Hooper is a fourth-generation western Kansan who writes from his home in Bogue.