friday feast: for i had but fifty cents (i.e., never invite this girl to dinner)

Funny how certain poems stay with you forever, even if you don’t want them to.  You can say to them, “Go away, I have so much on my mind.” You can purposely read other poems, hoping the new lines will cancel out the old ones. But no, these certain poems just give you the raspberry,clinging to your memory like a tick high on super glue.

I’ve been thinking that maybe these stubborn barnacle-like poems are the ones we’ve been forced to memorize under duress.

The poem in question is “For I Had But Fifty Cents.”  The duress:  Mrs. Ishimoto’s tenth grade public speaking class. The assignment: humorous interpretation. I combed through poetry anthologies until I came across this seemingly innocuous poem. It said the author was “anonymous.”  And it was funny.

So, foolishly, I memorized it. To fulfill the “interpretation” part of the assignment, I decided to deliver it in a Southern accent.  My only exposure to Southern accents at the time was “The Beverly HIllbillies.” So I channeled Granny Clampett.

Have you ever seen a short, bespectacled, shy Korean girl do Granny Clampett?

(If you need to take an aspirin to continue, I’ll wait.)

But to give myself some credit, I gave it everything I had:  total character immersion, slightly spastic, but entirely original arm gesticulation, and facial expressions resembling chronic constipation, all the time maintaining that all-important eye contact with the audience.

In short, I was a hit. The audience exploded, and Mrs. Ishimoto gave me an “A.”

This sweet smell of success, coupled with a simple short circuit in my brain, resulted in “For I Had But Fifty Cents” becoming part of my DNA.  I was doomed, I tell you, doomed.

Imagine my surprise when last week I googled this “poem” and discovered it was actually a song!!
Lyrics by Billy Mortimer, melody by Dan Lewis, and published in 1881.

And, there was a YouTube video of some guy singing it!!

If only I had known! I love music. I could have learned to play the guitar and moved to Nashville. I already had the Southern accent nailed. I totally missed my calling. Now that’s what I call duress.

WARNING:  DO NOT READ THE FOLLOWING POEM, and whatever you do, don’t ever get it into your silly head that you’d ever want to sing the dang thing.



I took my girl to a fancy ball;
It was a social hop;
We waited till the folks got out,
And the music it did stop.
Then to a restaurant we went,
The best one on the street;
She said she wasn’t hungry,
But this is what she eat:

A dozen raw, a plate of slaw,
A chicken and a roast,
Some applesass and sparagass,
And soft-shell crabs on toast.
A big box stew, and crackers too;
Her appetite was immense!
When she called for pie,
I thought I’d die,
For I had but fifty cents.

She said she wasn’t hungry
And didn’t care to eat,
But I’ve got money in my clothes
To bet she can’t be beat;
She took it on so cozy,
She had an awful tank;
She said she wasn’t thirsty,
But this is what she drank:
A whisky skin, a glass of gin,
Which made me shake with fear,
A ginger pop, with rum on top,
A schooner then of beer.
A glass of ale, a gin cocktail,
She should have had more sense;
When she called for more, I fell on the floor,
For I had but fifty cents.

Of course I wasn’t hungry,
And didn’t care to eat,
Expecting every moment
To be kicked into the street;
She said she’d fetch her family round,
And some night we’d have have some fun;
When I gave the man fifty cents,
This is what he done:
He tore my clothes
He smashed my nose,
He hit me on the jaw,
He gave me a prize
Of a pair of black eyes
And with me swept the floor.

He took me where my pants hung loose,
And threw me over the fence;
Take my advice, don’t try it twice
If you’ve got but fifty cents!

Billy Mortimer (1881)

Please, whatever you do, DO NOT watch this song being performed here.
(Someone please tell this guy to sing faster.)

This week’s Poetry Friday roundup is at John Mutford’s Book Mine Set.

10 thoughts on “friday feast: for i had but fifty cents (i.e., never invite this girl to dinner)

  1. “Have you ever seen a short, bespectacled, shy Korean girl do Granny Clampett?”
    No, but I would love to… LOL
    On a side note, before a very long (six hours or more) mission, my husband and the other pilots used to try to “stick” a bad song in each other’s heads before they took off. It was quite the competition.
    Sara Lewis Holmes


  2. Accent
    Now I don’t know how to read it without affecting my worse stereotype of a Southern accent! Too funny!
    John Mutford


  3. TadMack says:
    “She said she wasn’t hungry…”
    Hah. Apparently she never got the Date Handbook which says something about NOT eating.
    They probably wrote it after this date.
    You had an awesome speech teacher!!


  4. Welcome Linda! Glad you like the poem. What’s this I hear about your undercover work? I, too, am located within 20 minutes of Tysons Corner. I see a penguin with poison ivy.


  5. Hmm, another local? OK, for your first assignment, the next time you visit your favorite bookstore, make sure they have The Qwikpick Adventure Society by Sam Riddleburger in stock. If they do not, say to the person at the counter, “You are missing the boat. And it’s a powerful little tugboat.” You must use those exact words. I implore you, do not deviate from the script.
    Wonder where that penguin would have rubbed up against poison ivy? Weird.


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