May 1, 2015

The song I have sung most often in my life is “Louie, Louie.”

I don’t know the words. Really.

There are two sets of lyrics – maybe three.

The original lyrics, written and performed by Richard Berry in 1955, describe a sweet island romance.

In 1963, The Kingsmen covered the song.  The lead singer, Jack Ely, slurred the words.  The production values sucked.  Because of those things, “Louie, Louie” became one of the greatest rock songs of all time.

Oh, by the way, we are writing this in part because Ely just died at the age of 71.

By 1964, rumors spread through my high school: The lyrics of “Louie, Louie” were filthy.

“I promise I’ll never leave her again,” a sailor’s lament, became “I promise I’ll never lay her again.”  Which made no sense. Who would say that? But who cares?

Weird things happen in a democracy, little rockers. “Louie, Louie” became a First Amendment icon.

Schools, marching bands, cities and states tried to ban it. The song, after all, was disgusting.

In 1964 the FBI was called in to investigate. They analyzed the lyrics in a lab, probably not far from the office of J. Edgar Hoover. Their verdict? The words were “unintelligible at any speed.”

This musical censorship hasn’t faded with time. In 2005, school officials told a marching band in Michigan they could not play it in a parade. After protest, they changed their minds.

The controversy about the lyrics seems silly today, when popular song lyrics can be many times more graphic – and even hateful.  But that’s the point of the First Amendment, isn’t it?  It protects not just the safe stuff, but the dangerous stuff too.

In honor of the creative and civic freedoms reaffirmed by “Louie, Louie,” and in honor of the late, not-so-great Jack Ely, Poynter is proud to perform one verse of the song in this video.

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Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty…
Roy Peter Clark

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