Note: Shel Silverstein’s poem is titled “Unicorn” while the song is titled “The Unicorn” and we unfortunately use the two interchangeably in this episode.
Episode 55: The Unicorn – Shel We Read a Poem?
British Voice: Shel We Read a Poem?
Russ: Hello all and welcome to Shel We Read a Poem. I’m Russ.
Lauren: I’m Lauren. Did I sound kind of smug when I said that?
Russ: No. I mean, you always sound a little bit smug.
Lauren: No matter what I say or just when I say my name?
Russ: Oh basically all of the time. It’s on brand. But I think I do too.
Lauren: I had a high school teacher once refer to me as “imperious.”
Russ: Laughs. I had a college professor called me “cheeky.” And it was awful because I had the hugest crush on her. And probably the first teacher that I ever had a big old crush on, and then come to find out she was lesbian. And so that did not help my chances at all.
Lauren: Nope, nope.
Russ: No, but I think that’s on brand. I think both of us definitely sound too big for our britches.
Lauren: Is it “britches” or “bridges?”
Russ: I think it’s “breeches” but…
Lauren: Yeah. Britches. I’ve heard “britches” as referred to pants.
Russ: Yeah. And isn’t breeches supposed to be pants?
Lauren: I think also yes.
Russ: Because I’m going off my dead grandfather, where it’s like “He’s too big for his britches.”
Lauren: I think it was a lot… When I was growing up, I heard “bridges” and so I was like, oh, yeah, like a flooding stream.
Russ: So that’s the new turn of phrase: He’s too big for his bridges like the mighty Colorado. He is overtaking his banks and washing away homesteaders.
Lauren: Yes. And I even knew which bridge I was thinking about when I would think that term because the area flooded a lot.
Russ: God damn Potomac.
Lauren: I think it was actually Bush Creek.
Russ: Okay. Laughs. Whatcha drinkin?
Russ: Laughs. Reverend Nat’s. My God. Is that a title one can self apply? Can I just be Reverend Russ from… Oh my god, this alliterative. too. Holy god.
Lauren: I did Universal Life Church when I was in my teens and so I sometimes would refer to myself as Reverend Lauren Hudgins. I had a friend who nicknamed me “Reverend.”
Russ: I did exactly the same thing. In fact, the person that married me in the States was Universal Life Church. So what are we talking about today?
Lauren: Well, we have decided to tackle the poem we’ve been intimidated with.
Russ: Oh my god, are we doing that one this week? I haven’t prepared anything for that one.
Lauren: All right. Well, you’re along for the ride then I guess.
Russ: Yeah, I’m along for the ride. So we’re doing “Unicorn.”
Lauren: We’re doing “Unicorn” because this is the recording right before St. Patrick’s Day.
Russ: Alright, so how are we gonna do this? Are we singing or?
Lauren: I mean, why don’t you join me on the chorus? All right, this is Shel Silverstein’s the “Unicorn.”
A long time ago, when the earth was green
And there was more kinds of animals than you’ve ever seen,
And they run around free while the world was bein’ born,
And the lovliest of all was the Unicorn.
There was green alligators and long-neck geese.
There was humpy bumpy camels and chimpanzees.
There was catsandratsandelephants, but sure as you’re born
The lovliest of all was the Unicorn.
But the Lord seen some sinnin’, and it caused him pain.
He says, “Stand back, I’m gonna make it rain.”
He says, “Hey Brother Noah, I’ll tell ya whatcha do.
Go and build me a floatin’ zoo.
And you take two alligators and a couple of geese,
Two humpy bumpy camels and two chimpanzees.
Take two catsandratsandelephants, but sure as you’re born
Noah, don’t you forget my Unicorn.
Now Noah was there, he answered the callin’
And he finished up the ark just as the rain was fallin’. He marched in the animals two by two,
And he called out as they went through,
“Hey Lord, I got your two alligators adn your couple of geese,
Your humpy bumpy camels and your chimpanzees.
Got your catsandratsandelephants—but Lord, I’m so forlorn
‘Cause I just don’t see no Unicorn.”
Ol’ Noah looked out through the drivin’ rain
But the Unicorns were hidin’, playin’ silly games.
They were kickin’ and splashin’ in the misty morn,
Oh them silly Unicorn.
The the goat started goatin’, and the snake started snakin’,
The elephant started elephantin’, and the boat started shaking’.
The mouse started squeakin’, and the lion started roarin’,
And everyone’s abourd but the Unicorn.
I mean the green alligators and the long-neck geese,
The humpy bumpy camels and the chimpanzees.
Noah cried, “Close the door ’cause the rain is pourin’—
And we just can’t wait for them Unicorn.”
Then the ark started movin’, and it drifted with the tide,
And the Unicorns looked up from the rock and cried.
And the water come up and sort of floated them away–
That’s why you’ve never seen a Unicorn to this day.
You’ll see a lot of alligators and a whole mess of geese.
You’ll see humpy bumpy camels and lots of chimpanzees.
You’ll see catsandratsandelephants, but sure as you’re born
You’re never gonna see no Unicorn
Lauren: I take it you are singing it in the style of Shel Silverstein?
Russ: No. I was singing in the style of Tom Waits.
Lauren: It can be hard to tell sometimes.
Russ: Laughs. That was the best work we’ve ever done.
Russ: For sure.
Russ: That was a shambles
Lauren: And on either page… So the “Unicorn” poem spans two pages and on either page is a really derpy looking unicorn. Their head is completely filled with air.
Russ: Not a thought behind those eyes. Why are unicorns a fanciful animal? It’s a horse with a horn versus whereas giraffes are real, where it’s a combination horse monster camel thing with a 40 foot neck.
Lauren: He has a poem about a giraffe too, the one about writing on the neck of a running giraffe.
Russ: Was that we could do a terrible… Also, I apologize to everyone’s ears out there, mostly for me.
Lauren: One thing I wanted to note about this before I leave the book is that “catsandratsandelephants” are all one word for some reason in this poem. It is written such. So Shel wrote this song back in 1962. And it was included on his album Inside Folk Songs, which also contained “Boa Constrictor” and “25 Minutes to Go,” which we’ve talked about when we talked about the poem “Boa Constrictor.” And so then in 1967, there was a group called Irish Rovers. And they are… some people are like, “Oh, they’re Canadian,” but actually, most of them were originally from Ireland.
Russ: There’s the biggest Irish population in Vancouver.
Russ: Yeah, it’s huge. I would come to find this out upon visiting an Irish pub and being like… “Everyone who works here is Irish?” Dude’s like, “yeah.” I was like, “That’s a thing?” He’s like, “Oh, yeah, there’s so many Irish people here.” And I have met, in Vancouver, more Irish people than I’ve met Canadians.
Lauren: That’s really interesting. They’re pretty much no Irish people in Portland. So “The Unicorn,” when it was first released, it hit the top of the charts and was there from the spring to the rest of the summer and I believe it was She’ls… Yeah, it was Shel’s first number one song—obviously not performed by Shel Silverstein. But the Irish rovers also made famous the song “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” and also the “What should we do with a drunken sailor” song.
Russ: Rover’s shred. Happy St. Patrick’s Day, everybody.
Lauren: Yes, I have more to add, but I’m digging it up. So there’s one, one version of Shel Silverstein doing the unicorn on stage that’s recorded. And it’s a very… I believe it was recorded in Chicago. But he’s up there singing to the children. And what’s great is when it gets to the end of the poem, and he’s singing to one child in particular, and the child sort of looks up with him and it dawns on this child that the unicorns probably drowned and that facial expression is great.
Russ: To be honest, I was like: oh, yeah, were we supposed to do the “Unicorn?” I don’t remember. Fuck it. I’m so angry. But now, like things are so jovial that I almost don’t want to do my poem just because I’m like: Well, this is happy. Like, we should keep this going. Oh, Hello. Begins audio from Shel’s performance.
Russ: Oh shit, this looks raw. Man it is an odd thought to have when I’m watching like Shel sing amongst a group of children but this dude fucked. Look at this dude.
Lauren: He’s having a good time.
Russ: No, but just the charisma. Like this dude, he was pullin’. This is why he was at the Playboy Mansion. You know Hef just gave him a guitar and put him in the corner was like “Just do your thing and you just fuck over there.” Also can we talk about the fact that he sings to a bunch of children on stage and his shirt is unbuttoned to the waist.
Lauren: Yes, you can see his chest is a bit hairy.
Russ: Laughs. The bald head, giant beard, and that tracks his high testosterone. Look at it go.
Lauren: So this recording was sometime in the late 1970s for Channel 11 News in Chicago, where he grew up.
Russ: News was lit back in the day. These days we get puff pieces on the new elephant being born at the zoo. Look at this shit. Here’s Shel Silverstein… What if we just took the most maniacal currently living poet and put him on stage with children and have him sing a biblical fable?
Lauren: Did you see the part where Shel is speaking to that one child on his right?
Russ: Oh, there it is.
Lauren: And the child is looking up at him as he’s talking about the unicorns drowning?
Russ: Yes, she looks terrified
Lauren: She’s looking at him with such concern, mouth just dropped open, staring with complete earnestness.
His pronunciation changes, too. He goes from “unicorn” to “UNicorn.”
Lauren: So the Irish Rovers later on they did a sequel to “The Unicorn” that they wrote. It was called “The Unicorn, the Continuing story” and it was released in 2018. And it makes the unicorn song a little less said.
Russ: boo, hiss.
Lauren: boo hiss.
Russ: Also, can we appreciate that The Wiggles also covered this song?
Lauren: I don’t know much about The Wiggles.
Russ: They rock.
Lauren: Okay, how would I know about The Wiggles?
Russ: Who doesn’t know about The Wiggles?
Lauren: When were The Wiggles popular?
Russ: 1991 to now.
Lauren: Oh, weird.
Russ: Yeah, they have never gotten in any trouble, never done anything untoward. Providing wholesome entertainment, without any kind of newsworthy things. They just turn up and make children laugh and that’s the end of it.
Lauren: Is there a song of theirs I’d recognize?
Russ: Um. Probably. This is gonna be such a nightmare to edit.
Lauren: Yeah, it is.
Russ: They do a lot of covers. They make a lot of covers children friendly. “Do the Monkey.”
Lauren: There’s some children’s band that took out the sad part of the unicorn song like the part where they’re drowning and it might have been The Wiggles
Russ: But then doesn’t work.
Lauren: Well, let’s see what The Wiggles version says.
Lauren: Okay, so they’re not the ones who cut out the sad part.
Russ: No. In fact, they made the sad part more sad, if anything. They fall to silence when they do that.
Lauren: Yeah, that’s true. I don’t know if I have heard this version before. I definitely heard the Irish Rovers one when I was growing up.
Russ: Okay, so here’s “The Continuing Story of the Unicorn.” Oh, fuck off.
Lauren: Laughs. What? Would you like to explain yourself, Russ?
Russ: Are they go? Are they about to tell me that they turn into narwhals?
Lauren: Yes, of course.
Russ: Oh, get fucked. Children, it’s okay, things die. It’s the natural order. I’m going to die. You’re going to die. Everything’s going to die.
Lauren: Well, maybe the idea that you can die because you make bad decisions is very scary. Yeah, so the continuing story of the unicorn is that instead of drowning, god was like, “Oh, no, I’m so sad listening to them drown to death. Let’s turn them into unicorns.” It’s a very sort of Greek mythology way of dealing with it.
Russ: And that definitely tracks with both Greek mythology and the Old Testament God who were very interested in human life, they both cared a lot about—not humans, in this case, but animal life—that they both definitely cared about the fates of things. And we’re really interested in a minimal amount of cruelty that tracks. Irish Rovers, you just went down like four levels in my book.
Lauren: Well, I know you. That was sarcasm. However, I would agree with you in part of that; which is that the Old Testament and Greek mythology, they are more concerned with the fates, in that they are just kind of petty and are like, “Ugh. I don’t like what’s going on destroy everything.” Whereas a New Testament God is more hands off.
Russ: No God, no Christian, Greek or otherwise, would have saved the unicorns. They wouldn’t have noticed. It would be us noticing ants.
Lauren: I mean, the poem suggests that God’s favorite creature was the unicorn.
Russ: Also I am an avowed atheist but the idea of a vengeful god… If that was what I was taught as a child, that I should fear god because he would hurt me, that tracks. Like I can go along with that. Bone cancer and children. Yeah, that’s the god for me.
Lauren: So there’s one last version of it that I want to look at. And so in 2010, Dr. Dog did a cover of “The Unicorn.”
Russ: I have absolutely no idea who that is.
Lauren: I know them I’ve seen them live.
Russ: Who or what is Dr. Dog?
Lauren: Well, maybe this will be less exciting for you then, but I know who Dr. Dog is, and so I was surprised to see they had done a cover of “The Unicorn.”
Russ: I cannot imagine anything being less exciting at this point. This sounds like the Beach Boys.
Lauren: It does. Dr. Dog sounds a lot like the Beach Boys.
Russ: I looked them up on Wikipedia: influenced by the Beach Boys.
Lauren: I’d describe it as “The Unicorn Song if it were done by the Beatles or the Beach Boys”
Russ: I mean they understand harmony that’s for damn certain. I hate this cover.
Lauren: Just to be honest, I don’t like the Unicorn Song all that much at all. And so, all of them are just interesting for me to hear.
Russ: I don’t care about the song. I like fables. And so like the existence of the fable doesn’t bother me. And I like the Irish Rovers version. And I like Shel’s version. I actually, like The Wiggles version. There are songs that I want to hear covered by Tom Waits, that Tom Waits has never sung. And one of them is that Winnie the Pooh song Heffalumps and Woozles.
Lauren: I think that I would like that very much.
Russ: Tom Waits has never sung that song. I want to hear him sing that song. And the “Unicorn” is another one. He would crush that. I feel like that would be a platinum single. Also did Heffalumps and Woozles scare the toss out of you as a kid?
Lauren: So I actually cannot remember the song, but I have an uneasy feeling when you mention it. So probably, yes.
Russ: At some point, there needs to be a follow up to this episode, where we find a band… Like we need to hook up with someone that we know that can put together music where “The Unicorn” is the overlying theme.
Lauren: You mean, make our own version of “The Unicorn?”
Russ: Yeah, make our own version of the Unicorn, because like you have a good voice and I have a Tom Waits voice and we…
Lauren: I can have a Tom Waits voice, too.
Russ: Yeah but you have a pretty voice and I don’t have a pretty voice.
Lauren: I can also sound like Tom Waits kinda.
Russ: Well, I can also sound pretty, but I don’t do it well. Yeah. So do you have any uplifting thoughts to leave our listeners with?
Lauren: I don’t really think we need them this time.
Russ: There are no unicorns and there never will be again because god hates them. Cackles.
Lauren: They are just complete dunce buckets and couldn’t show up on a deadline to save their life.
Russ: Or they’re narwhals.
Lauren: Or they’re narwhals.