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A Musical Identity Crisis

In the midst of what was a very difficult time for the city, the city received a musical boost in March of 1972. Joe Murphy’s "We’re Strong for Toledo" was borrowed for promotional use by the Libbey-Owens-Ford Company, the producer that provided three-quarters of General Motor’s auto-glass. For the first time since the early 1920s, Murphy’s song was heard on a nationwide radio network, this time during Walter Cronkite and Howard K. Smith’s nightly news broadcast carried on 700 radio stations. Once again, "We’re Strong for Toledo" was altered to suit commercial purposes:

 

We’re strong for Toledo

We’re strong for Toledo
T-O-L-E-D-O
The girls are the fairest,
The boys are the squarest
Of any old town that I know.

 

We’re strong for Toledo
T-O-L-E-D-O
Our super shock absorber windshield
The most chip resistant windshield,
The finest that we’ve ever know.

 

The city reveled in its national exposure. Ten thousand buttons were distributed to Toledoans bearing the slogan, "We’re Strong for Toledo."  But later that same month, just as "We’re Strong for Toledo" was piped into millions of homes, an unkempt, bespectacled folk singer single-handedly turned sixty years of musical boosterism into a comical irony. John Denver appeared on the Tonight Show and sang a song of savage ridicule, "Saturday Night in Toledo."

It was a song originally composed by Randy Sparks, founder of the New Christy Minstrels, in 1968 and which Denver had performed on and off again at various performances for about a year. Few but Denver’s fans knew of the song until Denver debuted it on Johnny Carson’s late night television show before an estimated audience of 30 million viewers.

In a weird way, "Saturday Night in Toledo" and "We’re Strong for Toledo" actually share parallel themes. Murphy’s song makes three very simple claims. That the people of Toledo are united in its progress, that Toledo’s female population is attractive and its male population is honest. "Saturday Night" shares these themes, only in mirror image. Toledoans, says Sparks and Denver, are disunited to the point of invisibility:

 

Ah, but after the sunset, the
dusk and the twilight,
Shadows of night start to fall.
They roll back the sidewalks
Precisely at ten,
And people who live there are not seen again.

 

Where "We’re Strong" claimed that its "girls are the fairest" Sparks/Denver closed with:

 

So live and let live — let this
Be our motto,
Let’s let the sleeping dogs lie.
And here’s to the dogs of Toledo, Ohio
Ladies, we bid you good-by.

 

In the most eerie parallel, both songs claim Toledo is "square." But "square" in Murphy’s day meant something very different from what square meant to Denver’s generation. When Murphy composed his song "square" meant someone who was just, fair, honest, clear, direct, and straightforward.  By the 1960s, "square" meant someone who was old-fashioned, unsophisticated and conservative. Of course, by 1972, fewer people were willing to trade stylish sophistication for dowdy integrity.

In spite of the bruising that Denver had given the city’s image, when he arrived to perform at the city’s Sports Arena in November of 1973 the city’s boosters greeted him with a warm welcome. The Toledo Area Convention Bureau made Denver an honorary member, dignitaries presented him with a music box that played "We’re Strong for Toledo," Toledo Scale cuff links, and a t-shirt that said, "John Denver is Strong for Toledo." Later that night, a Saturday night, Denver sang his now notorious song before a laughing, sell-out crowd.

The sting of that song lingered for the better part of a decade and was still evident in the mid-1980s when Randy Sparks, the song’s creator, was asked to sing it a final time on the city’s waterfront. After Sparks sang a six-foot tall copy of the song’s lyrics were lowered into a coffin and ceremonially buried. Sparks then apologized for the song to Toledo’s mayor, Donna Owens, and she observed, "When I think back at that song and all the interest and all the . . . all the . . . aggravation that it created in our city, I think it was a blessing in disguise, because needless to say we have a story to tell now."

 

Listen to audio

Joe Murphy, We're Strong for Toledo, with references to Saturday Night in Toledo, circa 1972-73.

Music used with the permission of BMI Music.

 

 

Sparks was then commissioned to write what yet another song about Toledo, this time one that sang about its virtues. His first attempt was rejected:

 

Holy Toledo, Sunday Morning,
Everyone’s in Church or on the way,
Coming to seek forgiveness for
Living it up on Saturday Night.

We know how to party now, Lord,
Teach us how to pray.
Holy Toledo, Sunday Morning
When they roll out the sidewalks once again.
Then we all start all over,
In exciting Toledo
When will this madness never end.

 

This song, while catchy, was both too closely tied to his "Saturday Night" song and too impious for many Toledoans.  Sparks tried again, this time with a tune that was accepted and promoted by the Chamber of Commerce, "I Want My Maumee." This was a song that, except for its corny refrain, was a throwback to the promotionalism of the 1950s with its checklist of references to local institutions and qualities:

 

I want my Maumee

I want my Maumee
I want to go back to Toledo
Yes, I want to be where the Maumee River flows

Since you last saw me
It’s been so long ago
Tears from eyes wore a path beside my nose

‘Bout the things that I’m missing
I could write a Sonnet
Hot dog I want one with everything on it
Tell Tony Packo I miss his tender buns. . .

I sought Nirvana
Left my heart in Toledo
Somewhere along the river in a sunny avenue

Queen Arawanna
I use to watch her come and go
Never thought about till I had to live without her too,
So put me on a plane and send me flyin’
Throw me on a train and I’ll stop cryin’

I want my Maumee
Toledo I’m missin’ you

I want my Maumee
I want to go back to Toledo
And I want to root when the Mud Hens do it right.
I saw my swamee
And he said I ought to go
For the Art Museum and the Zoo and the Friday Night

So lay me down to sleep
Let dreams that draw me
Wrap me in a Jeep and just recall me
I want my Maumee
Toledo I’m comin’ home

I want my Maumee
I want to go back to Toledo
Yes I want to fish for the Walleye on the lake
Cheese and salami
I want a hoagie wrapped to go
With powdered-sugar mustache from that funnel cake
And I want some other things that I best not mention
Pack me in your bag take me on convention

I want my Maumee
Toledo I’m comin’ home
Now no matter what you heard in another song
Sometimes they keep it open all night long
I want my Maumee
Toledo I’m comin’ home

Now it may sound funny but I’ll tell you this
I never met a mayor I’d rather kiss
I want my Maumee
Toledo I’m comin’
Toledo I’m comin’
Toledo I’m comin’ home

 

Listen to audio

Randy Sparks, I Want My Maumee, circa 1980s.

Music used with the permission of BMI Music.

 

 

In spite of its sexual innuendo, its dangerous notion of recalling a Jeep, and its perpetuation of the memory of his earlier song, for this effort Randy Sparks was given the key to the city and named the official "Musical Ambassador" of Toledo, Ohio. Perhaps it wasn’t the song that was important, but simply the fact that the culprit had been made to atone for his crime, the blasphemer for his apostasy. The author of "Saturday Night" had now come full circle and engaged in the musical boosterism that his original song had so deftly destroyed.

Timothy Messer-Kruse
University of Toledo
Nov. 2001

* Note [3/19/2015]: This is a misattribution to Woody Payne, as John Hichman points out that the original creator of the song is Robert Johnson.  See Jim Messman, "Records on the Wall Builds Artists' Lost Royalties," in Billboard (August 3, 2002): 33.  Toledo's Attic would like to thank Mr. Thomas Tharp for pointing out this inaccuracy and would like to issue an apology for any inconvenience it may have caused our readers.

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