Nifting: Booker T. & the MGs, “Green Onions” (1962)

The premise of this discussion is going to be that there are times when the best word to express your appreciation of a high point in music is “nifty.”  But it’s far from clear that we all mean the same thing by “nifty,” or even that there’s a quality of niftiness to refer to.  My quixotic goal is to show that “nifty” is not, as you may have thought, just a throwaway word for a passing mild delight in whatever, but a pointer to an important aesthetic ideal that musicians often pursue, with pervasive effects on popular music.  If you grant me niftiness, I will show further that rock niftiness especially shines in instrumentals.

The first time I remember a bull’s-eye feeling with “nifty” was in enthusing with a friend many years ago about Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony.  Our eyes lit up.  “Nifty” was the word for it.  But what were we saying?  I think we meant that compared to the turgid, grandiose, intricate, arcane, or grotesque qualities that an early twentieth century symphony might be expected to have, the Classical Symphony was brisk, clear, fun, and elegant.  Kind of like a latter-day blast of Mr. Nifty himself (as I now think of him), Josef Haydn (which was exactly what Prokofiev intended).

But there was something surprising to me at the time (in my sad ignorance of Haydn and Mozart) in responding to a symphony as nifty.  My home base was elsewhere.  What would I have offered as an obvious example?  Why, something like “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” or the theme of The Rockford Files, or, if my attention were turned to rock, “Something’s Got A Hold Of My Toe” by Traffic, or “Jessica” by the Allman Brothers (“Jessica,” not “Little Martha”).  Or—of course! —“Green Onions” by Booker T. and the MGs, or “Cissy Strut” by the Meters.  Probably not a vocal number, despite a heavily nifty Beatles catalog resulting from Paul McCartney’s almost relentless niftiness.  An instrumental.  But why probably an instrumental, and what exactly is the quality I’m tuning into?

Let me try for a sharper definition.  In my first attempt, “brisk, clear, fun, and elegant,” the element that sticks out to me most mysteriously is “fun.”  The kind of fun we are talking about, it seems to me, is the unexpectedly ingratiating.  Of course music just is a happy blend of surprise and comfort in the structured instreaming of sound, and yet, on top of that basic tour de force in all musical process, there’s always room to maneuver for particular effects.  In the case of nifty music, one jumps with pleasure from a mildly rule-breaking move—like strange intervals or wacky repetition in the melody, or a faster turn or jump cut in the chord progression, or a beat advanced or delayed in the rhythm—while other elements in the music continually assure your comfort, all in a well-lit place as it were, and you feel a sort of glow about how the whole thing is being managed.  Emphasis on the management:  unlike “cool,” which nowadays indicates a happy expansion of the horizon of pleasure in whatever manner, “nifty” has definitely been pulled off by someone.  Someone has ingratiated, and it is pleasingly unexpected that they have done so.  You can be amused by their clever-yet-not-overbearing proposal and comfortably share in the virtuosity required for their performance.  Emotion isn’t completely suppressed, but you get a vacation from being dragged around by it.

Perhaps we can spot the rise of niftiness in the historical stream of American popular music.  I see it in the early nineteenth century headwaters in a fiddle tune like “Arkansas Traveler” or, in much the same vein, “Turkey in the Straw.”  This is how a piece of music can stand out as delightful in other than a lovely or grand or passionate way, with a “lively” wide-interval jumping melody, full of neat little gestures, in the tradition of Celtic jigs and reels.

“Turkey In The Straw” by The Wigglers

It’s commonly observed that “Turkey In The Straw” embodies both a British-American heritage of lively melody and an African-American heritage of lively syncopated rhythm—

The beat:     1……..and……2…..and…..3……and…..4…..and……

The notes:   Tur..-.KEY…….the…STRAW

—although it’s hard to say exactly what each influence contributes to this concocted “blackface” music.[1]

The very idea of a tune is already a resort to the nifty, but some genres court niftiness more.  Ragtime is devoted to the nifty; jazz is very nifty, and bebop is niftiness run wild.  There will be some niftiness in just about any hook, since “ingratiating unexpectedness” covers a lot of what hookiness is.  In fact, the vocabulary of musical composition and performance massively reflects the pursuit of niftiness, if we take into account everything on the order of drum fills, melodic ornamentation, and key modulation.  This leads me to conclude that Niftiness is a force in popular music as pervasive as the Stomp and Swerve that have been so well explained by David Wondrich.[2]

Songs with singing and lyrics tend to carry too much emotional ballast to be nifty.  A nifty instrumental often makes a point of taking you where a vocalist couldn’t.  Indeed, a rock instrumental had better try to be nifty, since there is no other aesthetic maximum to go for that can stay within the vein of rock except the sublime (well represented by Santana’s “Soul Sacrifice” or King Crimson’s “VROOM”).

“Green Onions” makes a lovely, deceptively simple introduction to musicians being nifty.  To describe it I need a verb, “to nift.”  The implied triplets in its shuffle groove (a feel of 1-and-and-2-and-and- under the 1-and-2-and-) are nifting at you from the very start; you join in the nifting when you snap your fingers on the pleasingly unexpected 2 and 4 beats instead of the 1 and 3, or simply when you enjoy Al Jackson hitting the snare drum on 2 and 4 sharper than expected and a tiny bit late, swingingly.  Then Steve Cropper nifts the rhythm guitar part by chopping that chord on 4-and-AND just before each next measure starts, putting top spin on the groove.  Then Booker T. nifts the expected melody by hitting second notes of his figures on 1-and-AND instead of 2.  These guys are nifting left and right so that the pleasure of the groove is continually renewed.

“Green Onions”

Isn’t nifting what we all do whenever we see a way to ingratiate ourselves with a mildly unexpected move?  Don’t we nift like mad in the early phases of friendship and courtship?  Musical nifting models for us this crucial skill.  It’s better than we are, but not imposingly so.

Apparently no one knows for sure where the word “nifty” came from, but one theory that fits the earliest known uses in print is that it slangs “magnificent.”  In Mark Twain’s Roughing It, arrangements for Buck Fanshaw’s funeral are set forth in these terms:  “He was always nifty himself, and so you bet you his funeral ain’t going to be no slouch—solid silver door‑plate on his coffin, six plumes on the hearse” [3].  In a stirring article titled “Nifty, Hefty, Natty, Snappy” in American Speech, Klara Collitz showed how the semantics of the word had developed as of 1927.  “Nifty” could then shift or hover between the “magnificent,” the conspicuously stylin’, on the one side, and the “natty,” the tidy, easy-to-get-along-with, on the other.[4]  Today we still can enjoy both of those potential meanings, or lean or plunge in one direction or the other, when we say “nifty.”  But we mainly tend to think of niftiness as more friendly than magnificent—smile-evoking rather than awe-inspiring—and as more dynamic than natty.  I think we are homing in on a true distinct hot spot of meaning with a discipline of its own, not just some other attraction, like magnificence or neatness, set at a funny angle.

Behold, then, the substance of the nifty!   How better enter into it than snapping or clapping or dancing to “Green Onions”?[5]

A Nifty Mix and Nifty, Advanced

[1]  See Peter van der Merwe, Origins of the Popular Style (Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 1989), pp. 79-82.

[2] David Wondrich, Stomp and Swerve.  American Music Gets Hot 1843-1924 (Chicago:  A Cappella, 2003).

[3] Mark Twain, “Buck Fanshaw’s Funeral” (from Roughing It), in The Signet Classic Book of Mark Twain’s Short Stories (New York:  Signet, 1985), p. 92.

[4] Klara Hechtenberg Collitz, “Nifty, Hefty, Natty, Snappy,” American Speech 3 (December 1927), pp. 119-128.

[5] For the higher reaches of the rock nifty, some would point to progressive rock and fusion works of the 1970s—the instrumental parts of Yes and King Crimson and Emerson, Lake and Palmer (but this tends more to the grand) or Jeff Beck.  Some would point you to exponents of progressive string band music like Bela Fleck or Mike Marshall (but this blurs with bluegrass on one side and jazz on the other).  Some would champion The Police, who won two Grammys for instrumentals (“Regatta de Blanc” and “Behind My Camel”).  I would point to the first four albums by the Dixie Dregs.


About Steve Smith

Professor of Philosophy & Religious Studies and Director of Film Studies at Millsaps College
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