The Adventures of Elvis Costello (and Robin Hood)

In Elvis Costello's brand new memoir, Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink, the brilliant musician/songwriter recalls his childhood affection for the '50s TV hit The Adventures of Robin Hood, wherein a mythic green-clad archer in tights and his "merrie men" roam Sherwood Forest redistributing income from Nottingham's one-percenters to those less fortunate. (The book was released just days before the start of International Robin Hood Week, Nottingham's celebration of all things Robin. Coincidence? I think so.)

Elvis homes in on the show's theme song, written by my dad, Carl Sigman, right around the time Elvis was born. (Coincidence? Definitely.)

The catchy chorus still inhabits the musical DNA of boomers throughout the English-speaking world:

Robin Hood, Robin Hood, riding through the glen
Robin Hood, Robin Hood, with his band of men
Feared by the bad/loved by the good
Robin Hood, Robin Hood, Robin Hood

The politics of income inequality in America intruded on the pleasures of Unfaithful Music when a modern-day would-be Robin Hood named Bernie joined four other candidates for the first Democratic presidential debate of 2015. But the roguish adventures of Elvis/Robin resonated as the group took on the GOP mantra that the root of all evil isn't love of money; it's expecting billionaires to contribute a tiny fraction of their wealth to the common good (socialism!).

Like me and my then pre-teen friends, Elvis enjoyed The Adventures of Robin Hood sans politics. But it shouldn't be altogether surprising that the show had its roots in, well, socialism: it was created and produced by Hannah Weinstein, an American journalist and left-wing activist who moved to London in 1952 to avoid the perils of blacklisting and McCarthyism.

Weinstein deployed more than a dozen stellar blacklisted writers, including Waldo Salt and Ring Lardner, Jr. Their political passions underpinned the tales of Robin's derring-do. Lardner, a member of the Hollywood Ten, went to jail rather than give up the names of other Tinseltown heavyweights suspected of Communist sympathies; he wrote the first episode as "Lawrence McClellan" and later said that Robin Hood provided him "with plenty of opportunities to comment on issues and institutions in Eisenhower-era America."

Elvis Costello has, of course, written many great songs that touch on the obscene divide between bosses and workers, between rich and poor. "Oliver's Army" is a stirring anti-war anthem that the author says was based on the premise that "they always get a working class boy to do the killing." The stunning, elegiac "Shipbuilding" poses the stark question that politicians rarely confront before sending young and disproportionately poor people to war: "Is it worth it?" "Radio, Radio" -- with its biting, "I want to bite the hand that feeds me / I want to bite that hand so badly" -- joins Johnny Paycheck's "Take This Job and Shove It" in the annals of raw, anti-corporate expressiveness.

And then there's "Welcome to the working week," the 91 second tour de force that introduces Elvis's debut Columbia album, My Aim Is True.

I emailed Gregg Geller, the man who signed Elvis to Columbia in 1977, about that track and, more broadly, to ask whether he thought Elvis's politics might be connected to the Robin Hood ethos.

Gregg wrote, "I first heard 'Welcome To The Working Week' while standing on the sidewalk after exiting the morning session of a CBS Records convention at the London Hilton on July 26, 1977 (my 30th birthday), an encounter that led directly to signing him to Columbia Records. I quickly came to love his image (knock-kneed, pigeon-toed, with spectacles), his attitude (intense, angry), his music (stripped-down, energetic) and his lyrics (sharp, intelligent) -- all of which ran counter to the prevailing, predominant style of the day which had turned tired, bloated, and not-at-all my idea of what rock 'n' roll was and should be. So, while I don't doubt that you're correct, Elvis couldn't possibly have consciously considered the political implications of Robin Hood. But I've also no doubt that that which we experience early in life subconsciously impacts our mindset and worldview."

As the song says, "You gotta do it till you're through it so you better get to it."


After the Democratic debate, I returned to Unfaithful Music and devoured Elvis's tales of his first American tour (accompanied by his own band of merrie men, The Attractions), where bar fights, radio boycotts, and death threats filled the hours between thrilling performances. And I imagined a 20-something Elvis sitting down to breakfast at a cheap motel -- perhaps with a killer hangover -- and delighting in a couplet my dad, a proud Kennedy liberal, wrote for "Robin Hood" that wasn't included in the truncated TV version: "To cheating and corruption, he would never, never yield/And danger was his breakfast ev'ry day."

Here's the full lyric of "Robin Hood," a pop hit on both sides of the pond in 1955, as sung by Dick James (with Stephen James and His Chums), who would become the Beatles publisher -- and produced by George Martin, who would become the Beatles' producer.

Robin Hood, Robin Hood, riding through the glen
Robin Hood, Robin Hood, with his band of men
Feared by the bad, loved by the good
Robin Hood, Robin Hood, Robin Hood

He called the greatest archers to a tavern on the green
They vowed to help the people of the king
They handled all the troubles on the English country scene
And still found plenty of time to sing

He came to Sherwood Forest with a feather in his cap
A fighter never looking for a fight
His bow was always ready, and he kept his arrows sharp.
He used them to fight for what was right

With Friar Tuck and Little John they had a roguish look,
They did the deed the others wouldn't dare.
He captured all the money that the evil sheriff took,
And rescued many a lady fair

To cheating and corruption, he would never, never yield
And danger was his breakfast ev'ry day
The cobbler in the hamlet and the farmer in the field
Were always helping him get away

He rode up to the palace and was cheered by ev'ryone
His Lady Marian threw him a rose
The King of England knighted him the Earl of Huntington
And that's the way that the legend goes

Robin Hood, Robin Hood, riding through the glen
Robin Hood, Robin Hood, with his band of men
Feared by the bad, loved by the good
Robin Hood, Robin Hood, Robin Hood