Joe Ely - Photo by Republic Country Club

By George Gimarc

I’ve had several encounters with Joe Ely thru the years and they’ve all been either
unexpected, or just plain surreal. I was familiar with him from my college radio days
at KNTU-FM when his second LP ‘Honky Tonk Masquerade’ hit the station and
resonated with my love of rockabilly music. Then seemingly only a few months later,
there he was in Dallas, opening up for The Clash at The Palladium (October 6, 1979).
Hanging out backstage after the show it was clear that Ely had a bit too much to
drink and was convinced that I was his brother who he hadn’t seen in ages. I had to
go along with it just to get through to the Clash.

But the real shock came many years later when I stumbled across this interesting little musical side road. On the album ‘Honky Tonk Masquerade’ was this tune “Fingernails.” It was one of the best songs in the set, and was a killer live. MCA even spun it up as a single and it sounded so authentic, so West Texas, so much like something you would hear in a honky tonk. But alas, it wasn’t so.

The reveal was when I found an LP by the Harvard Lampoon, a comedic student
organization at Harvard University, that had been around since 1876. The group put
out regular publications that were similar to UK humor magazines like Puck and
Punch. In 1961, under the leadership of Christopher B. Cerf, they created a musical
set, recored it and released it as an LP just in time for Christmas of 1961. Among
those songs was a closing number called “I Keep My Fingernails Long (So They Click
When I Play The Piano).” There is only a single verse of the tune on the record, then
it dissolves into cheering crowds.

The tune goes like this:
I keep my fingernails long
So they click when I play the piano
I keep my fingernails long
So they click when I play the piano
And I will keep ’em that way
Until the swallows return to Capistrano.

Somehow, this song takes a journey from a reasonably obscure LP from Cambridge,
Massachusetts, all they way out to Texas. It got a little reworking of the lyrics,
changing the destination of Capistrano to Texarkana, Louisiana, and Alabama. Joe
adds a delightful little bridge as well, so he does bring about 15% new content to the

What an unexpected thing. Here in Texas we like to believe we invented everything,
but in this ONE CASE, it seems that those high-falutin’ college boys have got us by
the short ones.

By the way – it begs the question: Can You Play Piano With Long Nails?

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