In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
Larry Verne – “Mr. Custer”
HIT #1: October 10, 1960
STAYED AT #1: 1 week
Who was this for? Who thought this was funny? “Mr. Custer” was a novelty song about the Battle Of Little Bighorn, sung from the perspective of a cowardly soldier who didn’t want to fight the Lakota forces assembled on that day in 1876: “There’s a redskin waitin’ out there, just fixin’ to take my hair / A coward I’ve been called cuz I don’t wanna wind up dead or bald.” He’s presented as a cartoon character, a paragon of yellow-bellied fearfulness. But if that narrator was a real person, history would’ve proven him a whole lot smarter than Custer himself.
If there is a central joke in “Mr. Custer” — and I’m using the word joke about as generously as I can — it’s Verne’s voice, a high-pitched Southern twang like that of Cletus from The Simpsons. The music, a martial Western stomp, is clearly supposed to echo the theme songs from the Westerns that were popular at the time. So maybe what’s supposed to be funny is the contrast between that stereotypically heroic music and the blubbering idiocy of its main character.
The problem — or one of the many problems, anyway — is that there was nothing heroic about Custer’s Last Stand. It was a quagmire and a staggering piece of military idiocy, with Custer leading himself, his family, and his men into death because he utterly and completely underestimated his enemy. So even if Custer weren’t an agent of genocide, a willing participant in the wholesale slaughter of America’s native people, he’s still be an absolute bumbling dipshit of a leader. With even the tiniest bit of perspective, the gibbering soldier who doesn’t want anything to do with the fight seems less like a coward and more like the only white man on the ground that day who had any sense.
On top of that, “Mr. Custer,” with its klaxonlike yelps of fear and its fake tribal war chants, is a near-unendurable piece of music; it blows my mind to imagine that anyone would’ve paid money to listen to it. It’s an offensive song, and it’s not even offensive in a coherent way; it insults white Southerners and Western hero myths just as much as it insults Native Americans. In fact, the only person who it doesn’t insult is Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer, exactly the person who most deserved to be insulted.
So “Mr. Custer” is an offensive and morally wrongheaded song that also is pretty much unlistenable musically. Everything about it is terrible, and it might just be the worst song that’s ever hit #1. To know for sure, I’d have to listen to it back-to-back with Eminem’s “Crack A Bottle,” and I just can’t bring myself to do that.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s a terrible Slipknot song called “Custer” that’s nonetheless many times better than “Mr. Custer”: