“Come, sing me a bawdy song—Make me merry!” commands Falstaff in Shakespeare’s Henry I, Part I. For decades, the person to go to for the texts of such songs was Gershon Legman (1917–1999). Usually publishing under what sounded like a pseudonym, “G. Legman” helped legitimize the academic study of “erotic verbal behavior.” His encyclopedic collections will probably be consulted long into the future when people want to sing, or at least discuss, the bawdy eclectic.
Legman was an independent scholar of “erotic folklore,” the popular culture of sexuality as manifested in dirty jokes, limericks, and songs. Such things were known, told, and sung for centuries, yet few of them were committed to print because of what he called “the antisexual religious censorship in the West for several thousand years…and especially the last two hundred and fifty years, by the civil authorities.”
Born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, Legman rebelled early against American Puritanism and Victorianism. According to Martha Cornog and Timothy Perper, as a young man, Legman gave lectures for the Birth Control League, helped develop a vibrating dildo, and worked for sex-researcher Alfred Kinsey as a bibliographer and book-buyer. His first published work, at the age of twenty-three in 1940, was Oragenitalism: An Encyclopedic Outline of Oral Technique in Genital Excitation, Part 1, Cunnilinctus [sic]. His publisher was prosecuted and most copies of the edition destroyed. (A complete Oragenitalism would be published in 1969, under his own name, not his 1940 pseudonym, Roger-Maxe de al Glannege.)
He took the censors head-on in 1949 with his polemical Love & Death: A Study in Censorship. Legman argued that sex wasn’t pornographic but violence was. In a nutshell: make love, not war—a phrase he later claimed he coined in a 1963 speech. Thirty publishers wouldn’t go near Love & Death, but he finally got it in print and distributed it himself from his Bronx apartment. The US Post Office hounded him for that, and like many American rebels, he took refuge in France, where authorities didn’t seem to much care about the local publication of collections of dirty limericks in English.
Legman’s major works include collections of more than four thousand limericks; two volumes on The Rationale of the Dirty Joke; and The Horn Book: Studies in Erotic Folklore and Bibliography. He edited two volumes of the University of Arkansas’s Ozark Folksongs and Folklore series, comprising the once “unprintable” collection of folklorist Vance Randolph (1892–1980). Roll Me in Your Arms and Blow the Candle Out didn’t see the light of the published day until more than a decade after Randolph’s death.
There are now at least two books about Legman and his work, including a biography, Dirty Jokes and Bawdy Songs: The Uncensored Life of Gershon Legman (University of Illinois Press, 2019). Legman’s own multi-volume autobiography, Peregrine Penis, completed by his wife, Judith Legman, after his death, was partially subsidized by author and bookseller Larry McMurtry.
Legman worked consciously against what he described as “anti-sexual censorship that has falsified almost the entire published record of literature and folklore, in English especially, for three centuries.”
Shakespeare is the classic case. We have a word for texts gutted of sexual content: bowdlerized, from a famous case of Shakespeare-censorship by Thomas and Henrietta Marie Bowdler. Brother and sister Bowdler neutered the Bard in The Family Shakespeare (first edition 1807), which was highly influential for most of the nineteenth century. But, as Legman reminds us, Alexander Pope was already cutting the naughty bits out of Shakespeare a century earlier. Censors never sleep.
“Folklore is the voice of those who have no other voice,” he writes, “and would not be listened to if they did. Of no part of folklore is this more true—folksongs and ballads, folklife, language, artifacts, dances and games, superstitions and all the rest—than of the sexual parts.”
“Make love, not war” and his iconoclasm notwithstanding, Legman was no ally of the cultural (and sexual) rebelliousness of the 1960s. The libertine of “erotic verbal behavior” could be quite conservative in some ways, but his commitment to anti-censorship was a life’s work.
Editor’s note: This story was amended to add a link to the 1999 Cornog and Perper article, to clarify that some copies of Legman’s 1940 book still exist, and that Legman was married when he died.