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The Hippopotamus and the Critter from the Swamp

by Randy Kaplan



This is a one-act song, sort of a play with dialogue, a one-man-with-multitudes allegory, a ... well, maybe you can help with the taxonomy. I sang a version of this song at an antiwar rally in the early 1990s. That incarnation was released on The City Limits compilation As Far As You Can Go Without Leaving (1995). It's changed a bit over the years, morphing and growing into this. It's still somewhat of a protest song, and what it protests is a common human foible, fault, or fallacy. I'm releasing this new version mindfully on a most significant and solemn day.


There was a time on Earth when things were black or white.
There was sorrow, there was mirth. Things were wrong or they were right.
There was good and there was bad, separate as can be.
People were either sane or mad, always happy or always sad,
expensive or else free.
There were no puddles or islands. Things were on land or else they were in the sea.
No lakes either … or swimming pools.

Now I’m a scientist of physics, and I build fusion machines.
I also play around for kicks with chromosomes and genes.
I was taking out the litter (once an ordinary chore)
when I saw a tiny little critter looking kinda—no, very—bitter
and a hippopotamus at my door.
I said, “What the heck’s going on, and why’d you come here for?
Well? Start talkin’.”

The humongous hippopotamus opened his giant mouth
and meekly said, “I took the bus, the one that runs north/south.”
The critter raised his muddy paw: “The swamp is where I’m from.
I’ve broken thirteen sheriff’s jaws and every single federal law.
And now I’m on the run.”
I said, “Now listen up here, you two diverse creatures of God.
I asked why’d you come here for. Not how or what you’ve done.
I don’t care about that stuff, in particularly.”

Well the tremendous hippopotamus took kindly to my words.
He bowed and said, without a fuss, “I came ‘cause I lost my herd.”
But the critter wouldn’t look at me. He just grumbled, groused, and griped.
Then he danced around maniacally, plucking loquats off my tree
that weren’t even ripe!
I said, “Now hippopotamus, you’re a kind and gentle one.
But, swamp critter, you’re a stubborn type.
You could be trouble, critter.”

The hippopotamus began to preach of virtue, law, and good.
He said, “The Bible is the thing to teach what we shouldn’t do and what we should.”
The critter he began to spit on the hippopotamus’s feet.
He said, “I’ve had it up to here with it! I ain’t afraid of fiery pits!
I live to steal and cheat!
And then it happened. We heard sirens and felt the hangman’s heat.
Uh-oh, better hide.

You see, the cops were comin’ ‘round the bend, and the critter’s knees were shakin’.
The hippo said, “It’s near the end!” My heart, it was achin’.
The critter vowed, “I will reform if you save me from my fate.”
I said, “My basement’s safe and warm. Go seek shelter from the storm.
And hurry, before it’s too late!
‘Cause you know, critter, if those cops catch you, they’ll lock you away or worse.
Or maybe they’ll just parade you around, using you as bait.
Bait for other criminals and varmints and vagabonds
and evil doers everywhere like yourself, oh evil critter.”

Well, I met them in my basement lab as the cops surrounded my house.
I said, “In the dark we’re gonna’ have to take a stab. This has only worked on a bee and a mouse.
I’m gonna’ fuse you two together, and together you’ll be one.”
The critter turned confused and blue, so I told him a little white lie or two.
I said, “This’ll be easy. And this’ll be fun.” I said, “Think of it this way, creatures:
You’ll be one great thing with two great parts … like a hot dog and a bun.”

The hippo, he consented so the critter wouldn’t swing.
He said, “I guess if Clark Kent did, I can be two things.”
Then as a scientist of physics, I fused them creatures tight.
And as sure as two times three is six, and as sure as candles all have wicks,
I fused them creatures right.
I sang and danced when the smoke had cleared
because I was certain that I personally had elevated physics
and gene and chromosome science to a new height.
And maybe even combined black and white … But maybe not.

The cops came down my basement steps with an artist’s rendition of the critter
sayin’, “We’re the sheriffs’ thirteen deps, and, by the way, you spilled some litter.
We thought that we might find here this critter of a creature
who you may hear should be quite feared.” Said the seventh deputy with a blood-red beard,
“He bit his fifth-grade teacher.”
It was then I first regretted it a little bit that I had combined a downright evil swamp critter
with a benevolent hippopotamus-slash-preacher.

But I showed them cops around the laboratory. I showed them my ‘pet mule’
who was really the hippo and the critter. The three of us played it cool.
The deputies left satisfied, but the mule began to kick.
When I heard it talk I coulda died. You should’ve seen the look in its eyes,
a look so awfully sick.
It kept changin’ from from second to second
from a peaceful, gentle, loving creature to one like a bomb
or a rocky mountain spotted fever tick tick tick tick tick.
I felt like I’d been walking in the woods without my hat.

I heard the creature’s voice as a tortured soul must sound.
The hippo had no choice: to the critter he was bound.
The creature could act humble like the hippo used to be.
But its actions were a jumble of contradictions, like the bumble
of a buzzing killer bee. I felt remorse, regret, and woe.
And I said, “Woe … woe is definitely me!”

The creature left my home and he journeyed far and wide.
He went through the land with a fine-toothed comb with no shame at all to hide,
conning the best of people with a gentle outside shell.
Then like a church’s sharpened steeple, rolling over like an army jeep will,
He … he … what he did was … well, ain’t no tongue can tell.
I didn’t want any part of the strange goings on,
so I washed my hands of the affair, and then I washed my hair and styled it with gel.
I looked good … but I felt bad.

‘Cause everyone was turning. Everyone was two.
Everyone was burning. Black and white were blue.
Let’s make an abbreviation: Take from critter just the ‘crit.’
Combine it with the notion of the ‘hippo’ two-fifth quotient,
and you get: a hypocrite. I personally had created the Earth’s first hypocrite.
And initially, it was a mess. But then…

The generations passed and circles formed from lines.
Wrangled and entangled, family trees got intertwined.
Creatures were created that were mixed within and without,
all containing multitudes—repulsiveness and pulchritude—self-esteem fused with self-doubt.
Yes, some people were textbook hypocrites, one way on the outside and another way on the inside. But others started to understand their own complexities, and that led them to feel comfortable with ambivalence and paradox, and that helped them to live outside the box.

Now everything keeps turning. There’s always something new
under the sun so beautifully bright but potentially harmful too.
We’re full of contradictions, we’re complicated beings—
And when you learn to live life fluidly, relishing ambiguity,
it really is quite freeing . . . not to mention good for your well-being.
And with that in mind, I’d like to ask a question:
Are we gonna live outside the box?
Are we gonna blow up the binaries that categorize and hypnotize, cage us and upstage us,
bind us to party lines, and yours and mine, and this and that, and thin and fat,
and off and on, and here and gone, and black and white, and fight or flight?
Good. ‘Cause life’s a puzzle, albeit one we can’t finish and frame and hang on the wall ‘cause some of the pieces are missing. And some didn’t really ever fit. We’ve got to look at the thing as we construct it, as a whole, and also carefully, at every little bit. Things were simpler before I made that creature, yes. But they’re a lot more interesting now. Well, so long, goodbye, that’s it.


released September 11, 2021
Music & Lyrics by Randy Kaplan

Randy Kaplan: guitar and vocals
Mike West: everything else

Produced, Mixed, and Mastered by Mike West at The 9th Ward Pickin' Parlor in Machynlleth, Wales

Cover artwork by Sam Schatzberg


all rights reserved



Randy Kaplan Detroit, Michigan

ADULTS: Nashville Blues & Roots Alliance calls Randy “a master of old-time, Delta-influenced guitar,” and the Smoky Mountain Blues Society says he’s “an absolute ace guitarist, picker, and ragtime player.”

KIDS: Randy's blend of American Roots Music and Comedic Storytelling has inspired the likes of NPR and PEOPLE magazine to name Randy one of the nation’s top family entertainers.
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