Black Friday ain’t nothing but a memorable song by Steely Dan.


For the past four decades, any mention of “Black Friday” immediately cues the song by Steely Dan, which promptly starts playing in my head, except it doesn’t ever seem to end there.

That’s because back in 1975, most of us were listening to albums, and if you heard these songs often enough, it’s impossible to stop the internal playback from repeating their established running order.

“Black Friday” is the first song on the album Katy Lied. It leads directly to “Bad Sneakers,” then “Rose Darling” — and if something doesn’t occur to interrupt the stream, it only ends with “Throw Back the Little Ones” and the album’s conclusion.

In historical terms, “Black Friday” has tended to denote disasters.

I know that the original Black Friday was a financial crisis during the presidency of U.S. Grant. It occurred on Sept. 24, 1869, after an attempt was made to corner the gold market following the Civil War. But I was pretty sure Black Friday has been used for lots of other historic dates as well. A quick check of confirmed that notion with a list of 25 other dates referred to as Black Friday. It also came back with listings for Black days of the week, including every day of the week.

All of the references except for the one observed this week, were negative events — some really negative. A storm in Scotland in 1881 killed 189 fishermen. A flood in Johnstown, Penn., killed 2,200 in 1889. On a Friday in 1939 the worst wildfires ever in Australia killed 71 and destroyed several towns. The list goes on.

In fact, Steely Dan’s song refers to that original Black Friday in 1869. From “Black Friday” universally describing a tragic or catastrophic occurrence, we’re now at a juncture where it boosts, boasts and symbolizes shopping excess. I find this contemptible, although on second thought, blind consumer-driven materialism probably fits the previous usage, albeit with little appreciation of the irony.

The earliest evidence of the phrase Black Friday applied to the day after Thanksgiving in a shopping context suggests that the term originated in Philadelphia, where it was used to describe the heavy and disruptive pedestrian and vehicle traffic that would occur on the day after Thanksgiving. This usage dates to at least 1961. More than twenty years later, as the phrase became more widespread, a popular explanation became that this day represented the point in the year when retailers begin to turn a profit, thus going from being “in the red” to being “in the black”.

Irony is dead, but according to Pitchfork, Steely Dan’s “Black Friday” is an example of the late Walter Becker’s brilliance.

Once the duo decided that David Palmer, a part-time vocalist on the group’s 1972 debut Can’t Buy A Thrill, didn’t quite jibe with their plan for the group, Fagen took over vocal duties but Becker remained somewhat in the shadows, especially after Steely Dan retired from the road in 1975 so they could craft albums with the best studio musicians money could buy. This raised a question: if Steely Dan could hire the best guitarists in the world, why would they need to Becker to play a solo?

The answer is pretty simple: Steely Dan always favored “feel.” Those endless hours in the studio were a quest for the right sound, one with precision and vibe—the kind of sound Becker could achieve. Once he and Fagen holed up in the studio, he started to play more guitar, not less, soloing on nearly half of their 1977 landmark Aja. Becker developed a fluid style, one based on the blues but as fleet as hard bop. It was the perfect complement to Fagen‘s keyboards, adding a bit of grit to the sophisticated chords and rhythms. This hint of dirtiness also underlined how the characters populating Steely Dan songs were often unsavory types; underneath that shiny surface, there was dirt.

I’m hoping to make it all the way through Black Friday without spending a red cent. Scroll to the top, push play … all together now …

When Black Friday comes
I stand down by the door
And catch the grey men when they
Dive from the fourteenth floor

When Black Friday comes
I collect everything I’m owed
And before my friends find out
I’ll be on the road

When Black Friday falls you know it’s got to be
Don’t let it fall on me

When Black Friday comes
I fly down to Muswellbrook
Gonna strike all the big red words
From my little black book

Gonna do just what I please
Gonna wear no socks and shoes
With nothing to do but feed
All the kangaroos

When Black Friday comes I’ll be on that hill
You know I will

When Black Friday comes
I’m gonna dig myself a hole
Gonna lay down in it ’til
I satisfy my soul

Gonna let the world pass by me
The Archbishop’s gonna sanctify me
And if he don’t come across
I’m gonna let it roll

When Black Friday comes
I’m gonna stake my claim
I guess I’ll change my name