THIS POST IS FOR THE BARDS

Larry was writing rhyme at the age of six; by 1910 [age 15], he’d been christened “Shakespeare” by friends. [He had] a passion for Shakespeare, a delight in wordplay, and a fondness for anachronistic juxtaposition. Not for nothing was Hart known as “Shakespeare.” –Dominick Symonds, author of WE’LL HAVE MANHATTAN (subtitled THE EARLY WORK OF RODGERS & HART)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

My previous post featured the words and music of Richard Rodgers and Larry Hart, which — along with the above — conveniently serve as segue into Shakespearean speculation:

BARD’S TUNE

What would William
have done with jazz?
Would he take jazz
where no one has?

Would jazz-you-like-
it, he accost?
Would he find jazz
love’s labor lost?

Would he have played
jazz instrument
measure for meas-
ure, or hell bent?

Or would he have,
a jazz voice, been —
the ‘King of Sing’
of noted men?

No! Peerless bard,
writer of wrongs —
if you dug jazz….
you’d write the songs.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *  * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

BARDSTOWN

is an itty-bitty city in my neighboring state of Kentucky, voted “Most Beautiful Small Town in America” and noted for its annual KENTUCKY BOURBON FESTIVAL, MUSEUM OF WHISKEY, and MY OLD KENTUCKY HOME STATE PARK, site of the farm which inspired Stephen Foster to write “My Old Kentucky Home” (the state song of Kentucky).

http://www.visitbardstown.com/

I find the story of Stephen Foster most interesting, starting with the date of his birth: July 4, 1826 — the same day that John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died hours apart. Foster was a dreamer whose love of music trumped more profitable ways of earning a living. Though he composed almost 200 songs (many of them popular in his own time), his last years were marked by poverty, a craving for liquor, and suffering from what may have been tuberculosis, dying 153 years and one week ago today (Jan. 13, 1864).

Foster can truly be considered the original bard of American music, as this 1946 quote by the late American composer and music critic, Deems Taylor, suggests:

What quality have they [Foster’s songs] that gives them such tremendous staying power? After all, other men in his day wrote songs that were as popular as his, possibly more so. What was his secret? It was, I think, that he helped fill a gap that had always existed in our musical culture. Our ancestors, coming here from all quarters of the globe, brought with them the folk songs of their native lands, but they were not peculiarly ours. It is ironic that the only race that developed a folksong literature in this country is the race that was brought here against its will, and was and has been the most brutally exploited of all — the Negro. The Negro spirituals and Stephen Foster’s songs are the nearest to completely indigenous folksongs that we have. Nor is it a coincidence that most of the best of his songs are in Negro dialect and sing the woes of the Negro. 

But I will close, in keeping with the theme of recent posts, with one of Foster’s love songs:

 

THIS POST IS FOR THE WORDS (AND MUSIC)

“They had a story written that at times impinged on the truth, but not very often.” –Richard Rodgers (re Metro Goldwyn Mayer’s filming of the 1948 Rodgers & Hart biopic WORDS AND MUSIC)

The Hollywoodized version of the life of Rodgers and Hart may be for the birds regarding the facts of their life, but above and beyond the cornball script are such treats for the ears as Betty Garrett, Judy Garland and Lena Horne singing those sophisticated R & H songs. But at least — though MGM had no conscience with regard to the narrative — they took no liberties with respect to Hart’s Words And Rodgers’ Music.

Without further ado, then, on with the show. Carrying forward the theme of the previous post, here are (you have my word) three great ‘love’ songs from WORDS AND MUSIC:

But wait — you want unadulterated love and sophistication? R & H had nothing on Cole Porter:

BOOKS RIGHT DOWN MY ALLEY

The Public Library near where I live held a one-day used book sale recently. I got there shortly after it opened in the morning, hoping to find a book or two of interest. A few minutes later, I learned that a man had donated (for this sale) his collection of 500 old books on one of my favorite subjects: the movies, including biographies of directors and actors, movie history, Hollywood, the stories behind some of the great films,  etc. I ended up selecting almost 50 of those books, filling two large boxes at a cost of $10 a box. It’s been a long time since fortune favored me with so bounteous a cache for so little cash.

So now, on top of already owning a not-inconsequential number of unexplored tomes, I find myself even more bogged down with unread books I need to find time to read…..or, at minimum, get to a place where I can see daylight at the end of the bog. Therefore, I’m going to skip a post or two in my usual post-every-five-days schedule.

In the words of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, “I shall return” — sometime in December, presupposing I won’t still be SWAMPED/haven’t gone blind. See ya later, alley-gators….

At least, that’s the time-frame in my crystal ball, but in my Lorenz Hart of hearts, who knows….

ECHOES FROM THE (V)ALLEY

tin_pan_alley_plaque

In my last post (NOTES FROM THE ALLEY), I touched on TIN PAN ALLEY’s origins and location, but failed to mention where the name came from. For that, I quote from another book, FROM SAGINAW VALLEY TO TIN PAN ALLEY by R. Grant Smith:

On a summer day in New York City, just before 1900, songwriter and journalist Monroe Rosenfeld walked down West 28th Street, on the way to his publisher, to demonstrate a new song he had written. As he passed the rows of music publishing houses, clustered together and piled on top of each other, he heard the sounds of hundreds of pianos, playing hundreds of pieces of music, pouring out of the open windows. The tumultuous noise reminded him of tin pans clanging together.
Later that day, when Rosenfeld returned to his typewriter at the New York Herald, he wrote an article about what he had just experienced, referring to the area he had visited as “Tin Pan Alley.” This name would remain synonymous with the popular music publishing industry in America for the next sixty years.

Think of THE GOLDEN AGE OF POPULAR MUSIC (which includes the storied Roaring Twenties) as TIN PAN ALLEY writ large, a coast-to-coast cacophony of sounds impossible to paint a complete picture of in these few sketches — but my hope is to convey at least a feel for the era….principally with clips of songs written and performed by composers and artists like those featured in the previous post. Picking up where we left off in 1921, I’ll resist the urge to test your forbearance with a 1922 triumph of treacle titled GRANNY, YOU’RE MY MAMMY’S MAMMY (I kid you not), and go instead with 1922 and 1923 hits about guys named Harry and Barney:

Skipping past such 1924/25 doozies as DOODLE DOO DOO and DOO WACKA DOO, we come to 1926, a banner year for songs that became all-time standards, including one that a very young Bing Crosby and the Mills Brothers blew out of the water — “The name of this song is DINAH”:

Now we’re on a roll — here’s another 1926 standard, played by it’s Hart-less composer:

But what’s a Richard Rodgers composition minus Lorenz Hart lyrics? It’s like romance expressed without a word, as proposed in another of their 1926 songs (1:40 into this clip):

Hart died (tragically young) in the month of November, but many great Golden Age songwriters were born in this month, including Harry Woods, who began writing hits (like “I’m Looking Over A Four-Leaf Clover”) in the early 1920s….however, I’m going to jump ahead here with one of his lesser known songs from the 1930s — repeat, the 1930s:

(TO BE CONTINUED at least ONE MORE TIME)

COLE IN ONE (PART TWO)

One year ago today, on the 50th anniversary of the death of Cole Porter, I published a post titled COLE IN ONE. Porter was one of the two preeminent composer-lyricists  (the other being Irving Berlin) of his day, a time in the history of popular music when most songs were written by a team of one (or more) composer(s) and one (or more) lyricist(s)….think George and Ira Gershwin, Rodgers and Hart, Rodgers and Hammerstein, and DeSylva, Brown and Henderson, for examples.

What made Porter one of a kind was a combination of the unique quality of his melodies and the wit and urbane sophistication of his lyrics, for which he was unrivaled (excepting Lorenz Hart, who wrote lyrics only). This made such a big impression on me when I was young that I “fell in love” with witty, amusing and sometimes poignant rhyme — the kind exemplified non-musically by light verse master Ogden Nash….and even Nash could team up on occasion to write a great song, such as Speak Low (When You Speak Love) with composer Kurt Weill for the 1943 musical One Touch of Venus.

For this post, I have taken the liberty of taking Cole Porter’s What Is This Thing Called Love for a re-write, interposing my interpretation of the well-known refrain onto Porter’s as-written (but seldom-heard) verse which precedes it. You might call it COLE PORTER A LA MUSE:

I was a humdrum person,
Leading a life apart,
When love flew in through my window wide
And quickened my humdrum heart.
Love flew in through my window,
I was so happy then.
But after love had stayed a little while,
Love flew out again.

What is this thing
Called love of light verse?
This funny thing
I love, called light verse.

Just who can solve
Its mystery.
Why should it make
A muse of me?

I saw humor there
One wonderful day;
Youth took my heart
And threw it away.

That’s why I ask the Lord
In light of this curse
What is this thing
Called love of light verse?

In case you’ve forgotten how the real refrain goes, here is the song sung as originally written:

WASN’T IT GREAT?

I don’t believe that a writer does something wonderful spontaneously. I believe it’s the result of years of living, of study, reading, his very personality and temperament. At one particular moment all these things come together and the artist ‘expresses’ himself. –Richard Rodgers

* * * * * * * * * * * ** * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Of all the songs Richard Rodgers wrote, first with Lorenz Hart and then Oscar Hammerstein II, few are more obscure than one of Rodgers & Hart’s earliest, Wasn’t It Great? Yet, as I surveyed the list of their far better known titles: Manhattan, My Heart Stood Still, Thou Swell, Blue Moon (their only one published as a popular song, not for a Broadway show or movie score) and hundreds more, no title seemed more fitting to remember his 113th birthday (June 28, 1902) than Wasn’t It Great?.

Richard Rodgers wasn’t just another songwriter coming of age in that dynamic era of social, cultural and artistic change known as the “Roaring Twenties.” When composer Rodgers and lyricist Hart first teamed up in 1919, American popular music was mostly “a thing of trite phrase and cliché, of cloying Victorian sentiment, a tired and hackneyed commodity” (to quote biographer Frederick Nolan). “Moreover,” as Hart said in a 1928 interview, “the old love song….of the then popular waltz was usually a quiet exemplification of innocent amatory music; but today the barbaric quality of jazz dance music demands expressions of love that are much more dynamic and physical.”

Over the evolving years, Rodgers composed songs for 42 Broadway musicals, of which 19 film versions were made. Even a partial list of shows is beyond impressive: THE GARRICK GAIETIES, SPRING IS HERE, LOVE ME TONIGHT, BABES IN ARMS, PAL JOEY, OKLAHOMA!, SOUTH PACIFIC, CAROUSEL, THE KING AND I, STATE FAIR (which included the 1946 Oscar-winning song It Might As Well Be Spring). As much as any composer from the 1920s to 1960s, Richard Rodgers WAS the Sound of Music.

It is especially worth noting that Rodgers accomplished all this despite the completely different styles and personalities of his two principal collaborators. Of Lorenz Hart (who died in 1943), Rodgers said, “Larry was much gayer and lighter than Oscar. He was inclined to be cynical, where Oscar never was. Oscar was more sentimental and so the music had to be more sentimental. It wouldn’t have been natural for Larry to write ‘Oklahoma!’ any more than it would have been natural for Oscar to write ‘Pal Joey’.”

And so I close with a Richard Rodgers song written with each collaborator (the first with lyrics by Hart):