Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Kazoo's, Scarecrows and Starship Troopers

Frank Loesser was born a hundred years ago today.

He makes me think of scarecrows and kazoo's. And Robert Heinlein.

Bear with me on this one.

Frank Loesser wrote the happiest songs I have ever sung or heard sung. Just the titles make you smile.

"Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition". It was written a few days after Pearl Harbor and helped a stunned nation shake it's head, reeling from a punch, and focus on the enormous changes that lay ahead for America in the next five years. The title was based on an apocryphal statement uttered by a US Navy chaplain aboard a ship under attack at Pearl.

Tommy Tune is not the original long legg-ed lanky dancer. The original is Ray Bolger; the fumbling scarecrow in the 1939 classic "Wizard of Oz".

And it was his buttery voice that sang "Once In Love With Amy" from Loessers' 1948 Broadway show, "Where's Charley?" The song stopped the show every night, and Bolgers' low growl and lecherous laugh and his plea for everybody to "...sing along with me!" had the audience doing just that. God, but I love that song.

Loesser wrote good songs. After "Where's Charley" he strung together some stunners with a wonderful story for "Guys and Dolls"; considered by some the "best" Broadway musical comedy ever written. Such songs.

"Luck be Lady", "Fugue for a Tinhorn", "If I Were A Bell" and the title song just pop out of the speakers and the smiles dance across the faces.

"Most Happy Fella'" gave us "Standing of the Corner", and "Im-a' the most happy fella. In-a the whole Napa Valley......!!"

There was a near miss with "Greenwillow" and one ot the songs, "Never Will I Marry" is difficult for those that attempt to sing it. Including your's truly.

And movies. O Lord. What songs.

MGM's "Hans Christian Anderson" is one movie I could watch over and over. "Inch Worm", "Anywhere I Wander", "Thumbelina", and the title with the seasoned warmth of Danny Kaye pushing out those lyrics to those sweet, sweet tunes.

Other movie hits include, "Baby It's Cold Outside". A sleek Ricardo Montalban (yes the same actor who gave Kirk fits as Khan Noonien Singh) seduces Esther Williams. Another duo of the same tune by Red Skelton and Betty Garrett from "Neptunes Daughter".

Who hasn't plinked "Heart and Soul" out on the piano? Hoagy Charmichael wrote the tune but Frank gave us the words. Tom Hanks the ultimate version in "Big".

"Slow Boat to China", "I Don't Want to Walk Without You" and "Two Sleepy People" sung in that slow southern way by the aforementioned Charmichael.

I think of kazoo's when I think of Frank Loesser. Bobby Morse with that upturned chin and grin of impetuous youth from "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying." Singing "I Believe in You" to his reflection with a kazoo chorus behind him.

And Frank wrote the song, "The Ballad of Roger Young" about a real Medal of Honor Winner who died in the south Pacific during World War 2. It's a song of courage and selflessness that is quoted extensively by Robert Heinlein in his sci-fi opus "Starship Troopers." I never thought to make the leap from "Guys and Dolls" to the 1997 film by Paul Verhooeven. But I did.

Frank Loesser. The world smells sweeter for his being around.

His daughter Susan wrote in her biography about him that "...he was a bright burning comet who's light was extinguished too soon"

I'll drink to that.

© 2010 George Locke

Friday, June 11, 2010

Where Would We Be Without A Song?

Vincent Millie Youmans. Born in 1898 and died in 1946 was a member of that pantheon of American Songbook genius's that gave us so much.

He wrote melodies. Wonderful tunes that appeared in such Broadway shows as "No No Nanette", (which, as a Red Sox fan I wish to distance myself; see "Curse, Bambino of" filed under "No Longer Applicable".) or movies like "Flying Down To Rio" in which we first glimpse Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers (they were NOT the stars; it was Dolores Del Rio and Gene Raymond) dancing together to "The Carioca".

You remember. That was the scene where Fred and Ginger were touching foreheads as they twirled about on a fabulous RKO set. At one point they even comically "clonked" together like coconuts.

But, I digress.

Youmans also wrote such terrific time surpassing goodies such as "Tea For Two", "I Want To Be Happy"and a song which pierces my heart with such sweetness that it almost makes me weep when I hear it sung, "More Then You Know."

But, with lyrics by Billy Rose and Edward Eliscu we were favored with "Without A Song".

And it is upon this I wish to meditate.

There have been wonderful interpretations of this from Perry Como, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennet and Louis Armstrong to "Little" Jimmy Scott, Mahalia Jackson and Nana Mouskouri (who has a remarkable version available on Youtube.) My favorite is Ray Charles' from "Standards" in which he implores the Raylettes to "sing the song, children."

There are only a few songs which contain the perfect intersection of words and lyrics that make it what I consider, a Profound song. I capitalize "profound" because it transcends your average into someplace deeper. A few examples of "Profound" songs are:

The aforementioned, "More Then You Know"
"Someone To Watch Over Me"
"As Time Goes By"
"Like A Rolling Stone"
"Johnny B. Goode
"Fortunate Son"
"Sophisticated Lady"
"Strange Fruit"

"Without A Song" is considered "most certainly an art song" by Alex Wilder, author of "American Popular Songs-The Great Innovators 1900 to 1950" (Edited by James Maher and published in 1972 by Oxford University Press). He goes on to say that at the least it is a favorite of concert singers, as it has the range of a full octave and a fifth; challenging and within the comfortable bounds of most good singers.

But he feels the words are pretentious and basically without substance. Certainly the word "darky" which is used in the second verse would never be used now.

I remember once when a friend and I in the Army were getting ready to perform for a camp talent show (I was accompanying him on guitar) and he had chosen this song, he left out that word and substituted "man". I looked at his beautiful African-American face and with complete innocence asked..."why?" He smiled, older then me by a few years and dozens of decades of repression and said, "Well, that word is about the same as the $64 dollar word. You know what I mean?" His smile never faded.

I suddenly knew what he meant. And an ignorant white kid from New Hampshire had just attended class.

But the sense of the song is, without a doubt, very personal and very true. We cannot get through any thing in life without a song.

The song begins with the words: "Without a song, the day would never end." I always thought it rather odd that the lyricist would begin at the end of the day.

But there is no doubt that sometimes we hear a song just before we click off the lamp.

Certainly we recall a lullaby.

Ray Charles' version begins as it was written, but then he ad-libs at the end, "When you wake up in the morning, you gotta have a song." And that's what I feel when I do wake up. A song is somewhere in the mumble-jumble of my dream shattered sleep (to use a phrase from Gordon Lightfoot's. "Carefree Highway"). A morning melody that snaps me to attention and gets me moving.

It could be something as mundane as "Break Me Off A Piece Of That Kit-Kat Bar" or it could be Gershwins "Rhapsody in Blue".

"When things go wrong, a man ain't got a friend." Deep down within every person lies the moan that can only be expressed with a heart-felt song. When grief over whelms us, it is sometimes the healing touch of a melody that can salve the wound.

"That field of corn would never see a plow. That field of corn would be deserted now." Every generation, every nation, every person who has ever put a hand to a tool, be it a sun baked hoe handle or a Dell keyboard does so with a song. We listen during our busy day.

We are strung by melodies and musical notes through centuries. Builders of pyramids, workers on roads, those who help the cities rise above the skyline and those who constructed the boats we sail and the planes we fly. Those who toot clarinets for a living or sell wind-up toys on the street corner. The man or woman who rides the subway at dawn to toil away in a crowded office. All of us share music as a way to make it through the day.

And then the line..."A man is born. But he's no good no how. Without a song."

Ah. Here is where me and the lyricist disagree. Is it right to think that someone born without music can be "no good no how"? I don't believe so. Oh, certainly, there are times when we need to collect our thoughts. To meditate silently on the questions of the moment.

However, I don't believe anyone is born without music. Perhaps it is only the beating of our hearts, or the rhythm of our breathing that we feel. Maybe it is the gentle caress of our mothers hand. All of us are born with music. Certainly, Vincent Youmans was.

The bridge affirms what we already know..."I got my troubles and woes, but sure as I know, the Jordan will roll (again, an African-American influenced lyric indicating escape from slavery and the Christian symbolism of the 'washing away of sins' in the river where Jesus was baptized by his cousin John.)

The song ends with the singers questions of the unknown...."I'll never know what makes the rain to fall. I'll never know what makes the grass so tall. I only know, there is no love at all, without a song." We all know what makes these particular things happen. But, metaphorically, there are some things we have no understanding of.

Why, when I am in a line of traffic and I pull into the other lane that is zipping along, does it all suddenly slow down? Why, after buying dozens of hangers for my clothing, the next day I can't find any again? Why does the guy I bench in my fantasy baseball team, because he has been playing like a broken legged idiot, suddenly turn into Babe Ruth or Cy Young? These are my questions.

But I do know there is no love at all, without a song.

Your significant other and you have a song which will always remind you of the day you met and fell in love. Or proposed.

Your song.

Mine was "Stardust." My wife thought better of it. She knew it was, "You Were Meant For Me" sung by Gene Kelly from "Singing In The Rain." I agreed. It has become our song.

So here's to one song that says it all. And check out some of these versions.




© 2010 George Locke

Without A Song words and music by Edward Eliscu, Billy Rose and Vincent Youmans

Saturday, June 5, 2010

When I Sit Down Late At Night

Amazing grace! How sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost but now am found
Was blind, but now I see.

'Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed!

Through many dangers, toils, and snares,
We have already come;
'Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.

The Lord has promised good to me,
His word my hope secures;
He will my shield and portion be
As long as life endures.

Yes, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease,
I shall possess, within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.

The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,
The sun forbear to shine;
But God, who called me here below,
Will be forever mine.

I must preface this with a caveat. This blog is titled "The American Songbook" but, the subject matter is not American.

Through the recordings of Pete Seeger, Judy Collins and others, "Amazing Grace" has been considered by some an Appalachian folk song. Not true. It is English in origin. However, it is perhaps one of the most recorded of all songs by American performers. With that in mind, I begin.

All of us hit that spot when the world has just become too much to bear. Thankfully, it is usually a passing phase in the events that wash over us as the days tick by. This is not meant as a... "poor me". It's just a fact we all face.

Sometimes, it is the events of the day itself that burdens us.

A missed call.

A harsh word from someone who matters in our life.

A bill we forgot or neglected to pay. Or several bills, piling up behind the dam we've built of our denials or lack of funds. Or both.

Sometimes, it comes to those who face a day without work....nor even the possibility of acquiring a job that would satisfy them, and, though that may sound selfish, it is important,......and the loneliness of a silent house when all who live there have scampered off to their daily tasks.

Often it is the tv or newspaper or radio; blaring forth the ignoble and horrifying things one human does to another. Or many others. A wrong choice. Or even a planned evil.

It could become fear in a few moments.

If you play an instrument or love the sound of music; this is when you seek refuge.

I ask you. What is the song that gives you hope?

To me, "Amazing Grace"; strummed without a pick in the soft, dark oasis of my kitchen, with a light from the stove and a small lamp glowing from the living room like pools of dim water; this becomes my anchor in a sea of depression.

A song written by an eighteenth century slave trader when faced with a moment of truth, John Newton did not change is profane ways immediately. He was known as a writer of exceedingly obscene and totally improper words put to popular sailors tunes. He had turned his back on religion as a young man, and became immersed in all the debauchery life presented.

While aboard a ship, The Greyhound, in March of 1743, a violent storm put the entire crew at risk. Newton was manning a pump furiously, and stepped away for a moment. When he returned, the man who took his place was gone. Washed overboard.

It was later reported that at this point he yelled to the captain, his voice straining to be heard above the lashing winds and driving rain. "If this will not do, then Lord have mercy on our souls!"

The Lord apparently heard and the ship road out the storm without another loss of life.

Newton pondered what he had said and then, in a moment akin to what Paul must have felt when knocked off a horse on his way to Damascus, he made a decision.

He was a slaver. He continued in this profession for several more years.

Soon, however, he left the sea and settled in Liverpool as a custom agent. He studied Greek and Latin and poured over the many books available to a man who wished to become a preacher. And a preacher he did become, ordained in "The Church of England" in 1764 where he became a curate in Olney, in Buckinghamshire.

He, along with poet William Cowper, began writing hymns; the most famous being....."Amazing Grace." It is the most recognizable song in the English language. Perhaps in the entire world.

Bagpipers squeeze and poke the melody from their chanters. The famous and infamous have sung it, from Judy Collins to Johnny Cash. From "The Lemonheads" to Aretha Franklin, Mahalia Jackson, Elvis, "The Byrds" and everything in between.

Sometimes, I don't even sing the words. I just strum the chords. And everytime. The clock ticks back into place. The world seems a little bit saner.

If you're a performer, you have probably waited for the applause to subside after a song you have done. Even if there are only a half dozen people left in the audience. And, if you're like me, when there is nothing left to do, you have begun to sing "Amazing Grace" a'capella, because, at that moment, it feels right. It becomes the most beautiful thing in the world, not from anything you have done.


It is not your skill or lack thereof that creates this breathtaking moment.

It is the soul of the song. And each and every time I have done this, without fail and no matter what the venue; in church... in a club... in a bar... at a school....or wherever, everyone knows the song, at least the first verse. And it is always sung with a spirituality I have never found in other songs.

Oh, I don't play it all the time. Sometimes a three chord, 12 bar blues; played as slowly as possible, is what rolls out in those dark, desperate hours. And I just moan, sort of like Satchmo did in "West End Blues". A quiet kind of song with no words.


But, mostly its "Amazing Grace".

© 2010 George Locke