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shows as "No No Nanette", (which, as a Red Sox fan I wish to distance myself; see "Curse, Bambino of" filed under "No Longer Applicable".)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
"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.
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