Cover to Cover with Jack Foley

Cover to Cover with Jack Foley – January 23, 2019

SONG LYRICS IN SONGS YOU PROBABLY HAVE NEVER HEARD

Americans don’t memorize poems but they do memorize song lyrics. What is the difference? The poet Basil Bunting described Ezra Pound’s Cantos as “our Alps.” Would anyone say the same thing about Cole Porter’s work?

Some lyricists begin with “poems” which are then set to music by their composer partner. You can hear the poem in Oscar Hammerstein’s “The Last Time I Saw Paris” (music by Jerome Kern):

 

The last time I saw Paris,

Her heart was warm and gay

I heard the laughter of her heart

In every street café

 

The last time I saw Paris

Her trees were dressed for Spring

And lovers walked beneath those trees

And birds found songs to sing.

 

I dodged the same old taxicabs

That I had dodged for years

The chorus of their squeaky horns

Was music to my ears

 

The last time I saw Paris

Her heart was warm and gay

No matter how they change her, I’ll

Remember her that way

 

Lorenz Hart, on the other hand—who, like Hammerstein in his later years, wrote with Richard Rodgers as his composer partner—preferred to wait for the music before he began to write:

 

Ten cents a dance,

That’s what they pay me,

Gosh, how they weigh me

Down

Ten cents a dance,

Pansies and rough guys

Tough guys who tear my gown

Seven to midnight I hear drums

Loudly the saxophone blows

Trumpets are tearing my eardrums

Customers crush my toes

Sometimes I think

I’ve found my hero

But it’s a queer ro-

Mance

All that you need is a ticket—

Come on, big boy, ten cents a dance

Fighters and sailors and bow-legged tailors

Pay for their tickets and rent me

Butchers and barbers and rats from the harbors

Are sweethearts my “good luck” has sent me

Though I’ve a chorus

Of elderly beaux

Stockings are porous

With holes at the toes

I’m here till closing time

Dance and be merry, it’s only a dime

Sometimes I think

I’ve found my hero

But it’s a queer ro-

Mance

All that you need is a ticket—

Come on, big boy, ten cents a dance

 

Both lyrics are good—“The Last Time I Saw Paris” was written in response to the German occupation of Paris in 1940—though Hart’s words are particularly resonant and even edgy. Certainly one would want to call both lyrics at least a form of poetry. (The fact that Hart was gay makes his rhyming of “hero” with “queer ro-mance” especially telling.)

But isn’t there a difference between such uses of language and, say, this Ottava Rima stanza from William Butler Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium”?

 

That is no country for old men. The young

In one another’s arms, birds in the trees

—Those dying generations—at their song,

The salmon falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,

Fish, flesh, or fowl commend all summer long

Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.

Caught in that sensual music, all neglect

Monuments of unageing intellect.

 
As the name implies, Ottava Rima is of Italian origin. Originally used for long poems on heroic themes, it later became popular in the writing of mock-heroic works. Its most recognizable manifestation in English is Byron’s often hilarious poem, Don Juan (1819). Here are two stanzas from that work:

 

And Wordsworth, in a rather long “Excursion”

(I think the quarto holds five hundred pages),
 
Has given a sample from the vasty version
 
Of his new system to perplex the sages;
 
’Tis poetry—at least by his assertion,
 
And may appear so when the dog-star rages—
 
And he who understands it would be able
 

To add a story to the Tower of Babel.

 

 

’Tis a sad thing I cannot choose but say,

And all the fault of that indecent sun,

Who cannot leave alone our helpless clay,

But will keep baking, broiling, burning on,

That howsoever people fast and pray,

The flesh is frail, and so the soul undone:

What men call gallantry, and gods adultery,

Is much more common where the climate’s sultry.

 

Yeats takes Byron’s comic form and, in an astonishing transformation, turns it into a vehicle for themes of high seriousness. “I am trying to write,” he stated, “about the state of my soul, for it is right for an old man to make his soul, and some of my thoughts about that subject I have put into a poem called ‘Sailing to Byzantium.’ When Irishmen were illuminating The Book of Kells, and making the jeweled croziers in the National Museum, Byzantium was the centre of European civilization and the source of its spiritual philosophy, so I symbolize the search for the spiritual life by a journey to that city.”

Yeats is insisting on a kind of depth that requires a corresponding meditative response in the reader: “Caught in that sensual music, all neglect / Monuments of unageing intellect.” Byron, with his light tone and comic rhymes, is much closer to Hammerstein and Hart. However complex they may be, song lyrics require us to understand them immediately: we must grasp them as they are being sung at this moment; the impact of the music too is immediate and visceral. In Yeats’ poem, to what does the phrase “those dying generations” refer? To the young or to the birds or to both? The question requires us to stop for a moment and consider. Song allows for no such possibilities. It insists on movement as the music—which has its own form—drives us on to a satisfying, even “harmonic” conclusion.

On today’s show we will be considering that use of language which we call “song lyrics.” Sometimes poetry tires of the slopes of Parnassus—the “Alps” of poetry—and comes down to dance in the marketplace. Each of the lyrics we’ll consider is brilliant and touching in its own way, and each of the lyrics both is—and isn’t—“poetry.” We will be sailing not to Byzantium but, for the most part, to Tin Pan Alley. Though written in traditional forms–verse and chorus, AABA–most of these songs never became “popular” in the way that a song like “Stardust” or “Blue Skies” became popular.

 

YIDDISHA NIGHTINGALE (1911, Irving Berlin)

Perhaps the most extraordinary moment on Maude Maggart’s wonderful CD of Irving Berlin songs is when the young singer performs “Yiddisha [sic] Nightingale.” If we leave out the extremely significant contributions of African-American songwriters to popular music, certainly the next most prolific and successful group would have to be Jews: Berlin, Gershwin, Kern, Rodgers, Bernstein, etc. It’s interesting to note that not a single one of these Jewish songwriters ever wrote a love song to a Jewish woman. Though Berlin wrote “Marie from Sunny Italy,” there was no “Rachel from Jerusalem” (or in Berlin’s case, more likely “Sonia from Russia”) to vie with Marie. Irish composers, on the other hand—including Berlin’s idol, George M. Cohan—wrote many songs about the virtues of Irish women, and there were certainly songs written by black composers about black women. (Women at the Cotton Club were expected to be “tall, tan, and terrific.”) Jewish assimilation dictated that comedians such as Eddie Cantor could be explicitly Jewish—but their love interests could not. When Jewish women appear in popular songs they are figures of fun—“Second Hand Rose” or Berlin’s own “Sadie Salome, Go Home” (1909): “Most ev’rybody knows / That I’m your loving Mose, / Oy, oy, oy, oy, / Where is your clothes?”
 
“Yiddisha Nightingale” is a song like that; it’s meant to be funny, not romantic:

 

Miss Minnie Rosenstein

Had such a voice so fine,

Just like Tetrazzini;

Any time that Minnie sang a song

You’d think of real estate seven blocks long.

Some song!

Young Mister Abie Cohn

Used to call to her home

Just to hear her singing;

Presents he was bringing, full of bliss!

One night young Abie proposed to the miss,

Like this….

 
Luisa Tetrazzini (1871-1941) was a famous diva and was referred to as “The Florentine Nightingale.” “Yiddisha Nightingale” is an ethnically Jewish version of a “coon” song—a song supposedly about African-American life sung by a white person in blackface—and it is probably as offensive to Jews as coon songs are to African-Americans. The song was written before Berlin wrote any of his famous ballads, the first of which, “When I Lost You,” appeared in 1912. But because the song is satirizing Jews, Berlin wishes to make the melody sound “Jewish”—and he writes in minor modes. Maude Maggart notices those minor modes and realizes that there is a kind of sub-text to this song—and that, despite the comedy of the lyrics, the subtext is a tender, plaintive, utterly sincere love song. And that’s just how she sings it. It is a wonderful transformation of Berlin’s song, and she should probably receive credit as co-composer. The comedy is still there (“Some song!”) but it is mitigated by Maggart’s tender, haunting romanticism. The song’s arrangement makes it sound like something out of a music box, and here, and at some other points as well, Maggart’s voice resembles that of a little girl. For the first time, it seems, a Jewish composer of popular music has written a love song to a Jewish woman: “Yiddisha nightingale, sing me a song!”
 
Part One of Two

Leave a Reply

Share This