Cover to Cover with Jack Foley

Cover to Cover with Jack Foley – January 30, 2019

SONG LYRICS IN SONGS YOU PROBABLY HAVE NEVER HEARD,

PART TWO

On last week’s show, Jack spoke of “outsider songs” of the Great American Songbook. 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. They were not written to be hits and to make the composer and lyricist millions of dollars. They were written out of a sense of joy and delight—especially the joy and delight of making. In addition, they frequently represent (or misrepresent) an ethnic group: African-American, Jewish, Italian (what Nick Tosches calls “the wop song”), Irish. Hit songs, with some exceptions, rarely reveal the ethnicity of the singer. Here, ethnicity may be distorted and objectionable, but it is also present. Unrepresented groups may also appear: Jack quoted Lorenz Hart’s lyric about a working class woman, “Ten Cents a Dance.” Cole Porter wrote one song about a “fast but outclassed cocotte” and another about a prostitute offering “love for sale.” The latter song was banned from play on the radio for many years. Porter also produced a portrait of a “gigolo,” and his song “Farming,” from 1941, uses the word “gay” to mean homosexual:

Don’t inquire of Georgie Raft

Why his cow has never calfed:

Georgie’s bull is beautiful, but he’s gay!

These songs are frequently but not always comic, and sometimes they are comic in a freewheeling, even surrealistic way: “Pencils come from Pennsylvania,” wrote Howard Dietz in 1948, “Vests from Vest Virginia, / And tents from Tent-a-see.” “If you want to buy a kite / Or a pup to keep you up at night / Or a dwarf that used to know Snow White / Or a frog who loves to sing / Come to the Supermarket in old Peking,” wrote Cole Porter in his last production, the television musical, Aladdin (1958). “If you want to buy a saw / Or a fish delicious when it’s raw / Or a pill to kill your mother in law / Or a bee without a sting / Come to the Supermarket in old Peking…If you come on a camel, you can park it.”

Though the radio/television series Life With Luigi, which never featured a single Italian actor, soldiered on until 1953—the Irish J. Carrol Naish played Luigi and the Jewish Alan Reed played his best friend, Pasquale—the fifties saw the emergence of Italian actors such as Richard Conte, Marlon Brando, and the tragic Sal Mineo along with Italian singers such as Frank Sinatra and Perry Como—not to mention Ezio Pinza or Renzo Cesana as “The Continental.” 1957’s “Whattsa Matter Wit Me” was produced by musician Lou Carter in his guise as “Louie the Cab Driver,” a character created for Como’s television show. Though obviously parodic, the words Carter wrote are close enough to language I heard in my hometown of Port Chester, New York, where my best friend Frankie De Giacomo insisted that the name “Como” was short for “Giacomo.”

WHATTSA MATTER WIT ME

Whattsa matter wit me

Whattsa matter wit yous

Whattsa matter wit alla yous guys

Why don’t yous get over there

Lena left me alone

But I know she’ll come back

If yuz all want a smack in th’ mout’

Just let me hear a wise crack

Yous can have your fun

Yous can have your joke

I can hear yous laughin’ out loud

But my heart ain’t broke

Maybe some udder time

Yous’ll see what I mean

Whattsa matter wit alla yous guys

Wha don’t yous get over there

Yous can have your fun

Yous can have your joke

I can hear yous laughin’ out loud

But my heart ain’t broke

Maybe some udder time

Yous’ll see what I mean

When I walk down the aisle wit her

Then yous’ll all turn green

Some day yous guys will cry the blues

The day that I t’row rice and shoes

At Lena Gugliardi, my dear

Tensions between the cowboy song and the sophistications of jazz can be heard in “The Ballad of Thelonious Monk,” a 1972 offering with lyrics by veteran jazz musician Jimmy Rowles and music by veteran composer, Jimmy McHugh, who was responsible for many hit songs, including “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” “Don’t Blame Me,” “Exactly Like You,” and “I’m in the Mood for Love”:

I used to think cowboy music was the only thing there was

And then I heard Thelonious Monk

The place was filled to the rafters with musicians and the fuzz

They all loved Thelonious Monk

I didn’t know what they was playin’

But the dog next door was bayin’

And the waitress was a-hummin’ along

And I fergot about Gene Autry

And the thangs that he taught me

When I heard Thelonious Monk

Right then and there I took up bebop and forgot about them cows

I wouldn’t feed my horse any hay

That horse, he knew I had them records and he hung around the house

Ears cocked, just to hear the Monk play

It threw me clear to Santa Monica

When he heard Monk play “Panndonica”

And his gallop is startin’ to swang

Now he won’t let me ride him till he hears “Ruby, My Dear”

And the “Stickball” is his favorite thang

Now when round-up time was over we rode into town

I tied Old Paint right up to the door

And when Monk played “Round About Midnight” and the house came down

I heard Old Paint just a-snortin’ for more

I hear the boys in the bunkhouse singin’ “Straight, No Chaser” now

And my heart goes clickety clunk

Now that’s all I want to hear

And I have branded my last steer

All because

All because

All because

Of Thelonious Monk

But perhaps the greatest of all outsider songs was written by someone outside the whole business: the great American composer, Charles Ives. Ives’ song, “General William Booth Enters Heaven,” composed in 1914, is a setting of Vachel Lindsay’s 1913 poem. General William Booth (1829-1912) was a Methodist preacher who founded the Salvation Army in 1865 and became its first general (1878-1912). During a 1909 tour of the United Kingdom he discovered that he was blind in his right eye and the sight in his left eye was dimmed by cataracts (“Booth saw not”). This is Vachel Linday’s original poem (1913):

 [To be sung to the tune of The Blood of the Lamb with indicated instrument]

[BASS DRUM BEATEN LOUDLY]

Booth led boldly with his big bass drum—

(Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?)

The Saints smiled gravely and they said: “He’s come.”

(Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?)

Walking lepers followed, rank on rank,

Lurching bravoes from the ditches dank,

Drabs from the alleyways and drug fiends pale—

Minds still passion-ridden, soul-powers frail:—

Vermin-eaten saints with mouldy breath,

Unwashed legions with the ways of Death—

(Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?)

[BANJOS]

Every slum had sent its half-a-score

The round world over. (Booth had groaned for more.)

Every banner that the wide world flies

Bloomed with glory and transcendent dyes.

Big-voiced lasses made their banjos bang,

Tranced, fanatical they shrieked and sang:—

“Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?”

Hallelujah! It was queer to see

Bull-necked convicts with that land make free.

Loons with trumpets blowed a blare, blare, blare

On, on upward thro’ the golden air!

(Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?)

[BASS DRUM SLOWER AND SOFTER]

Booth died blind and still by Faith he trod,

Eyes still dazzled by the ways of God.

Booth led boldly, and he looked the chief

Eagle countenance in sharp relief,

Beard a-flying, air of high command

Unabated in that holy land.

[SWEET FLUTE MUSIC]

Jesus came from out the court-house door,

Stretched his hands above the passing poor.

Booth saw not, but led his queer ones there

Round and round the mighty court-house square.

Yet in an instant all that blear review

Marched on spotless, clad in raiment new.

The lame were straightened, withered limbs uncurled

And blind eyes opened on a new, sweet world.

[BASS DRUM LOUDER]

Drabs and vixens in a flash made whole!

Gone was the weasel-head, the snout, the jowl!

Sages and sibyls now, and athletes clean,

Rulers of empires, and of forests green!

[GRAND CHORUS OF ALL INSTRUMENTS.

TAMBOURINES TO THE FOREGROUND]

The hosts were sandalled, and their wings were fire!

(Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?)

But their noise played havoc with the angel-choir.

(Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?)

O shout Salvation! It was good to see

Kings and Princes by the Lamb set free.

The banjos rattled and the tambourines

Jing-jing-jingled in the hands of Queens.

[REVERENTLY SUNG. NO INSTRUMENTS]

And when Booth halted by the curb for prayer

He saw his Master thro’ the flag-filled air.

Christ came gently with a robe and crown

For Booth the soldier, while the throng knelt down.

He saw King Jesus. They were face to face,

And he knelt a-weeping in that holy place.

Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?

Ives deletes some lines but keeps the general movement of the poem. The date, 1914, suggests that the composer is asking whether the armies currently gathering in the world are “washed in the blood of the lamb,” as Booth’s Salvation Army was. But, like all of Ives’ work, the song is an embodiment of the tremendous fact of transformation. At its climactic moment, the song quotes from William Cowper’s famous hymn, “Fountain.” Charles Ives frequently told a story about his father, who was blessed/cursed with perfect pitch. Ives, Sr. was returning home one stormy night, and the church bells were ringing. Because of the climactic conditions, the bells sounded different from their usual tones. He rushed into his house and began banging on the piano. Asked what he was doing, he answered, “I’ve just heard a chord I’ve never heard before, and I can’t find it on the piano. It’s between the keys.” Soon afterwards, he built something equivalent to a quarter-tone piano—to hear what he had heard. Music is sound; sound is music. “Are you washed in the blood—in the blood of the lamb?”

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