The Seven Lively Arts
   by Gilbert Seldes
 
 Say It With Music 
   (pages 55-66)   
The popular song is never forgotten-except in public. Great events and seven-day-wonders pass into oblivion. Hobson, who  was a hero, became a prohibitionist; Aguinaldo, a good citizen; McKinley, a martyr-but Good-by, Dolly Gray, In the Good  Old Summer Time, and Just Break the News to Mother are immortal in our private memories and around them crystallize the  sights and sounds and smells, the very quality of the air we breathed when these songs were in their high day. A more judicious  pen than mine may write about these songs without sentimentality; I cannot. For in addition to the pathos of time past,  something else brings an air of gentle melancholy to "words and music." In recent years a change has come and the popular  song is no longer written to be sung, but to be played. The new song that can't be sung has virtues of its own on the whole they  are virtues I prefer. But I doubt whether it will ever be, as the old song was, a clue to the social history of our time. 

The popular song is so varied, so full of interest, that for a moment at least one can pretend that it isn't vulgar, detestable, the  ruin of musical taste, and a symptom of degeneracy; we can pretend also that Less Than the Dust isn't more artistic tha n  Swanee. Since the Spanish-American War the American popular song (including the foreign song popular in 


                                               [57] 

America) has undergone the most interesting modulations; it has expressed everything except fin de siecle. Out of the 'nineties  persisted a characteristic song: Ta-ra-ra-ra-boom-de-ay, the chorus and tune of which, woven into mysterious words about  "three little niggers in a peanut shell" I must have heard at the same time as Daisy with its glorification of the simple life "on a  bicycle built for two." Since then, for a rough generalization, we have had three types of popular song: the exotic-romantic, th e  sentimental, and the raggy-gay. The sentimental song we have always with us. "That sweet melody with a strong mother appeal"  is advertised on the back of "Those Black Boy Blues" and Irving Berlin writes When I Lost You between Alexander's Ragtime  Band a nd Some Sunny Day. At moments it is dominant and a fake ballad, with a simple and uninteresting tune, makes After  the Ball, by Charles K. Harris, a world wonder. Or we have a simplification of the whole history of romantic love in Love Me  and the World Is Mine. The curious about social life in America may compare this song with I'm Just Wild About Harry. 

Beaumarchais, who knew no jazz, makes Figaro say that what can't be said can be sung-and this applies far more to the  sentimental than to the obscene. Think of the incredible, the almost unspeakable idea in the following, presumably spoken by a  father to a child: 


                                               [58]   

Down in the City of Sighs and Tears, Down by the White Light's Glare, Down in the something of wasted years, You'll find  your mamma there! 

Or consider the pretty imagery and emotion of I'm Tying the Leaves, as sung by a precocious and abominable child who has  been told that mother will die when the leaves begin to fall. It would be easy to say that these songs are gone never to return; bu  t it was only two years ago that They Needed a Songbird in Heaven-so God Took Caruso Away ("Idea suggested by George  Walter Brown" to the grateful composers). I do not dare to contemplate A Baby's Prayer at Twilight or to wonder what  constituted the Curse of an Aching Heart; but history has left on record the chorus of 

My Mother was a Lady Like yours, you will allow, And you may have a sister Who needs protection now; I've come to this  great city To find a brother dear, And you wouldn't dare insult me, sir, If Jack were only here. 

It was for songs like this that a masterpiece in another genre, the burlesque popular song, was created. I have heard A Working  Girl Was Leaving Home credited to the brothers Smith (the boys the mother-in-law joke invented, according to George Jean 


[59] 

Nathan, and for their sins they should have written this song) and to the late Tiny Maxwell, and to an unidentified English  source. It's title and chorus at least are immortal: 

(Then to him these proud words this girl did say) 

Stand back, villain; go your way! Here I will no longer stay. Although you were a marquis or an earl. You may tempt the upper  classes With your villainous de-mi tasses, But Heaven Will Protect the Working Girl. 

The cure for the sentimental song is the ironic; and irony, it happens, is not what America lives on. Even so mild an English  example as Waiting at the Church gained its popularity chiefly from the excellent tag line: 

Can't get away To marry you to-day. My wife won't let me. 

Yet appearing from time to time we had a sort of frank destruction of sentimentality in our songs. Some, like I Picked up a  Lemon in the Garden of Love, appeal directly to the old "peaches" tradition; but we went further. In the same year as the  romant ic Beautiful Garden of Roses-it was one of the early years of the dance craze-we heard Who Are You With To-night  (to-night? . . . ) down to "Will 


                                               [60] 

you tell your wife in the morning, Who you are with to-night?" and the music perceptibly winked at the words. I Love My Wife  (but, Oh, You Kid!) had little quality, but the dramatization of an old joke in My Wife's Gone to the Country rose to a definite g  aiety in the cry of "Hooray! Hooray!" So, too, one line in the chorus of I Wonder Who's Kissing Her Now, a song which  skillfully builds up a sentimental situation in order to tear it down with two words: 

Wonder who's looking into her eyes, Breathing sighs, telling lies ... 

where the music pretended to make no difference between the last two phrases, except for softening, sweetening the second.  Yet another in the malicious mould is Who Paid the Rent for Mrs Rip Van Winkle (when Rip Van Winkle Went  Away)--unforgettable for the tearing upward phrase to a climax in the first Rip with a parallel high note on the second. 

The characteristic of these songs is that they were rather like contemporary fiction in giving form to social phenomena without  expressing approval or disapproval. Eternal love and fidelity go by the board with "the dreamy, peachy, creamy, Vision of pure  de light," the companion who will not be mentioned to "your wife in the morning." "Tell me, Mister., Is it your sister. . ." Well,  hardly. 


                                               [61]   

There were, beside these realistic treatments of marriage (I continue the professorial tone) a few slightly suggestive songs, and  these also were opposed to current morality, and these also were popular. One was called, I think, Billy, and purported to be a  statement of virginal devotion: "And when I walk, I always walk with Billy . . . " and so following, to "And when I sleep, I  always-dream of Bill." There were delicious implications in Row, Row, Row, as Al Jolson sang it; earlier still was Hattie Wi  lliams's song Experience, in The Little Cherub. The persistence of these songs is something of a miracle and the shade of  difference between the permissible and the impossible is of vast importance in the success of a song. About fifteen years  separate Wh o Are You With To-Night? (I quote all these songs and titles from memory, but I am fairly sure about the  grammar of this one; if it was printed "whom" it was sung "who") and He May be Your Man (but he comes to see me  sometimes), and the second song is mor e explicit; when Edith Wilson or Florence Mills sang the repeat chorus it shocked her  audience. Essentially it is the same thing, only, fifteen years ago, the questionable stanza would have been left to the  unauthorized street version. 

The exotic romantic song in America has little to do with all of this. Before the professional glorification of our separate states  began, we had the series of Indian songs of which Neil Moret's Hiawatha is 


                                               [62] 

the outstanding exemplar. The stanza is almost as hard to sing as The Star-spangled Banner; the chorus -it is always the chorus  which makes a song-is banal, a pure rum-tum-tiddy. Yet it was more than popular, for it engendered a hundred others.  Cheyenne a nd (musically) Rainbow are its descendants. Hiawatha bewilders and baffles the searcher after causes; but its  badness as a song explains why the Indian song was submerged presently in the great wave of negro, songs which have shown  an amazing vitality, ha ve outlived the Hawaiian exotic, and with marvelous adaptability (aided by one great natural advantage)  have lived through to the present day. 

The negro song is partly, but not purely, exotic. Remembering that songs are written on Forty-fifth Street in New York and put  over in New York cabarets, it is easy to see how California in September (a dreadful song) and Carolina (I recall five songs  embodying the name of that state; the latest is superb) are also exotic; and how Over on the Jersey Side and songs about  Coney Island came to be written to glorify New York as a summer resort. The rustic period, again, reacts against sophistication  as In the Shade of the Old Apple Tree reacts against the exoticism of the sheltering palm. Neither rustic nor local, however,  achieves the highest success, and it is left for the Pacific to give the last setting before the shouting song of the negro and his pla  intive cry are triumphant in our music. 


                                               [63]   

First, however, the era of the waltz song. In earlier days America had little to do with the waltz out of comic opera and The  Merry Widow and My Hero and Beautiful Lady and the superb melodies from Gypsy Love and from Die Czardas Furstin, of  which I fo rget the American name, and something from The Arcadians came from anywhere across the sea and captured us.  The Velia Song and The Girl from the Saskatchewan were better than their corresponding waltzes; The Chocolate Soldier had  pages of music as good as My Hero-many better. Only The Dollar Princess managed to put over its less ostentatious  pieces-and that is rather amusing, since Leo Fall is held by the Viennese to be the true successor of Johann Strauss. 

The mention of that great name makes it clear that the waltz song itself is a hybrid; for whatever words have been sung to The  Beautiful Blue Danube, the music was meant to be played and for the dance; it was not meant for song. Yet the slow tempo,  the softness, the gentle sentimentality of the waltz lends itself peculiarly to song-and to memory. I do not think it has anything to  do with the really great things in our popular songs, but I cannot resent its success-any more than I can resent the success of  another song, wholly out of our American line--Un Peu dAmour. This was the last great song before the war; it held France  and England and America enslaved to its amorous longing. Some 


                                               [64] 
 

thing more cheery and more male had to be found for the English soldier, who eventually picked up Tipperary (also a song of  nostalgia), and for the American something snappier; but Un Peu d'Amour persisted during the war. To hear a soldier standing  on the fire-step on a dark night, leaning his cheek against the disc of his Lewis gun, and softly humming Un Peu d'Amour, was  to recognize that for actual millions that song and a few others like it, and not the great music to the condition of which all art  asp ires, were all of beauty and all of exaltation they were ever to know. The materials in this particular case were not tawdry,  only equivocal. For it was a better song as A Little Love than in the French. The word amour means, but does not signify, the  sam e thing as the word love, and "pour t'entendre `a ce moment supreme, Murmurer tout bas, tout bas: Je t'aime" has  connotations not transferred to the English. The song is a fake French and a good Anglo-Saxon piece of sentiment, precisely  the counterpart of the waltz song. Like them it conquered a world. 

Lehar and Monckton and Caryll and Fall and Kalman followed successes with moderate failure, and at the same time revues  and American musical comedies stepped out grandly. I note three songs from this source which actually claimed all of the  popular att ention. The song to be sung was at its best in the Princess shows-best of all in The Siren 


 [65] 
Song from Leave it to Jane. It is Mr Kern's masterpiece, a sophisticated, tidy score with amusing and unexpected retards and  pauses, with a fresh freedom of tonalities. The Siren Song never actually came up to The Love Nest in acclaim; Mr Hirsch's bid  for immortality is almost contemptible in words and music and has only a single point of interest-the three notes against two in  the second line of the chorus ("cozy and warm" instead of, say, nice-and-warm). It is impermissible in a man who only a year  late r wrote It's Getting Very Dark on Old Broadway. 

The third song is Say It With Music. Mr Berlin is as much responsible as any one for the turn from the song-to-be-sung to the  song-to-be played; yet he is so remarkable that he can reverse himself, and just as in 1915 he produced a whole revue (Stop!  L ook! Listen!) from which not one song became really popular, so, seven years later, when the singing-song had gone out, he  produced a revue and gave us one more of his tributes to the art he adores. It isn't musically half as interesting as I Love a  Piano ; but it is much more singable and it has great virtues. Nothing that a jazz orchestra can do has any effect on the purity of  its musical line. I wonder whether it may not be the last of the songs; for we are now full in the jazz age and darkness has set in. 


[66] 
 

 

Back | Forward