The Seven Lively Arts
by Gilbert Seldes

"I Am Here Today:" Charlie Chaplin

(pages 41-54)

For most of us the grotesque effigy dangling from the electric sign or propped against the side of the ticket-booth must remain our first memory of Charlie Chaplin. The splay feet, the moustache, the derby hat, the rattan walking-stick, composed at onc e the image which was ten years later to become the universal symbol of laughter. "I am here to-day" was his legend, and like everything else associated with his name it is faintly ironic and exactly right. The man who, of all the men of our time, seems m ost assured of immortality, chose that particularly transient announcement of his presence, "I am here today," with its emotional overtone of "gone tomorrow," and there is always something in Charlie that slips away. "He does things," said John S. Sargent once, "and you're lucky if you see them." Incredibly lucky to live when we have the chance to see them.

It is a miracle that there should arise in our time a figure wholly in the tradition of the great clownsa tradition requiring creative energy, freshness, inventiveness, change-for neither the time nor the country in which Charlie works is exceptionally favourable to such a phenomenon. Stranger still is the course he has run. It is simple to take The Kid as the dividing line, but it is more to the point to consider the phases of Charlie's popularity, for each phase corresponds to one of the attacks now being made upon his integrity. He is on the top of the


world, an exposed position, and we are all sniping at him; even his adherents are inclined to say that " after all" he is "still" this or the other thing. One goes to his pictures as one went to hear Caruso, with a ghoulish speculation as to the quantity of alloy in the "golden voice." It is because Charlie has had all there ever was of acclaim that he is now surrounded by deserters.

That he exists at all is due to the camera and to the selective genius of Mack Sennett. It is impossible to dissociate him entirely from the Keystone comedy where he began and worked wonders and learned much. The injustice of forgetting Sennett and the Keystone when thinking of Chaplin has undermined most of the intellectual appreciation of his work, for although he was the greatest of the Keystone comedians and passed far beyond them, the first and decisive phase of his popularity came while he was wi th them, and the Keystone touch remains in all his later work, often as its most precious element. It was the time of Charlie's actual contact with the American people, the movie-going populace before the days of the great moving pictures. He was the seco nd man to be known widely by name-John Bunny was the first-and he achieved a fame which passed entirely by word of mouth into the category of the common myths and legends of America, as the name of Buffalo Bill had passed before. By the time the newspaper s recognized the


movie as a source of circulation, Charlie was already a known quantity in the composition of the American mind and, what is equally significant, he had created the first Charlot. The French name which is and is not Charlie will serve for that figure on th e screen, the created image which is, and at the same time is more than, Charlie Chaplin, and is less. Like a very great artist in whatever medium, Charlie has created the mask of himself -- many masks, in fact and the first of these, the wanderer, came in the Keystone comedies. It was there that he first detached himself from life and began to live in another world, with a specific rhythm of his own, as if the pulse-beat in him changed and was twice or half as fast as that of those who surrounded him. H e created then that trajectory across the screen which is absolutely his own line of movement. No matter what the actual facts are, the curve he plots is always the same. It is of one who seems to enter from a corner of the screen, becomes entangled or in volved in a force greater than himself as he advances upward and to the center; there he spins like a marionette in a whirlpool, is flung from side to side, always in a parabola which seems centripetal until the madness of the action hurls him to refuge o r compels him to flight at the opposite end of the screen. He wanders in, a stranger, an impostor, an anarchist, and passes again, buffeted, but unchanged.

The Keystone was the time of his wildest gro-


tesquerie (after Tillie's Punctured Romance, to be sure), as if he needed, for a beginning, sharply to contrast his rhythm, his gait, his gesture, mode, with the actual world outside. His successes in this period were confined to those films in which the world intruded with all its natural crassness upon his detached existence. There was a film in which Charlie dreamed himself back into the Stone Age and played the God of the Waters-wholly without success be cause he contrasted his fantasy with another fantasy in the same tempo, and could neither sink into nor stand apart from it. But in He's Night Out the effect is perfect, and is intensified by the alternating coincidence and syncopation of rhythm in which Ben Turpin worked with him. Charlie's drunken line of march down a stairway was first followed in parallel and then in not-quite-parallel by Turpin; the degree of drunkenness was the same, then varied, then returned to identity; and the two, together, were always entirely apart from the actuality of bars and hotels and fountains and policemen which were properties in their existence. In this early day Charlie had already mastered his principles. He knew that the broad lines are funny and that the fragments which are delicious-must "point" the main line of laughter. I recall, for example, an exquisite moment at the end of this film. Turpin is staggering down the street, dragging Charlie by the collar. Essentially the funny thing is that one drunkard should so

gravely, so soberly, so obstinately take care of another and should convert himself into a policeman, to do it; it is funny that they should be going nowhere, and go so doggedly. The lurching-forward body of Turpin, the singular angle formed with it by Ch arlie's body almost flat on the ground, added to the spectacle. And once as they went along Charlie's right hand fell to one side," and as idly as a girl plucks a water-lily from over the side of a canoe he plucked a daisy from the grass border of the pat h, and smelled it. The function of that gesture was to make everything that went before, and everything that came after, seem funnier; and it succeeded by creating another, incongruous image out of the picture before our eyes. The entire world, a moment e arlier, had been aslant and distorted and wholly male; it righted itself suddenly and created a soft idyll of tenderness. Nearly everything of Charlie is in that moment, and I know no better way to express its elusive quality than to say that as I sat wat ching the film a second time, about two hours later, the repetition of the gesture came with all the effect of surprise, although I had been wondering whether he could do it so perfectly again. This was the Charlie whom little children came to know before any other and whose name they added to their prayers. He was then popular with the people; he was soon to become universally known and admired-the Charlie of The Bank and of Shoulder

Arms; and finally he became "the great artist" in The Kid. The second period is pure development; the third is change; and the adherents of each join with the earlier enthusiasts to instruct and alarm their idol. No doubt the middle phase is the one which is richest in memory. It includes the masterpieces A Dog's Life, The Pawnshop, The Vagabond, Easy Street, as well as the two I have just mentioned, and, if I am not mistaken, the genre pictures like The Floorwalker, The Fireman, The Immigrant, and the fa ntastic Cure. To name these pictures is to call to mind their special scenes, the atmosphere in which they were played: the mock heroic of The Bank and its parody of passion; the unbelievable scene behind the curtain in A Dog's Life; Charlie as policeman in Easy Street, which had some of the beginnings of The Kid; Charlie left marking time alone after the squad had marched away in the film which made camp life supportable. Compare them with the very earliest films, The Pile Driver and the wheel-chairman f ilm and so on: the later ones are richer in inventiveness, the texture is more solid, the emotions grow more complex, and the interweaving of tenderness and gravity with the fun becomes infinitely more deft. In essence it is the same figure-he is still a vagrant, an outsider; only now when he becomes entangled in the lives of other people he is a bit of a crusader, too. The accidental does not occur so frequently; the progress of each film is plotted in

advance; there is a definite rise and fall as in A Dog's Life, where the climax is in the curtain scene toward which tends the first episode of the dog and from which the flight and the rustic idyll flow gently downward. The pace in the earlier pictures w as more instinctive. In The Count the tempo is jerky; it moves from extreme to extreme. Yet one gets the sense of the impending flight beautifully when, at the close, Charlot as the bogus count has been shown up and is fleeing pell-mell through every room in the house; the whole movement grows tense; the rate of acceleration perceptibly heightens as Charlot slides in front of a vast birthday cake, pivots on his heel, and begins to play alternate pool and golf with the frosting, making every shot count lik e a machine gunner barricaded in a pill-box or a bandit in a deserted cabin.

It was foreordained that the improvised kind of comedy should give way to something more calculated, and in Charlie's case it is particularly futile to cry over spilled milk because for a long time he continued to give the effect of impromptu; his sudd en movements and his finds in the way of unsuspected sources of fun are exceptional to this day. In The Pawnshop' Charlie begins to sweep and catches in his broom the end of a long rope, which, instead of being swept away, keeps getting longer, actively f ighting the broom. I have no way to prove it, but See Appendix.


I am sure from the context that this is all he had originally had in mind to do with the scene. Suddenly the tape on the floor creates something in his mind, and Charlie transforms the back room of the pawnshop into a circus, with himself walking the tigh t rope-a graceful, nimble balancing along the thin line of tape on the floor, the quick turn and coming forward, the conventional bow, arms flung out, smiling, to receive applause at the end. Again, as ever, he has created an imaginary scene out of the ma terials of the actual.

The plotting of these comedies did not destroy Charlie's inventiveness and made it possible for him to develop certain other of his characteristics. The moment the vagrant came to rest, the natural man appeared, the paradoxical creature who has the wis dom of simple souls and the incalculable strength of the weak. Charlie all through the middle period is at least half Tyl Eulenspiegl. It is another way for him to live apart from the world by assuming that the world actually means what it says, by taking every one of its conventional formulas, its polite phrases and idioms, with dreadful seriousness. He has created in Charlot a radical with an extraordinarily logical mind. Witness Charlot arriving late at the theatre and stepping on the toes of a whole r ow of people to his seat at the far end; the gravity of his expressions of regret is only matched by his humiliation when he discovers that he is, after all, in the


wrong row and makes his way back again and all through the next row to his proper place. It is a careful exaggeration of the social fiction that when you apologise you can do anything to anyone. The same feeling underlies the characteristic moment when Charlot is fighting and suddenly stops, takes off his hat and coat, gives them to his opponent to hold, and then promptly knocks his obliging adversary down. Revisiting once an old Charlie, I saw him do this, and a few minutes later saw the same thing in a new Harold Lloyd; all there is to know of the difference between the two men was to be learned there; for Lloyd, who is a clever fellow, made it seem a smart trick so to catch his enemy off guard, while Chaplin made the moment equal to the conventional crossing of swords or the handshake - before a prize fight. Similarly, the salutation with the hat takes seriously a social convention and carries it as far as it can go. In Pay Day Charlot arrives late to work and attempts to mollify the furious construction-gang boss by handing him an Easter lily.

The Kid was undoubtedly a beginning in "literature" for Charlie. I realize that in admitting this I am giving the whole case away, for in the opinion of certain critics the beginning of literature is the end of creative art. This attitude is not so fam iliar in America, but in France you hear the Charlot of The Kid spoken of as "theatre," as one who has ceased to be of the film entirely. I doubt if this


is just. Like the one other great artist in America (George Herriman, with whom he is eminently in sympathy), Charlie has always had the Dickens touch, a thing which in its purity we do not otherwise discover in our art. Dickens himself is mixed; only a p art of him is literature, and that not the best, nor is that part essentially the one which Charlie has imported to the screen. The Kid had some bad things in it: the story, the halo round the head of the unmarried mother, the quarrel with the authorities ; it had an unnecessary amount of realism and its tempo was uncertain, for it was neither serious film nor Keystone. Yet it possessed moments of unbelievable intensity and touches of high imagination. The scenes in and outside the doss-house were excellen t and were old Charlie; the glazier's assistant was inventive and the training of Coogan to look like his foster-father was beautiful. Far above them stood the beginning of the film: Charlot, in his usual polite rags, strolling down to his club after his breakfast (it would have been a grilled bone) and, avoiding slops as Villon did, twirling his cane, taking off his fingerless gloves to reach for his cigarette case (a sardine box), and selecting from the butts one of quality, tamping it to shake down the excess tobacco at the tip-all of this, as Mr Herriman pointed out to me, was the creation of the society gentleman, the courageous refusal to be undermined by slums and poverty and rags. At the end of the film there was

the vision of heaven: apotheosis of the long suffering of Charlot at the hands of the police, not only in The Kid-in a hundred films where he stood always against the authorities, always for his small independent freedom. The world in which even policemen have wings shatters, too; but something remains. The invincible Charlot, dazed by his dream, looking for wings on the actual policeman who is apparently taking him to jail, will not down. For as they start, a post comes between them, and Charlot, without the slightest effort to break away, too submissive to fight, still dodges back to walk round the post and so avoid bad luck. A moment later comes one of the highest points in Charlie's career. He is ushered into a limousine instead of a patrol wagon-it i s the beginning of the happy ending. And as the motor starts he flashes at the spectators of his felicity a look of indescribable poignancy. It is frightened, it is hopeful, bewildered; it lasts a fraction of a second and is blurred by the plate glass of the car. I cannot hope to set down the quality of it, how it becomes a moment of unbearable intensity, and how one is breathless with suspense-and with adoration.

For, make no mistake, it is adoration, not less, that he deserves and has from us. He corresponds to our secret desires because he alone has passed beyond our categories, at one bound placing himself outside space and time. His escape from the world is complete and extraordinarily rapid, and what makes


him more than a figure of romance is his immediate creation of another world. He has the vital energy, the composing and the functioning brain. This is what makes him aesthetically interesting, what will make him for ever a school not only of acting, but of the whole creative process. The flow of his line always corresponds to the character and tempo; there is a definite relation between the melody and the orchestration he gives it. Beyond his technique-the style of his pieces-he has composition, because he creates anything but chaos in his separate world. "You might," wrote Mr Stark Young, wise in everything but the choice of the person addressed, "you might really create in terms of the moving picture as you have already created in terms of character." As I have said, the surest way to be wrong about Charlie is to forget the Keystone.

This is precisely what Mr Stark Young would like him to do-and what Charlie may do if the intellectual nonsense about him is capable of corrupting his natural wisdom and his creative gift. Mr Young has addressed an open letter to "Dear Mr Chaplin" ' in which he suggests that Charlie play Liliom and He Who Gets Slapped and Peer Gynt. (Offended as I am by these ideas, I must be fair. Mr Young does say that better than all of these, "you could do new things written by or for you, things in which

[1] It appeared in The New Republic and will probably be found in The Flower in Drama (Scribners).

you would use your full endowment, comic and otherwise . . . develop things calculated strictly for it [the screen] and for no other art, made up out of its essential quality, which is visual motion and not mere stage drama photographed. . . . ") This is, of course, corruption. It means that Mr Young has either not seen the Charlie of before The Kid (as I suspect, from the phrase about creating in terms of character) or not liked him (which I am sure about) ; he has failed to recognize in The Pawnbroker " his full endowment, comic and otherwise." It implies to me that Mr Young would prefer a "serious film" and that suggests the complete absence of a critical sense, of taste and gusto, of wisdom and gaiety, of piety and wit. "The larger field" . . . "seriou s efforts" . . . "a more cultured audience" . . . "the judicious" -- O Lord! these are the phrases which are offered as bribes to the one man who has destroyed the world and created it in his own image!

There is a future for him as for others, and it is quite possible that the future may not be as rich and as dear as the past. I write this without having seen The Pilgrim, which ought to be a test case, for the two films which followed The Kid (Pay Day and The Idle Class) determined nothing. If the literary side conquers we shall have a great character actor and not a creator; we shall certainly not have again the image of riot and fun, the created personage, the annihilation of actuality; we may go


so far as to accomplish Mr Stark Young's ideal and have a serious work of art. I hope this will not happen, because I do not believe that it is the necessary curve of Charlie's genius-it is the direction of worldly success, not in money, but in fame; it i s not the curve of life at all. For the slowing-up of Charlie's physical energies and the deepening of his understanding may well restore to him his appreciation of those early monuments to laughter which are his greatest achievement. He stood then shod i n absurdity, but with his feet on the earth. And he danced on the earth, an eternal figure of lightness and of the wisdom which knows that the earth was made to dance on. It was a green earth, excited with its own abundance and fruitfulness, and he posses sed it entirely. For me he remains established in possession. As it spins under his feet he dances silently and with infinite grace upon it. It is as if in his whole life he had spoken only one word: "I am here today"-the beginning before time and the end without end of his wisdom and of his loveliness.

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


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:


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


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.


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


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.


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


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

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.


Tearing a Passion to Ragtime

(pages 67-80)

There is only one sense in which the word "rag" has any meaning in connexion with music, and that is not conveyed in the word "ragtime." Ragtime is not, strictly speaking, time at all; neither is tempo rubato: and eminently safe composers have been kno wn to score their music con alcuna Iicenza, which leaves the delicate adjustment of time to the performer. A certain number of liberties may be taken with ragtime, and beyond this point no liberties may be taken. Within its framework, ragtime is definite enough; and you must syncopate at precisely the right, the indicated and required moment, or the effect of the syncopation is lost.

It is only when one looks at the songs that one realizes what ragtime means. For literally, the music, which has always been with us and yet arrived only yesterday, has torn to rags the sentimentality of the song which preceded it. The funeral oration for the popular song was preached in the preceding chapter. This is the coroner's inquest, with the probable verdict that the popular song was unintentionally killed by ragtime, which is in turn being slowly poisoned by jazz. A neat, unobtrusive, little m an with bright eyes and an unerring capacity for understanding, appropriating, and creating strange rhythms is in the foreground, attended by negro slaves; behind him stands a rather majestic figure, pink and smooth, surrounded by devils with muted brass and saxophones. They are Irving Berlin and


Paul Whiteman, and they will bear listening to. What is more, they will make listening a pleasure.

It seems strange to speak of the great George M. Cohan as a disappointment in anything he has ever tried; but looking back at the early years of the century, when it was apparent that he would be our most popular song writer as well as our most popular everything else, suddenly calls to mind that our Georgie, the Yankee Doodle Dandy, just failed to make it. Irish wit and an extraordinary aptitude for putting into simple song the most obvious of jingo sentiments were not quite enough. The situation whic h Cohan faced at the time was beginning to be complicated: the ballad song was becoming a bore; the substitutes for it had failed to absorb rhythms fresh enough and swift enough to please the public. And between dawn and daylight ragtime was upon us. Enfin Berlin vient! How much ragtime had been sung and played before, no man may calculate; it had been heard in every minstrel show, and its musical elements were thoroughly familiar. What was needed was a crystallization, was one song which should take the whole dash and energy of ragtime and carry it to its apotheosis; with a characteristic turn of mind Berlin accomplished this in a song which had no other topic than ragtime itself. Alexander's Ragtime Band appeared with its bow to negro music and its introduction of Swanee River;


it was simple and passionate and utterly unsentimental and the whole country responded to its masterful cry, Come on and hear! Presently Waiting for the Robert E. Lee is heard-- a levee song and one would say that the South had already conquered; but Berl in is first of all a writer of rag and the Southern theme is dropped (the negro music remaining) while he gives the world two further dazzling rags: The International and The Ragtime Violin. Everybody's doing it was true of singing and dancing and-composi ng. For the day which was awakened with Alexander's Ragtime Band was a day of extraordinary energy and Skeleton Rags and Yiddische Rags and Pullman Porters' Balls, and everything that could be syncopated, and most things that could not, paid their quota t o ragtime. There have been periods equally definable: the time of the waltz song, of the ballad, of jazz. What makes the first rag period important was its intense gaiety, its naivete', its tireless curiosity about itself, its unconscious destruction of t he old ballad form and the patter song. The music drove ahead; the half-understood juggling with tempo which was to become the characteristic of our music led to fresh accents, a dislocation of the beat, and to a greater freedom in the text. For half a ce ntury syncopation had existed in America, anticipating the moment when the national spirit should find in it its perfect expression; for that half century serious musicians had neglected it; they were

to study it a decade later when ragtime had revealed it to them.

The early rags were made to be sung and they were sung, universally. What the departing queen of Hawaii offered in Aloha Ohe was swiftly integrated into the existing form and On the Beach at Wai-ki-ki is a rag in every respect, using material which is foreign only in appearance. (The fact that ragtime can without offense adapt the folk song of nearly every nation-and is only absurd with Puccini and Verdi's worst when it takes them seriously--indicates how essentially decent an art ragtime is.) The nost algia which later came into Hawaiian songs does not exist in this first greatly popular song of those islands any more than it exists in the Robert E. Lee or in When that Midnight Chu-chu Leaves for Alabam'. Berlin himself was not untouched by the Hawaiia n scene and in The Hula-Hula he wrote a song Superior, in my mind, to Wai-ki-ki, yet never popular in the great sense. The rush and excitement of Wai-ki-ki aren't in The Hula-Hula; some one had told too much about the undulations of the dance and the sens uousness of the southern Pacific. Louis Hirsch, years later, did the same thing in 'Neath the South Sea Moon, a respectable piece of work. But it remained for Jerome Kern, a decade and more after Wai-ki-ki, to make another Hawaiian song popular. This was Ka-lu-a (out of Good Morning, Dearie) and in every way it showed cleverness and intelli-


gence. For it was not a song of Hawaii at all. It was produced in an Englishy garden, sung by women in hoopskirts surrounding Oscar Shaw in evening clothes; and it is all, all a longing for--I think it is a longing for Wai-ki-ki the song, as much as for t he beach. The old romantic properties are in the words, slightly set off in mockery by the premature and internal rhymes; they are suffused with memory and the music is purely nostalgic. It was not for nothing that Mr Kern wrote The Siren Song.

The moment Hawaii faded out nothing was left but the South, and here the music began to drive the words with a hard hand and a high check. An observer unfamiliar with the nature of ragtime would conclude that the American people had a complex about nig ger mammies and that the sublimation thereof was in the popular song. The true explanation is simpler. The mother element is, of course, a sure-fire hit in the pictures and in song; but the nigger mammy enters for the same reason as cotton fields and pick aninnies and Georgia-because our whole present music is derived from the negro and most composers of popular songs haven't yet discovered that the musical structure is applicable to other themes as well. (George Gershwin's Walking Home with Angeline in Ou r Nell, Cole Porter's Blue Boy Blues, about the Gainsborough painting, and Berlin's Pack Up Your Sins and Go to the Devil are examples of the transfer successfully accomplished, and


gratifying, too. Best of all is Limehouse Blues, by Philip Braham, a veritable masterpiece in the genre.) There exist a number of natural themes-slavery, the local scene (Swanee River), the cabin, the food, and the train whereby one arrives. The genius of Tin Pan Alley has worked upon this material, and in both words and music has been amazingly imitative, uninventive, and dull. Yet the idea of taking a theme and so handling it that the slightest variation from the preceding use of the same material shall give the effect of novelty and freshness is a sound one-we know from the history of Greek drama. Alas! there was little novelty and the tradition was never firm enough to bear what they did to it. Yet they had their reward, if they can accept it vicariou sly, for one of them, not at the beginning and not at the end, which is not yet, took the old material and fashioned a great song. His name is George Gershwin and the song which, before the blue-jazz age, achieves pre-eminence is Swanee. To have heard Al Jolson sing this song is to have had one of the few great experiences which the minor arts are capable of giving; to have heard it without feeling something obscure and powerful and rich with a separate life of its own coming into being, is--I should say it is not to be alive. The verse is simple and direct, with faint foreshadowings of the subtly divided, subtly compounded elements of the chorus where the name "Swanee," with a strong beat,

long drawn and tender, ushers in the swift passages leading to the repetition, slow again, of the name; and the rest of the song is the proper working out of a problem in contrasting cadences, and in dynamics. After the chorus, and in another key, there i s a coda, a restatement of the theme with a little more restraint, and then, surprisingly and gratefully, for the first time the introduction of the final bars of Swanee River. I analyze this song as if it could be taken apart and the essence of it remain ; the truth is that it bears inspection and is worth inspection because it has a strongly individual quality, a definite personal touch. Mr Gershwin has progressed' in his technical handling of syncopation, as in Innocent Ingenue Baby (not primarily a son g to be sung or for the dance, but to hear; it is musically the solution of a problem in pauses, and the answer is delicious) ; but in Swanee he is at his highest point, for he has taken the simple emotion of longing and let it surge through his music, he has made real what a hundred before him had falsified. He should "do it again."

Swanee was popular, but by no means as popular as Some Sunny Day, a song by Mr Berlin which will simply not bear analysis. I hold Mr Berlin to be still the foremost writer of popular music in spite of it. Three years and a masterly technique separate t he two songs and Some Sunny Day is devilishly clever, but most of it isn't properly singable. It is

See page 92.


a good dance tune; analyzed, it resolves itself into a weak treatment of Old Black Joe (clever Mr Berlin to take the first bar of the old verse for the first bar of his chorus) and a regrettable quotation again of Swanee River. The arrangement is neat, an d the inversion of the first bar halfway through the chorus, when the song has dribbled into meaningless fragments, has lost all intensity and is suddenly revived and refreshed, while the words of the first bar are repeated-that sufficiently indicates the master hand. The words are among Mr Berlin's weakest and it is hard to believe that at the same moment he was reveling in the two Music Box Revues, in Say It With Music and Pack Up Your Sins, which are superb.

It is not entirely an accident that a consideration of the effect of ragtime on popular song begins and ends with Irving Berlin. For as surely as Alexander's Ragtime Band started something, Pack Up Your Sins is a sign that it is coming to an end. For t his tremendous piece of music simply cannot be sung; it baffled the trained chorus on its first appearance, it can hardly be whistled through, and, although the words are good, they aren't known. Ragtime is now written for jazz orchestra; three phrases oc cupy the time of two; four, five, and even six notes the time of two or three. The words which are becoming wittier than ever are too numerous, too jostled, to be sung, and the melodic structure with arbitrarily


changing beat baffles the voice and the mind as much as it intrigues the pulse and the heel. The popular song and the ragtime song are vanishing temporarily. But something terrible and wonderful has already taken their place. Already there is an indicatio n of how they will return and--I am tired of speaking of Mr Berlin, but I can't help it--Mr Berlin has indicated how and where. His All by Myself is in essence a combination of the sentimental song with ragtime-so it was sung by Ethel Levey. And it is pla yed with enthusiasm by jazz orchestras--a perceptible pleasure is ours from recognizing something entirely simple and sentimental weaving its way through those recondite harmonies.

If the song returns in any way the ancient protest against its vulgarity will also return, and it is worth making up our minds about it now. The popular song takes its place between the folk song and, the art song. Of these the folk song hardly exists in America to-day: Casey Jones and Frankie and Johnny are examples of what we possess and one doesn't often hear them sung along country roads or by brown-armed men at the rudder in ships that go down to the sea. The songs of the Kentucky mountains (Engli sh in provenance) and the old cowboy songs are both the object of antiquarian interest they aren't as alive as the universal Hail, Hail, the Gang's All Here or We Won't Go Home 'til Morning. If we refuse to call our ragtime folk music,


then we must face the fact that we are at a moment in history when folk songs simply do not occur. (Even the war failed to give us very much; it is interesting to note that besides Katy and Mr Zip, the songs written by the best and most expert of our comp osers, Berlin and Cohan, were both meant to be sung and were sung--and this took place in the midst of the change to the unsingable type.) At the opposite extreme is the art song-usually the setting and degradation of a poem written for its own sake and u sually--let us say dull. The composers of art songs are about fifty paces behind the symphonists and the symphonists are nearly nowhere. The result is that we aren't in any sense nourished by the writers of art songs and, since we are a musical people, fo r better or for worse we fall back on the popular song. It is to me a question whether we would be better citizens and more noble in the sight of God if we sang Narcissus instead of The Girl on the Magazine Cover.

Once in a while something between the art and the popular song appears, and it is called My Rosary or The End of a Perfect Day, and it is unbearable. Because here you have a pretentiousness, a base desire to be above the crowd and yet to please (it is called "uplift," but it does not mean exalt) the crowd; here is the touch of "art" which makes all things false and vulgar. To be sure, these songs, too, are popular; the desire for culture is as universal as it is


depressing. And these are the only popular songs which are really vulgar. I will ask no one to compare them with the real thing. Compare them with false, trivial, ridiculous imitations of the real thing -it exists in some of the occasional songs which com posers are always trying and which hardly ever come off. I recall a song written about the Iroquois fire; another about Harry K. Thaw ("Just because he's a millionaire, Everybody's willing to treat him unfair"). Only the two songs about Caruso succeeded, and there never was a good one about Roosevelt. Here is one written for Jackie Coogan in Oliver Twist:

When the troubles came so fast you kept on smiling, Like a sunbeam 'mid the clouds up in the sky; Though the rest were deep in crime You stayed spotless all the time Though they flayed you Till they made you Weep and cry.

When your little heart was aching for a mother's tender love,

Then the Lord looked down and heard you and blessed, you from above.

Though they tried to make you bad You stayed good, dear little lad.

Would God I could

Be half as good

As you

Oliver Twist.


The music is just like that, too. Lower than this much lower, at least-the popular song never dropped. These songs never become actually, universally popular because the general taste is too high. And I cheerfully set the lowest example beside A Perfec t Day for comparison. One type is not obnoxious and the other is; one is common, the other vulgar; one is strong and foolish, the other silly and weak. The case for the popular song may as well rest in the solution of this dilemma as anywhere.


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