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Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Monday, February 16, 2004

SPEECH AND SONG (DRIVING DOWN THE MOUNTAIN WITH ELLA AND FRIENDS PART 5)

The transitive property of mathematics states that if A = B, and B = C, then A = C. Yesterday I said that there is no real distinction between song lyrics and poetry, nor is there a real distinction between poetry and speech. The fundamentalist transitivians among us would insist that there then is, in my view, no distinction between song and speech. And composers like Steve Reich have created beautiful pieces of music out of melodies of fragments of real recorded speech (“It’s Gonna Rain,” “Come Out,” “Different Trains”), and indeed speech is always melodic and rhythmic (if not always consonantly harmonious). I do believe, however, that one should take into account the intention of the producer of the verbal concoction. A “page” poet intends her poem to stand on its own, without music. A song lyricist expects that her lyrics will be wedded to a piece of music. (This is as true of hip hop as it is of more conventionally melodious songs.) Most speakers usually aren’t too concerned with the aesthetic qualities of their speech. It is only in the ear of the behearer, or in latterday tranquil reflection, that the distinctions between the verbal genres melt away.

As it turns out, as “Ella and Friends” encounters the borderline between “page verse” and “song verse” in a song that quotes a line of a poem by Longfellow, two duets between Ella and Louis Armstrong on the collection also encounter the borderline between speech and singing.

The seemingly spontaneous spoken aside is an interesting feature of recorded song, going back at least as far as the 1920s and stretching at least into the rock era. On a duet Fred Astaire and George Gershwin recorded in 1926, “The Half of It Dearie Blues,” Fred interrupts his tap dancing to ask the pianist, “How’s that, George?”

Gershwin answers: “Just great Freddy! Do it again!”

“Fine!”

The exchange gives the impression that Astaire and Gershwin were great friends (a Gershwin biography I read confirms that they liked each other and shared a deep mutual respect). The “conversation” touches me somehow -- the performers break through the invisible wall of the song, the illusion that they are completely wrapped up in the momentary creation of their art, and remind the listener of every day life and every day relationships like friendship.

A couple months ago when driving home from a difficult day at work, when I thought I had screwed something up (it turned out I hadn’t) and was seriously stressing, the local “quality rock” station played “Hold On John” by John Lennon -- “Hold on John, John hold on, it’s gonna be all right.” The coincidence of our first names probably gave the song a more calming quality than it might otherwise have had, but it really did calm me down. In the middle of the guitar solo, Lennon quotes the character Cookie Monster from “Sesame Street” and says in a low gruff voice, “Cookies!” Very sweet and goofy. It made me wonder whether it was a message to his then young son, a shared moment of watching TV together. Very sweet and goofy regardless.

Louis Armstrong was a master of the spoken aside. On a duet with Ella from the LP era, recorded more than 10 years after their duets on “Ella and Friends,” before launching into his trumpet solo on the Gershwin tune “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” he tells the superb rhythm section in a seemingly completely offhand manner, “Swing it, boys,” his voice redolent with an earned and un-resented and not unaffectionate authority over his accompanists. Pops was in charge, nobody doubted it, and nobody minded.

Louis sounds equally relaxed and natural-sounding in the scripted dialogue on “Ella and Friends.” The songs with dialogue are medium slow love songs, “Would You Like to Take a Walk” and “Can Anyone Explain?” Ella sounds stilted, as if she would much rather be singing, but it’s still nice to hear her talking. She says the same line on both songs, in the same spot, near the beginning, before the singing, while Louis is playing trumpet. “Pops, put that horn down!”

On one of the songs, Louis answers in a completely lascivious tone, “What’s on your lovely mind?” He draws out and exaggerates that word “mind” with great joyous comic energy. Pops knew the power of words, the importance of expression -- how the communicative power of tone crosses the borderline between speech and song. He knew it deep.
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