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

Saturday, December 08, 2007

the man whose song is broken and whose words are empty.

Carl Wilson at Zoilus mentioned the genre of songs about other songs tonight. I often think about songs that are about themselves, that observe and comment on themselves, sometimes from the perspective of a song that has not yet been finished. Songs about themselves have a confusion and a mystery that attract me.

Not so well-known now, but a Number One hit in the early ‘40s for Glenn Miller, “Elmer’s Tune” might be the quintessence of the genre. Elmer Albrecht worked for a funeral home which was located near a dance hall. The owner of the dance hall let him plunk on the piano during his lunch break. Elmer wrote a tune. A band-leader who played the hall, Dick Jurgens, heard Elmer playing his tune, liked it, and, smelling a hit, arranged it for his band. But it needed words! Sammy Gallup provided:

Why are the stars always winkin' and blinkin' above?
What makes a fellow start thinkin' of fallin' in love?
It's not the season, the reason is plain as the moon
It's just Elmer's Tune

What makes a lady of eighty go out on the loose?
Why does a gander meander in search of a goose?
What puts the kick in a chicken, the magic in June?
It's just Elmer's Tune . . .

The hurdy-gurdies, the birdies, the cop on the beat
The candy maker, the baker, the man on the street
The city charmer, the farmer, the man in the moon
All sing Elmer's Tune

The first time I heard this song, in the car listening to a pre-rock nostalgia station, I had to pull over. This -- this song! -- makes such bold claims for itself! But it’s obviously kidding! But so joyously and cleverly! Surrealistic pantheism -- the song makes the stars wink & blink, fills elderly women with lustful inspiration, puts the magic in June, and has the whole human and animal world singing it -- it feels like a Tex Avery cartoon. Performed with flawless sleekness by Miller’s band and singers.

Bob Wills’s “San Antonio Rose” is more serpentine, describing itself as it enacts itself, yet mis-describing itself as a “broken song” with “empty words” (foreshadowing Paul Simon) -- but the song is broken, because it is doomed to fail in its goal, which is to persuade the moon to call back the singer’s Rose of San Antone. And the all-time great tender sweet labial line, “Lips so sweet and tender, like petals falling apart” -- I love this song.

Deep within my heart lies a melody, a song of old San Antone,
Where in dreams I lived with a memory, beneath the stars all alone,
It was there I found, beside the Alamo, enchantment strange as the blue up above,
A moonlit path that only she would know, still hears my broken song of love,
Moon in all your splendor know only my heart, call back my Rose, Rose of San Antone,
Lips so sweet and tender, like petals falling apart, speak once again of my love my own
Oh broken song empty words I know, still live in my heart all alone
For that moonlit path by the Alamo, and Rose my Rose of San Antone

Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust,” like “Elmer’s Tune,” began as an instrumental, and later inspired Mitchell Parish to write lyrics to describe itself.

And now the purple dusk of twilight time
Steals across the meadows of my heart
High up in the sky the little stars climb
Always reminding me that we’re apart

You wander down the lane and far away
Leaving me a song that will not die
Love is now the stardust of yesterday
The music of the years gone by

Sometimes I wonder why I spend
The lonely night dreaming of a song
The melody haunts my reverie
And I am once again with you
When our love was new
And each kiss an inspiration
But that was long ago
Now my consolation
Is in the stardust of a song

Beside a garden wall
When stars are bright
You are in my arms
The nightingale tells his fairy tale
A paradise where roses bloom
Though I dream in vain
In my heart it will remain
My stardust melody
The memory of love's refrain

Love is the stardust of yesterday, and the lost love transforms itself into the stardust of this song. This song is yesterday’s love itself. Like in “San Antonio Rose,” the singer is outside, at night, near a wall. Stars are bright here, there’s a moonlit path there; beside a garden wall here, by the (walled) Alamo there. In both, the song lives in the singer’s heart. We are meant to be hearing an interior monologue -- something not sung at all. No hurdy-gurdies or birdies or city charmers or farmers singing along here.

Elton John’s “Your Song” is sweet but its lyrics on their own are fairly plain. George Harrison’s “This Song” is bitchy and clever. John Fogerty wrote one for Creedence, “Wrote a Song for Everyone.” Paul Simon’s “Kathy’s Song” may or may not be about itself. Either way, it’s of the self-deprecating school, like Bob Will’s Rose. Rose is a “broken song” with “empty words.” “Kathy’s Song” sings of songs with “words that tear and strain to rhyme.”

Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven,” like “Elmer’s Tune,” announces and celebrates itself. And not only is it a song about itself, but the record is about itself as a record.

I'm gonna write a little letter
Gonna mail it to my local DJ
Yeah it's a jumpin' little record
I want my jockey to play
Roll Over Beethoven, I gotta hear it again today

And then it goes on to quote other songs, one a contemporary hit, the other a nursery rhyme.

Well, early in the mornin' I'm a-givin' you a warnin'
Don't you step on my blue suede shoes
Hey diddle diddle, I'm playin' my fiddle
Ain't got nothin' to lose
Roll Over Beethoven and tell Tchaikovsky the news

Numerous swing and rock songs celebrate their own genre, but that’s not quite the same as a song which includes its title in its own narrative.

Lullabies which describe the singing of lullabies are somewhat different, but closer. A lullaby is a functional song. It’s a spell. I don’t know much about spells, but it would not surprise me if the announcement of the casting of the spell appeared in other spells. In “Golden Slumbers,” Paul McCartney sings, “sleep pretty darling do not cry, and I will sing a lullaby.” Then, destroying the possibility of the spell ever working, he goes fortissimo, “Golden Slumbers fill your eyes.” It’s one of my favorite Beatle moments -- Paul’s roaring conveys the passion of parenthood, the fierce love, as well as, I must admit, the frustration of trying to soothe a baby who won’t sleep. “GO TO SLEEP ALREADY,” I have found myself wanting to shout. Paul got his lines from a poem published in 1603 by Thomas Dekker.

Golden slumbers kiss your eyes,
Smiles awake you when you rise.
Sleep, pretty wantons, do not cry,
And I will sing a lullaby:
Rock them, rock them, lullaby.

Care is heavy, therefore sleep you;
You are care, and care must keep you.
Sleep, pretty wantons, do not cry,
And I will sing a lullaby:
Rock them, rock them, lullaby.

Except instead of singing, “Rock them,” Paul, well, rocks them.

A song about itself produces vertigo in the listener as one contemplates the infinite regress that such a move risks. “Elmer’s Tune” and “Stardust” are about their own melodies, but for “Roll Over Beethoven” to have been a true story, the record “Roll Over Beethoven” would have had to have existed before Chuck Berry wrote the song. And the power of song makes you feel, yes, it did. A song about itself is Narcissus admiring himself, sometimes critically, sometimes admiringly, and it draws us in, and as we listen to it listening to itself, we become Narcissus too, because, at the bottom of the pool, the song is you.

[Part 1 of a series. Here are Part 2 (the 2nd item of the post), Part 3, and Part 4.]


The first verse of that haunting Beatles song:

Once there was a way to get back homeward
Once there was a way to get back home
Sleep pretty darling do not cry
And I will sing a lullabye

indicates that it is something more than a simple lullaby, even a self-reflexive one. Its real theme is the longing for a return to childhood (or perhaps for death,) in any case for a release from the cares of the world. Brahms explored the same theme in the second of his Heimweh songs, op. 63:

O wüßt ich doch den Weg zurück, Den lieben Weg zum Kinderland! O warum sucht' ich nach dem Glück Und ließ der Mutter Hand?...
Yes, Beatle Paul's lullaby includes a sense of displacement or exile or homelessness, which is even more poignant if one imagines the situation of the words literally: Parent and child are exiled from home together. The longing for a return to childhood or even death are plausible metaphorical readings. Dylan's re-vision of Robert Burns's "My Heart Is in the Highlands" feels much more death-longing to me, but the experience of metaphor is a personal matter.

My German is rusty; my beloved spouse helped me with the Brahms lyric:
Oh, that I knew the way back
The dear way to children land [childhood?]
O why did I seek luck/fortune/happiness
and leave mother's hand?

The most re-printed American poem of the 19th century, "The Old Oaken Bucket," which I've set to music and recorded but haven't yet released, longs for childhood as explicitly as the Brahms. D. H. Lawrence's poem "Piano" from 1918 hits hard:

Softly, in the dusk, a woman is singing to me;
Taking me back down the vista of years, till I see
A child sitting under the piano, in the boom of the tingling strings
And pressing the small, poised feet of a mother who smiles as she sings.

In spite of myself, the insidious mastery of song
Betrays me back, till the heart of me weeps to belong
To the old Sunday evenings at home, with winter outside
And hymns in the cosy parlour, the tinkling piano our guide.

So now it is vain for the singer to burst into clamour
With the great black piano appassionato. The glamour
Of childish days is upon me, my manhood is cast
Down in the flood of remembrance, I weep like a child for the past.

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