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

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

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

The most irritating quality about the Vododeo-vo, poo-poop-a-doop school of jazz song is its hysterical emphasis on the fact that the singer is a jazz baby going crazy about jazz rhythms. . . . Folk songs do not inform us that it is great to be singing in 6/8 time, or that you won’t get your dairymaid until you have mastered the Dorian mode. . . . It is almost impossible to find a quick foxtrot, however, that does not inform us that it is in a particular variant of common time, and that it is very gay as a consequence. Martin Tupper, who claimed to be the first since King David to set words to a dance tune, has a heavy onus to bear if he is the father of the numerous technical songs such as ‘I’m going to Charleston, back to Charleston’, ‘Crazy Feet, I’ve got those Crazy Feet,’ and ‘I tell you Rhythm is the Thing, Rhythm is the Thing, Rhythm is the Thing of to-day.’ What should we think of a concert aria which kept harping on the fact that the singer’s mouth was open and that her vocal cords were in prime condition? -- Constant Lambert, Music Ho!, 1934

The other day I dismissed songs-about-their-style from the realm of songs-about-themselves, or S-A-T’s. While most of them are not as explicitly about themselves as classic examples like Jim Croce’s “I’ll Have to Say I Love You in a Song” (which describes its own words as inadequate, like “San Antonio Rose” and “Kathy’s Song”), they all include themselves in their own description.

Stephen Foster was the first professional songwriter in America, and his “Camptown Races” may be the earliest pop song-about-itself -- “Camptown ladies sing this song, Doo-dah! doo-dah!” The twin-birth of professional pop and pop S-A-T’s suggests that to celebrate the act of singing the very song you’re singing or its style, while you are singing it, is to advertise your song or your style. In advertising lingo, these songs are testimonials to themselves. The listener learns that people already love this song or style. “Elmer’s Tune” works this way. The candy maker, the baker, the man on the street, the cop on the beat – all sing Elmer’s Tune!

Songs-about-their-style depict the consumer-as-consumer, as listener, not as music-maker. “Sing Me a Swing Song (And Let Me Dance),” wrote Stanley Adams in 1936, to music by Hoagy Carmichael. As Ella Fitzgerald with the Chick Webb Orchestra complied with the song in their swingissimus recording of that year, they
advertised themselves. The song places Ella in the position of her own fans, addressing herself, and invites us to imagine ourselves addressing her so swingingly, elegantly, beautifully.

“Just give me some of that rock-and-roll music,” wrote and sang Chuck Berry in 1957. The style has changed from 21 years before, the message remains: This is what the young and fashionable are dancing to now. “And Let Me Dance” is the older tune’s subtitle. Chuck Berry counters, “It’s gotta be rock-and-roll music / If you wanna dance with me.”

Duke Ellington’s swing manifesto-song goes furthest, equating intelligibility itself with the preferred style, dogmatically insisting that “It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got that Swing.” Any other style is meaningless. The rarely-sung introduction asks, “What good is melody, what good is music, if it ain’t possessing something sweet?” The answer that
makes this tune complete is Swing. When Louis Armstrong sings it, there is no doubt.

Johnny Mercer’s “Conversation While Dancing” does the most clever job of depicting the consumer’s situation while advertising the product. An early singer-songwriter, he wrote the lyrics and made the first recording with composer and bandleader Paul Weston and with Jo Stafford, who sang the woman’s side of the conversation. Mercer and Stafford praise Weston in his own song while they flirt with each other: “You're a solid sender / And the band is some ear bender.”

Because Foster wrote before Edison invented the phonograph, his consumer wasn’t a listener but a music-maker in her or his own right. His song’s narrator doesn’t demand to hear the song, but tells of how others sing it. For 50 years after the advent of pop recording stars in the early 1890s, S-A-T’s depicting both consumer-listeners and consumer-singers held the field. Irving Berlin’s “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” urged us all to “come on and hear” in 1911. In 1899, the protagonist of Joseph E. Howard and Ida Emerson’s “Hello Ma Baby” tries to pitch woo to his “Ragtime gal” over that fairly new-fangled convenience, the telephone. Music doesn’t enter into the song’s lyric except as a signifier of personal style, as later commentators spoke of -- or pitched woo to -- swing kids, punk rock chicks, rocker dudes, or dance club habitués. (Is there a generic term for them?)

S-A-T’s from the rock milieu tend toward a more passive consumption. Rarely are rock S-A-T’s about singing. Early ones are about dancing, but by the ‘70s, dancing in rock S-A-T’s had been replaced by chemical consumption, whether alcohol, marijuana, or something further out; in a word, partying.

KISS sang it most memorably:

I, I wanna rock and roll all night
And party ev-er-y day

Grand Funk boasted a quintessential self-promotional song:

We’re an American band
We’re an American band
We’re coming to your town
We’ll help you party down

And while Bob Seger won’t commit to dancing to that old time rock and roll, he is clear about what music he won’t dance to:

Don't try and take me to a disco,
You'll never even get me out on the floor,
In ten minutes I'll be late for the door,
I like that old time rock and roll.

The dance imperative had left rock and gone to disco. Abba, with their exemplary, inclusive English-as-a-Second-Language pop, invites everybody to claim their own royalty:

You can dance, you can jive, having the time of your life
See that girl, watch that scene, dig in [?] the dancing queen

And A Taste of Honey lays down the rules as to how their song must be consumed, while they bring back the spirit, though not the exact syllables, of “Vododeo-vo”:

If you're thinkin' you're too cool to boogie
Boy, oh boy, have I got news for you
Everybody here tonight must boogie
Let me tell you are no exception to the rule

So get on up on the floor
'Cause were gonna boogie-oogie-oogie
Till you just can't boogie no more
Ah, boogie, boogie no more
You can't boogie no more
Ah, boogie, boogie no more
Listen to the music

Hip hop S-A-T’s typically feature an MC advertising himself and denigrating the competition. Run-DMC’s “Sucker MC’s” from 1984 exemplifies the approach:

And you sucker MC's is who I please
So take that and move back catch a heart attack
Because there's nothin in the world, that Runll ever lack
I cold chill at a party in a b-boy stance
And rock on the mic and make the girls wanna dance
Fly like a Dove, that come from up above
Im rockin on the mic and you can call me Run-Love

Earlier boast songs tended toward fan-appreciation of instrumentalists, such as “Conversation While Dancing.” “Man with a Horn” by Delange, Jenney, and Lake celebrates fan-dom as it teaches fans what to do:

Just listen while he takes his solo apart
Watch him close his eyes from the start
Hear that music pour from his heart so fine

Guitar Man” by David Gates of Bread doesn’t teach fans what to do, but how to feel:

Who draws the crowd and plays so loud
Baby its the guitar man
Whos gonna steal the show, you know
Baby its the guitar man

He can make you love, he can make you cry
He will bring you down, then he’ll get you high

Hip hop MC’s sell their own skills as they demonstrate them.

* * *

The oldest S-A-T’s still widely sung today sell something different. While these songs do not try to inspire commercial transactions, they do hope to instill brand loyalty in something their promoters regard as of greater importance than consuming commercialism: Whom to worship and how. Coincidentally, ‘tis the season.

Angels we have heard on high
Sweetly singing o’er the plain
And the mountains in reply
Echoing their joyous strain
Gloria in excelsis deo
Gloria in excelsis deo


Hark! The herald angels sing
“Glory to the newborn King!”


All creation, join in praising
God, the Father, Spirit, Son,
Evermore your voices raising
To the eternal Three in One.
Come and worship, come and worship
Worship Christ, the newborn King. (“Angels from the Realm of Glory.”)

According to tradition, Pope Telesphorus ordered monks to sing “Gloria in excelsis deo” on Christmas day roughly one thousand eight hundred seventy-seven years ago, around the year 130. Since the text comes from the Gospel account of what the angels sang at Jesus’ birth, we can imagine that the actual tune was passed on for 130 years from the shepherds who first heard it, to the pope who ordered it sung. After all, we know lots of music from 130 years ago today. If the angels really sang, and shepherds heard, we can hope that they remembered and passed on the tune. “Angels We Have Heard On High” has a catchy, explosive chorus.

This is very nice to imagine, but according to every translation I’ve checked, neither the angel (singular) nor the heavenly host actually sang. They said. They emphatically said. Saying is not singing. The second chapter of Luke reads,

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace, goodwill among people!”

Could it be that the entire tradition of Christmas singing is founded on a mis-remembering of scripture?

If so, I am glad of it.

I’m glad of it -- with a song in my heart. Because -- there ain’t no love at all without a song. So -- sing a song, it
’ll make your day. Don’t worry if it’s not good enough for anyone else to hear -- the song remains the same. There’ll be swinging and swaying and records playing and dancing in the streets. A celebration to last throughout the years. All we need is music, sweet music. Music is in my soul. There’ll be music everywhere.

* * *

It’s no wonder that we love songs about singing, about music, about themselves. We crave music, we crave song, they make us feel good, they can make us feel good feeling bad, we don’t understand it, its inexplicability associates it with the divine, it’s a vehicle to celebration, ecstasy, joy, which are themselves divine, or divinely touched.

Songs about themselves pay homage to the source.


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