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Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler: As Long As I Live

My love affair with Harold Arlen’s music began back in the ‘70s when I was barely out of college and read Alec Wilder’s extraordinary American Popular Song, probably the first great treatise on the American Songbook. Wilder was certainly controversial, and not short of opinions; one of them was that Arlen was Gershwin’s equal and, in many ways, his superior. This didn’t sit well with lots of Gershwin fans, and I’m not sure it’s true, but it got me started on a life-long exploration of Arlen’s music and career, and I must say that in some ways – particularly his manner of tucking blue notes into places you don’t expect them while Gershwin so often puts them right where you know they’re going to be – I’ve come to partially concur with Wilder. Gershwin is brash and thrilling. Arlen is often fretful and deep as a well. Love affairs like this one need no defense in any case – they’re about matching temperaments with an artist’s work; I melt when I hear the sly, romantic, often melancholy feel that runs through so much of Arlen’s music, including the long-lined melodies that he used to call “tapeworms,” and the unexpected melodic tags he sometimes attaches at the very end, just when you thought the song was over (“If happy little bluebirds fly beyond the rainbow why, oh why, can’t I?” is certainly the most famous one of those tags.)

That said, I’ve selected a number to celebrate Arlen that hearkens back to his early days at The Cotton Club, and one that begets optimism, not regret or wistfulness. I’ve chosen it in part because I love it and it has often been sung terribly by me to my wife Linda, but also because this recording features a young Harold Arlen singing it really well. He began his career as a band vocalist, and a good one, though ineffably Jewish for a jazz singer. I also love the fact that he’s willing to improvise around his own melody – his father was a cantor. A lot of composers take umbrage when others use their music as a springboard – Arlen does it to himself.

Ted Koehler’s lyric is playful and almost Harburg-like in some ways, and easy to love. You have to admire that the six notes which could easily function as an instrumental fill in all three A sections have been fitted out with lyrics that sound like off-handed asides (“Life isn’t long enough,” “But I can promise you” and “Long as I promise you”). And I particularly admire the way Arlen lets loose in the bridge, which is loose and swingy for three of its four lines and then, completely unexpectedly, packs sixteen quick notes into a last line that jump out at you and sets the lyric perfectly. The guy was full of surprises. And if you love someone, and you’re going to go on loving that person forever, sing this song like Harold did. It spreads joy.

Washington Phillips: What Are They Doing in Heaven Today?

For Memorial Day, here’s a song about the missing and wondering we do when our loved ones pass away. “What Are They Doing in Heaven” was originally written as a hymn, by the Methodist preacher Charles Albert Tindley, in 1901. It has since become a mainstay of Gospel and Country artists, and has been recorded by some really tremendous artists: The Staples Singers, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, The Dixie Hummingbirds, Vince Gill, The Be Good Tanyas, and Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn, to name a few.

The song’s melody and text are achingly simple, and they describe grief in a disarmingly innocent, beautiful way. The narrator is just “thinking of friends that I used to know,” who have “gone up to Heaven.” As many of us who have lost people have done, he or she asks, “what are they doing right now?” There’s no talk about sadness, no mourning, just a sense of almost childlike wonder. For those grieving, I hope this song brings you some measure of the comfort it’s brought me.

This is the first known recording of “What Are They Doing in Heaven,” and the singer, Washington Phillips, saw very money or fame from what would become a very influential recording. Like many of the Black artists of the early and middle 20th century, his recordings didn’t gain him special renown or financial stability – it wasn’t until white audiences began to “discover” the Blues in the late 1950s and 60’s that artists like Mississippi John Hurt, Lightning Hopkins and Big Bill Broonzy found the steady revenue streams, artistic recognition, and cultural respect that artists in other genres enjoyed. Most Blues artists who didn’t live long enough for the change in tides to lift their prospects, such as Lead Belly, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and Robert Johnson, lived and died without knowing the influence their music would have on future generations. (Side note: there’s an interesting parallel here with the music of J.S. Bach. Today, Bach is revered as one of the true musical giants of history, but he was relatively unknown for the two centuries after his death, aside from a few famous pieces. It wasn’t until the 19th century, when Mendelssohn re-discovered and championed his works, that Bach began to gain cultural prominence.) All of this is to say, while this and the other few songs recorded by Phillips would turn out to be immensely influential on later artists, including some who would go on to found what we call Rock n Roll, the artist himself was a farm laborer, amateur preacher and musician who died in poverty. This is one of 18 songs he recorded in 1927-9, at sessions in Dallas; as far as is known, he recorded no others. His choice of instrument is an unusual one– in fact, no source seems to be really certain of what he’s playing. It was assumed for a long time that he was playing a “dulceola,” which might have been a corruption of dolceola, a very rare instrument similar to a zither. However, later interviews with the recording engineer revealed that Phillips required a 30-minute instrument assembly period before sessions could begin. Since the Dolceola requires no assembly, it seems more likely that Phillips made his own instruments from parts of broken or discarded ones and named them as he wished. He is buried outside of Teague, Texas, in an unmarked grave.

For those who are really moved by the song, there’s one other recording that I find especially compelling: this 2013 version by the husband and wife duo The Quiet American. Listen here, and enjoy.

It should be said that, while this is a beautiful song to help attend to loss, it is not expressly a song about fallen soldiers. There are many wonderful songs that specifically explore the experience of sending young men and women off to war – my friend and colleague, and fellow NYFOS collaborator John Brancy suggests “G-d Be With Our Boys Tonight,” by Wilfred Sanderson, and Charles Ives “Tom Sails Away” is another tremendous one (NYFOS’ own Steven Blier is playing the piano on that recording) – but I would argue that, at this moment in American life, there’s a lot of progress to be made in the way we honor our fallen soldiers, and especially in the way we honor their families, living comrades, and friends. The burden of war is borne not just by those who fight and die in it, or those who fight and live on, but also by those who lose sons, daughters, parents, siblings, and friends. For those who are missing, mourning, grieving, or just wondering, this song is for you.

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