I once said that one of my favorite singers was Fred Astaire. Steve Blier muttered, “that explains a lot”. You’ll have to ask him what it explained, but it might have been that I like things simple, unaffected, and with good diction. In the 1936 film Swing Time, Fred pretends that he can’t dance, so Ginger will spend time with him in a lesson. He learns real fast. Jerome Kern’s song from the movie comes down to us as an inspiration to not give up after something makes us fall — like two left feet, or a global pandemic. There have been many standout recordings of this classic, from the likes of Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Diana Krall… the list goes on. I’ll offer Ella Fitzgerald (in Nelson Riddle’s arrangement).
For a chaser, watch Fred and Ginger from the film, after Fred gets the hang of dancing.
Nothing’s impossible I have found,
For when my chin is on the ground,
I pick myself up,
Dust myself off,
And start all over again.
Don’t lose your confidence if you slip,
Be grateful for a pleasant trip,
And pick yourself up,
Dust yourself off,
And start all over again.
Work like a soul inspired,
Till the battle of the day is won.
You may be sick and tired,
But you’ll be a man, my son!
Will you remember the famous men,
Who had to fall, to rise again?
So take a deep breath,
Pick yourself up,
Dust yourself off,
And start right over again!
On a recent foray into the jazz realm here in Pittsburgh, I was introduced to “I’ve Got My Eyes on You” by Cole Porter. It struck me as a charming little number at first hearing, but Porter’s veneer is thin; he is, after all, the master of warping the seemingly innocuous. As I began to digest the lyrics, it stuck me how creepy they really were, so I began to wonder how they would go over with today’s audience, given all the audio and video surveillance of our lives are subject to, and the fact that we may or may not be aware of how much we are being observed on a daily basis.
When the song was written in 1939, the lyrics may have come off as someone paying undue (not necessarily unwelcome) attention to the comings and goings of his or her main squeeze. Ah, gone are the halcyon days of stalking being socially acceptable; today, such behavior might well warrant a restraining order.
Furthermore, through the lens of today’s technology tracking so much of our daily activity, this song takes on an eerie Orwellian feel. We know social media is watching and listening, as is the government, if you are a person of interest — and maybe your tracked phone is giving away your every location to the aforementioned stalker. It goes without saying that our governments are listening to each other (think Angela Merkel’s cell phone-tapping debacle), and that there are few places where one can go in our modern world without potentially having someone’s “eyes on you, checking on all you do from A to Z.”
Fred Astaire debuted the song in the film “Broadway Melody of 1940,” and sings it here in a later recording. The sweet lilt of his voice would not be at all out of place over the opening credits of a futuristic dystopian sci-fi flick.
In this April 1926 recording (made in London for English Columbia), George Gershwin plays and Fred Astaire sings and taps. To paraphrase the Passover Haggadah: if George Gershwin plays and Astaire sings and taps, dayenu. It would have been enough. But this recording contains a few bonus delights, as Gershwin interpolates licks from Rhapsody in Blue (written the same year as the song) and the men call out to each other. Pure happiness.
Lady, Be Good! (1924) was the first full score siblings Ira and George Gershwin wrote together and starred siblings Adele and Fred Astaire. Another first: This song was the first in which Fred Astaire danced a solo, rather than performing only as his sister’s dance partner or leading an ensemble. The song title may have been inspired by flamboyant female impersonator Bert Savoy, whose catch phrase, “You don’t know the half of it, dearie” became very popular in the late 1910s and early 1920s. Savoy died in 1923.
I grew up surrounded by song, most prominently at the feet–or the fingers– of my grandmother, who lived next door. ‘Grandmere’ grew up in early twentieth century Jewish Harlem, and her youthful and lifelong joy was the musical theatre. Every family gathering included singing around the piano as she played from her boxes of sheet music dating from 1910 on. (There were ten songs from South Pacific alone). So, as I embark on this week-long project, which, of the hundreds of songs I love, do I begin with?
A couple of weeks ago it occurred to me that ‘everything I know I learned from the ‘AABA’ song’–the thirty-two bar form that the great American songwriters of the early 1920’s created–Kern, Rodgers and Hart, Gershwin, Porter. Basically, the form uses a title or sentence that generally repeats in the three A sections; the B section or bridge takes you in a different direction, before a recapitulation. The great AABA songs are mini-essays exploring longing, desire, flat-out expressions of love, unanswered questions, moments of being (think ‘All the Things You Are’, ‘Yesterday’, ‘If I Loved You’).
I googled the AABA form, and found that the analytical template was Irving Berlin’s ‘What’ll I Do?’ Berlin seems like a perfect place to start for me…so many of those songs we sang at my grandmother’s house were by this immigrant saloon boy who became the quintessentially American songwriter. One of my earliest musical-going experiences was seeing a no-longer-spring-chicken but still belting Ethel Merman in Annie Get Your Gun in the mid-sixties. (Her voice still rings in my ears!).
Today’s song is Irving Berlin’s gorgeous ‘Let’s Face the Music and Dance’. It is Irving Berlin in a haunting mode, a hortatory response to troubled times. It also has one of the greatest music videos ever (in that it was written for an Astaire Rogers film, Follow the Fleet). Writing for Astaire made Irving Berlin jazzier and more ‘sophisticated’; legato and syncopation play with each other. He opens with the long-ish rise and fall of the sentence “There may be trouble ahead”, followed by the shorter exhalations of “while there’s moonlight–and music–and love and romance”, and concludes each verse with the solid title statement. Astaire sings with his whole body, and it is as if Irving Berlin is writing with that physicality in mind. The sequence in the movie is about eight minutes long, so you might want to skip the ‘play within the movie’ attempted suicide set-up and get right to the song…as Cole Porter wrote “You’re the top, you’re a Berlin ballad!”
As I deal with the current dystopia I encounter every morning on NPR, I keep thinking about the song “Slap That Bass” by the Gershwin brothers. “Dictators would be better off if they zoom-zoomed now and then,” they write. I couldn’t agree more. “Zoom zoom, zoom zoom, the world is in a mess”—but for a few minutes George and Ira make the world safe again. After all, I need to think straight if I am going to help put things right.
I offer it in three formats:
FRED ASTAIRE, with the original dance break from “Shall We Dance”
ELLA FITZGERALD from her Gershwin Songbook, buttery and smooth, if a bit bland
And a special treat: Susan Stroman’s staging in Crazy for You, taken from the São Paulo production and sung, of course, in Portuguese. American swing-time meets Brazilian pelvises. Just watched it twice…
This week our SoTD curator is composer Susan Botti who will host and curate the second installment of NYFOS Next 2016 on Febuary 11th alongside fellow Manhattan School of Music faculty member, Richard Danielpour. Botti is the recipient of numerous awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the Rome Prize. Orchestral commissions include works for the Cleveland Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, and The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. In addition to performing her own vocal works, she specializes in the vocal performance of contemporary music by a diverse range of composers. Thank you, Susan!
Thank you to NY Festival of Song for NYFOS Next and your dedication to today’s composers. My mind has been reeling trying to decide which Songs will be my Songs-of-the-Day. Just five – difficult to choose, but here goes… I will be traversing different styles throughout the week, but I think I must start with….
Cheek to Cheek – Irving Berlin (1935)
There’s no one like Irving Berlin at crafting the perfect song – the naturalness of the motives and melody and the way both are interlaced seamlessly with the lyric. Sentiment and expression are lifted from speech to song. Beginning in a semi-spoken, “heaven”, this seed of a motive/lyric blossoms joyfully. There’s that subtly syncopated hook “out together…”, the catalogue of things “I’d like to…” do that don’t compare to (you know what), the exuberant “Dance with me” section… it’s just perfect. It’s rapturous and intimate and, (as all great songs do) it expresses our human experience in words and music. Of course, it is perfectly sung by Fred Astaire with voice and body. Glorious.
And since you can’t love just one Irving Berlin song, here’s another of my favorites:
Let’s Face the Music and Dance – Irving Berlin (1936)
George Gershwin is my official “Favorite Composer.” After all, you have to have an answer ready when people ask that question, and Gershwin’s music is certainly very close to me—like my own skin, my own blood. Gershwin songs are usually very cheerful, but they always have just a hint of melancholy, like chocolate that is sprinkled with a bit of sea salt. Maybe Gershwin is the glitzy, glamorous, egocentric virtuoso I always wished I could be, spewing melody with Vesuvian brilliance. And certainly Gershwin is the soul of New York, my home town and my home base.
So to ring in the new year, a classic Gershwin song and dance: “I Can’t Be Bothered Now,” from the 1992 show Crazy for You. Harry Groener is a masterful hoofer, and he’s surrounded by a bevy of beauties.
I Can’t Be Bothered Now, from Crazy for You
And since I’m doing doubles this week, here’s a classic Gershwin number, “Slap That Bass” from Shall We Dance, sung and danced by Fred Astaire.
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