On the Dorothy Fields’ website, “A Cow and a Plough and a Frau” is described as the low point of Fields’ career as a lyricist, which naturally sent me scurrying to find a recording. Luckily the original cast album CD of Arms and the Girl, from which the song comes, paired with Up in Central Park goes in and out of print with regularity, and isn’t hard to find. The show itself is little remembered. It’s one of at least five Broadway musicals about the American Revolution (the most recent being Hamilton of course, the earliest being Rodgers and Hart’s Dearest Enemy). But until I found the CD, that was the extent of my knowledge. Not a lot of the score is memorable, but, somewhat to my surprise, I took immediate exception to the characterization I had read of “A Cow and…” I will say that it may be the most unlikely lyric that Fields ever wrote, and my guess is that if you played it for a hundred musical theater geeks who had never heard it, not one of them would be able to guess its authorship correctly. However, that doesn’t make it a bad song. It just makes the wonderfully urbane Dorothy Fields a more flexible lyricist than one might have guessed. I actually think it’s an adorable song, unique among Field’s lyrics for it’s ability to combine clever craftsmanship with a genuine bucolic feel. There’s something of Oscar Hammerstein about the sentiment, and something of Lorenz Hart about some of the wordplay.
I still don’t know much about Arms and the Girl, but the character singing the song is a Hessian who is beginning to see that he’s fighting on the wrong side – it would be better to be a young immigrant in a new country than a soldier-for-hire working for a troubled and troubling British Empire in a foreign land. He muses on it all, from the point-of-view of a European farmer in the late 1700s. He expresses himself with an ever-clarifying point of view, gaining confidence as he goes, and that makes this a very classical and theatrical “I Want” song. He is charming. The song is charming. The attitude is old-fashioned in a way that we would never dream of in the 21st Century, modestly gallant and graceful, but iron-willed. True, it casts the role of a wife in a way that we don’t find acceptable today, but the song wasn’t written today, and the show was set over two hundred years ago. Morton Gould’s tune isn’t classically catchy, but it has craft, and it gets under your skin if you let it. And Fields’ lyric, other opinions to the contrary notwithstanding, is, I think, kind of inspired. Interestingly, its content is almost identical to “When I First Came to This Land,” a Pennsylvania Dutch folk song that wasn’t translated into English until 1957, well after Arms and the Girl had come and gone. Great minds…
Gospel music and the Civil Rights movement have often aligned, especially beginning in the late ‘50s when Reverend Martin Luther King became the face and voice of the movement. Back in the ‘40s, however, the link was not so clear. That didn’t deter lefty Jewish songwriter Ervin Drake (who later went on to write the score for What Makes Sammy Run and a few Sinatra standards) from creating a piece of special material in 1946 for The Golden Gate Quartet, four close-harmony specialists who mostly sang spirituals. Their sound is pretty irresistible, and they can even be seen on camera accompanying Dick Powell and Mary Martin singing Arlen and Mercer’s “Hit the Road to Dreamland” in 1942’s Star Spangled Rhythm. True, they are playing Pullman Porters, but such were the times. Ervin Drake, however, had bigger things in mind.
“No Restricted Signs” is a piece of cheerful agitprop in favor not just of breaking down the color barrier, but also ridding the country of the hateful anti-Semitic practice of “restricted” hotels and resorts, which used coded language like “selected clientele” to reassure their customers that the place was not tainted by the presence of “Sons of David,” never mind black or brown people. The song is gospel music, protest music and first class song-writing. This might not be the most powerful protest song ever written, but it’s surely the hippest. And the Quartet sounds great.
Among pop singer-songwriters Randy Newman stands out in many ways, but most especially in his ability to write for characters nothing like himself. The protagonists of his songs are a rogues’ gallery worthy of Charles Dickens or Ring Lardner. They don’t know who they are, but through Newman’s penetrating portraiture, we get to hear them reveal themselves without being aware of it – and they are by and large a frightening lot. Bigots, boobs, self-indulgent whiners, stoners, petty thieves, politically and ethically benighted – there is not a lot to admire in most of them, save their humanity, which also, in a strange and almost indefinable way always seems to come through somehow. It makes it difficult to judge them as harshly as we want to, because some part of them always manages to seem like us. There’s a kind of genius in that.
Newman has never really succeeded as a theatrical writer in part because his songs are so complete in themselves that they don’t suggest movement through a larger story universe. Each one is the entire story, soup to nuts. His one large-scale work Faust, which moved the Faust legend to the Notre Dame campus, was an ambitious undertaking, but never really a theatrical success. Yet it contains more than a handful of great songs, including “Gainesville,” which I’ve selected for today’s Song of the Day. Newman doesn’t often write for women, but Faust required it, and whether through an innate sense of chivalry or simply a plot requirement, the young woman singing it (in today’s recording it’s Linda Ronstadt) is actually a good person. A sad person, but one who is touched with the very quality that eludes almost all of Newman’s men: self-knowledge. As a result, the song, which seems at first to be no more than an auto-biographical sketch, evolves into a heartbreaking revelation about her romantic fate. In fact, the character has so much of what’s missing from most of Newman’s men – strength of character, clear-eyed intelligence and an awareness of how the world actually works – that it sets itself apart from the bulk of his other work. Which is why I selected it.
NYFOS’s well-known motto is “No Song Is Safe From Us”, but I sometimes wonder if there are some songs from which NYFOS should be kept safe. Case in point: Leiber & Stoller’s “Idol With the Golden Head.” recorded by The Coasters in 1957, just as the rock and roll rebellion was putting down permanent roots.
Leiber & Stoller wrote some of the masterpieces of that era, and collaborated on others for The Coasters, The Drifters (that unforgettable bass line that begins “Stand By Me” is Stoller’s) Elvis, Peggy Lee and others. Randy Newman once said that despite all of that, “Idol” was his favorite Leiber & Stoller song, and when Randy Newman has an opinion, I listen. In this case I don’t think I agree, but the song is worth revisiting anyhow. It doesn’t have the simple perfection of L&S’s better-known novelty numbers – “Along Came Jones” or “Yakety Yak” or “Charlie Brown” or “Love Potion Number Nine” – but its premise is wonderfully outside the box, and one can hardly imagine what could have inspired Leiber to write it. It seems to come out of thin air. Perhaps he saw such an item at a carnival or in an antique shop and wondered what could ever be done with it.
The song begins with a burst of Leiber at the top of his game and Stoller’s music, as usual, is unobtrusively suitable and completely memorable. Unfortunately, things don’t quite sustain, and once the back-up lyric becomes “Oh, gee, what did you see?” instead of the title phrase, the song seems to lose the courage of its convictions. There isn’t a satisfying punch line to the story, and it feels like at a certain point the boys decided to throw in the towel and let this be on the “B” side of something that they liked better. But it comes out of the gate like a champion, features Leiber’s thorough but unpretentious grasp of 1950s jive, and contains one of the most perfectly balanced lyric lines I’ve ever heard in a song, as the Idol tells the narrator what has happened to his girlfriend: “Your ‘Big-foot’ May is down in Catfish Creek”, it advises. There’s something about the way “Big-foot” and “Catfish” set each other off that I’ll admire forever. It seems to me that everyone should hear it at least once.
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.
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