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!
I grew up on Long Island, forty-five minutes from Broadway (actually forty-nine) and my father commuted to the city and back on the Long Island Rail Road, five days a week, for 38 years. One night, he trudged wearily through the front door, tossed his briefcase aside, collapsed in a chair and said, “I’ve just added it up: I’ve spent three-and-a-half years of my life on the Long Island Rail Road.”
“The Enchanted Train” offers a far more uplifting portrait of that venerable conveyance, the local commuter train. This song is particularly dear to me because I hopped aboard its transcendent joys as part of my first journey with the New York Festival of Song. I had known of Steven Blier since he put together an exceptional concert of Ira Gershwin’s work with various composers for the Ira Gershwin centennial in 1996. Imagine my great pleasure when he asked me to collaborate with him on staging a concert of P.G. Wodehouse’s work as a lyricist, including songs with music by Jerome Kern from the early part of the 20th Century. Steve had assembled an impressive quartet of talent—no surprise, there—including the divine Sylvia McNair and the dashing Hal Cazalet, who also provided the initial octane for the concert concept.
We took the train—surprise!—to Washington, DC to perform “P.G.’s Other Profession” at the Library of Congress in 2000; then in several New York venues; and finally jetting to London’s prestigious Wigmore Hall, picking up different performing passengers along the way, including David Costabile, Christianne Tisdale, and Henry Goodman. Among all the delightful songs in this garland of genteel whimsy, “The Enchanted Train” (originally written for Sitting Pretty in 1924) is the one that—befitting a vehicle in transit—moves me the most. Listen to the effervescent anticipation that Sylvia and Hal bring to their incipient meeting at the train station after an arduous day’s work—one would think they were Hero and Leander. (One of my favorite bits of staging was when Hal would gleefully catch Sylvia’s eye—after being seated on two separate stools a concert stage apart—on the penultimate “I’m coming back!,” as if he had just stuck his head out of the train window. ) Enjoy Greg Utzig’s banjo stylings as they stream along the tracks. And, finally, revel in Steve Blier’s rambling and rumbling piano accompaniment; they capture every wheeze and whistle of the 5:41 local as it makes its eager way through the North Shore of Long Island to Port Washington.
I promise you, after listening to this song, you’ll never ride through Plandome the same way again.
[I’ve devoted an entire broadcast of my radio show, Broadway to Main Street, to “The Song is Kern,” which includes this song and many others by Jerome Kern. You can download the iTunes podcast here >]
“The Enchanted Train” (1924)
Jerome Kern, music
P.G. Wodehouse, words
[ed. note: If you don’t already have a Spotify account, you may need to create a free one to listen.]
There’s no way you could grow up in a Rodgers household without hearing the family music—great songs created by a certain father, daughter and grandson. But in anticipation of this week’s NYFOS “Rodgers, Rodgers & Guettel” concerts, I got to wondering: What other music were they all listening to, and what other songwriters may have had an influence on their work?
Jerome Kern (1885–1945) had a long career as one of the most prominent and important American theatre composers of the early 20th century. “Till the Clouds Roll By” comes from a 1917 show—Oh, Boy!—that Richard Rodgers likely saw as a teenager. (He was a big theatre lover and a Kern fan by this point.) Kern wrote a series of small, intimate musicals during the World War I era, in a musical style that was both straightforward and catchy, yet retained a certain elegance. Richard Rodgers listened…and learned.
To today’s ears, the song—and this original performance—may sound exceedingly quaint and old-fashioned, but just listen to how Kern builds the melody of the chorus (starting at 0:43—skip the verse if you’re pressed for time) from the lowest note of the melody to the highest note within three phrases of music, and then gently brings us back down to the middle, all with a sense of musical inevitability and a satisfying underpinning of harmony. Then he repeats the same course for the second half of the refrain (with a slight variation at the end of it).
The square-ness of the instrumental break at 1:37 always makes me smile—it feels completely devoid of any sass or cynicism that would explode into the popular song culture of the 1920s and beyond, and yet I find the pureness and innocence of this song very charming.
“Till The Clouds Roll By”
Music by Jerome Kern
Lyrics by P.G. Wodehouse and Guy Bolton
For the final Song of the Day of my week here at NYFOS, let me introduce you to the reason I became a singer: Paul Robeson. If ever there was an human embodiment of the traits I most value in an artist and human – communication, fearlessness, skill, an open heart, a brilliant mind, hard work, and a deep sense of service – it was Robeson.
This song, “Old Man River,” is taken from the musical Show Boat, by Hammerstein and Kern. Though the role, Joe, was written with Robeson in mind, he was not available for the original Broadway production. When he did take it up, though, in London in 1928, in the 1932 Broadway revival, and, most notably, in the 1936 film, it made him a star. International concert tours, theater productions, and Hollywood films followed. By rights, modern Americans would remember him as one of our truly great artists, along with actors like Gary Cooper, Humphrey Bogart, Clark Gable, James Dean, and singers like Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, and Johnny Mercer. But it was not to be.
Fiercely political, Robeson viewed his work as inseparable from its political context, and advocated for pro-labor, anti-fascist, anti-racist, anti-colonialist policies and organizations. In 1937, Robeson went abroad during the Spanish Civil War to meet and sing for Republican troops, which made him a hero to those who opposed fascism. His association with left-wing politics throughout the 1930s and 40s, visits to the U.S.S.R., and outspoken critiques of American racism led to his fall from grace in the mainstream American consciousness. During the McCarthy era, he was blacklisted, his passport was revoked, and his previously meteoric career was cut short. When the House Un-American Activities Committee asked why he didn’t stay in the U.S.S.R., given his political affiliations, he gave a tremendously patriotic response: “Because my father was a slave and my people died to build the United States, I am going to stay here, and have a part of it just like you, and no fascist-minded people will drive me from it!”
For an example of the way his politics informed his work, look no further than the song that made him famous, “Old Man River.” In Show Boat, the character of Joe has been described as a one-man Greek chorus, framing the human drama of the musical’s plot with a re-occurring musical gesture invoking the ever-flowing Mississippi River, and subtly comparing the unchanging river with the perpetual hardship of the African-American working on her shores. In the original lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, Joe comes across as impassive and resigned, with perhaps the subtlest touch of political discontent with his lot and that of his people. Beginning in 1938, whenever Robeson performed this song in concert, he changed the words, giving the song a very different feel:
•Instead of “Dere’s an ol’ man called de Mississippi, / Dat’s de ol’ man that I’d like to be,” Robeson sang “There’s an ol’ man called the Mississippi, / That’s the ol’ man I don’t like to be.”
•Instead of “Tote that barge! / Lift that bale! / Git a little drunk, / An’ you land in jail,” Robeson sang “Tote that barge and lift dat bale!/ You show a little grit / And you lands in jail.”
•Most strikingly, instead of “Ah gits weary / An’ sick of tryin’; / Ah’m tired of livin’ / An skeered of dyin’, / But Ol’ Man River, / He jes’ keeps rolling along!”, Robeson sang “But I keeps laughin’/ Instead of cryin’ / I must keep fightin’; / Until I’m dyin’, / And Ol’ Man River, / He’ll just keep rollin’ along!”
Gone is any sense of impassivity or complacency. Instead of drinking, it’s standing up for yourself, speaking your mind, and organizing for rights that provokes the response of the law. Resignation is replaced by an unquenchable spirit. Instead of feeling sympathy for Joe, the audience is moved by his resilience in the face of oppression, perhaps even moved to action.
I could write about this man for days on end. The son of an escaped slave, he attended Rutgers University on a football scholarship (the third Black student in their history), winning academic, oratorical, and athletic awards, including two first-team All American selections, and graduated valedictorian. He attended Columbia Law School, supporting his studies with off-Broadway performance and a side job playing the End and Tackle positions at an upstart organization called the National Football League. He starred in Emperor Jones, the first Hollywood film with a leading Black actor. He was the first Black actor to play the title role of Othello on Broadway with a white supporting cast, and the first to do so in London since the great Ira Aldridge. Though he isn’t remembered as he might have been, he has been cited as an influence in the work of artists James Baldwin, Sidney Poitier, and James Earl Jones (who performed an acclaimed one man show based on Robeson), and was a model for the artist-as-activist model that became so important to the Civil Rights Movement.
Robeson was a great artist by any measure, but that wasn’t the end of his story– it was the beginning. The troubles he went through, and the corresponding collapse of his legacy in America, say much more about us as a nation than they say about him as an artist.
While I always loved music, it wasn’t until I discovered Robeson in my teens that music began to seem a possible avenue for my life’s work. That an artistic life could be so fully realized, and at the same time so interwoven and relevant to public life (for nothing could speak more clearly as to what a society fears than repression of its outspoken public figures) was, and is, a revelation.I leave you with his epitaph, recorded in a message commemorating fallen Welsh fighters on the anti-fascist side of the Spanish Civil War: “The artist must take sides. He must elect to fight for freedom or slavery. I have made my choice. I had no alternative.”
NYFOS is celebrating our co-founder Steven Blier this week! In honor of his birthday on November 25, each Song of the Day post this week will be a tribute to him. Happy Birthday, Steve! We hope you enjoy these and have a wonderful week!
Today’s post comes from Steve’s former student and NYFOS artist Hal Cazalet:
My song of the week for Steve is “Till The Clouds Roll By”, music by Jerome Kern and lyrics by P G Wodehouse from the 1917 Broadway musical Oh Boy!
“The Schubert of the American Song” – Steve Blier describing Jerome Kern.
Happy birthday to you, my dear Mr Blier. I wanted to send you a birthday tune I know is close to both of us and that I hope makes your day even more beautiful.
There is something quite wonderful about the impression this music has on our sophisticated ears nearly 100 years on. There seems a bygone innocence in the style and manner, a simple truth in the melody, naivety in the lyric, yet for all its lighthearted charm and fun, there seems something inexplicably moving in its effect. Music that goes to the heart is rather rare in stage musicals today, but it seems the great inaugurators of the American musical, Guy Bolton, Jerome Kern and P G Wodehouse, had the ability to connect with the emotions of their audience without ever seeming to make an effort.
Oh Boy! was one of the Princess Musicals and notably, made a name of Beatrice Lillie who took the roll of Jackie in London production in 1919 following the Broadway transfer. The plot is full of the usual Wodehouse/Bolton antics – Polo Players, a character described as ‘a Dandy’, a befuddled leading man trying to elope with the girl while avoiding her Quaker aunt. All wonderful stuff that is a perfect tonic in the uncertain world we live in today. Strange, and yet heartening to think that when America joined WW1 in April 1917, Oh Boy! was on Broadway and would continue its run for most of that year – just think of the comfort it must have given to the New York spirit back then. George Orwell described the fanciful world of the Princess Musicals as ‘The Garden of Eden’, a haven of escape, delight and joy. I hope, SB, that your day is jam packed with all three. I suppose all honest music moves us because it needs no where to hide.
Happy birthday old horse,
I am sending 2 versions. The first is the John McGlinn recording and the second is the original which is so wonderfully audacious!
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