A Melodious Plea
“Moon Song” by Arthur Johnston, lyrics by Sam Coslow
I don’t have much to say about “Moon Song” except that it is one of my favorite songs, especially this delightful version from the great Louis Armstrong Meets Oscar Peterson album. These are two more of my favorite American artists and although both are immaculate musicians with incredible chops and musicality, what really makes them special is the joy, warmth, and sincerity they bring to their music making. The compliment that I most appreciate after a performance (not that I am drowning in compliments lol) is “I can tell how much you love singing.” I am so touched by that kind of comment because it’s true, it makes me feel seen, and it makes me glad to know that at least something true was shared on stage. My love of singing is humbling in the sense that I really need it! I would be screwed without it! And I am so grateful for the people who see the parts of myself that I don’t know how to show when I am not singing. It is a gift of empathy and compassion to take in what a singer is trying to say, so I wish to thank most deeply the people who pay attention to the work I am doing. It’s hard to show yourself and let yourself be seen, and I love singing for giving me a way.
Even when the thing you are sharing is heartbreaking, music creates an outlet, a kind of exhaust pipe so the bad thoughts and feelings don’t recirculate inside with their deleterious toxicity. And even when the feeling you’re expressing is pain, there is always a pleasure—physical and mental—in the act of music making. This song and this performance remind me that joy and pleasure can be found even in the midst of suffering. Among the long list of moon meaning, one is certainly solitude which, looked at on certain nights, can be called loneliness. I feel a bit like the moon often when I am traveling for work for long spells alone. It feels like being a satellite floating between my work as a musician and the rest of my life, unable to land at one spot since I need them both. That moon song may turn out to break your heart when you realize it wasn’t meant for you, but, even so, who would wish they’d never heard it?
We kick off our week of W.C. Handy songs with his biggest hit, “St. Louis Blues,” a song that has been so-often recorded that no full accounting of the recordings is possible, to be counted in thousands, not hundreds, starting in 1914. Handy wrote the song on a single night at the end of that summer, the year after he founded the Pace and Handy Music Company. His partner Harry Pace was a business genius, which permitted Handy to concentrate on his increasingly busy performing career, punctuated by the occasional song composition and/or arrangement. “St. Louis Blues” has been recorded by everyone from Memphis street singers to Country-Western singers, avant-garde Jazzers, Bing Crosby with the Duke Ellington Orchestra, Guy Lombardo (a remarkably good version), and Minnie Mouse, and it was performed by Ella Fitzgerald dozens of times, some fortunately immortalized on live recordings. It also appeared in dozens of movies from the 1930s to the 1950s, often to signify sin, especially when connected with the great Barbara Stanwyck. By this time, the song had become so globally popular you could hear it in a nightclub in Sydney, Seoul, Moscow, or Calcutta. A group of African Americans, visiting a Paris nightspot, were serenaded with “St. Louis Blues,” as if it were the U.S. national anthem (maybe it is). The apotheosis of Handy on record is the 1954 LP “Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy,” produced by the legendary George Avakian. Armstrong had recorded the song many times before, and his slow version backing Bessie Smith in 1923 is a treasure. But here, with his All-Stars, Louis really pulls out all the stops, from his impromptu verses to his searing trumpet lines. At a little over 5 minutes into the track, listen for Barney Bigard’s wonderful clarinet solo. Like Armstrong a New Orleans musician, Bigard had the distinction of being the only permanent member of not only Armstrong’s band but also the orchestras of Duke Ellington and King Oliver. This brief solo shows us why. Enjoy.
I’m honored to be invited to contribute to NYFOS’s Song of the Day for a second time. As summer gets into full swing, this week I wanted to feature a few songs that celebrate the season. Here to start us off are the incomparable Louis and Ella with “Summertime.”
Today’s Song of the Day selection comes from New York Times columnist Joe Nocera:
On March 7, 1965, Louis Armstrong was in Denmark, where he watched in horror the televised images of civil rights marchers in Selma being brutally attacked by police. When Danish reporters asked Armstrong for his reaction, he said angrily that he had become “physically ill” watching the beatings, and added, “They would beat Jesus if he was black and marched.” Beloved around the world, at the peak of his fame, Armstrong’s remarks made headlines worldwide.
Three weeks later, Armstrong’s concert tour brought him to East Berlin for his first-ever gig in Soviet Eastern bloc. At a press conference, East German reporters peppered him with questions about Bloody Sunday—but he refused to repeat any of the things he had said in Denmark. Instead, he sat grim-faced, puffing on a cigarette, testily deflecting questions about how he was treated in the South.
As it turns out Armstrong did have something to say in East Berlin about Bloody Sunday, something he powerfully conveyed through his music. Decades earlier, Armstrong had appeared in the all-black musical “Hot Chocolate,” which was bankrolled by the gangster Dutch Schultz. According to the Armstrong biographer Ricky Riccardi, Schultz wanted the show’s song-writers, Fats Waller and Andy Razaf, to include a tune about dark-skinned women losing men to lighter-skinned women. Waller and Razaf complied by writing “(What Did I Do To Be So) Black and Blue.” It included this offensive line: “I’m white inside, but that don’t help my case/’cause I can’t hide what is on my face.” Though Armstrong played the song for years afterwards, but he had taken it out of his repertoire a decade or so earlier.
That night in East Berlin, however, he revived “Black and Blue,” but with a crucial lyric change. He sang, “I’m right inside, but that don’t help my case/’cause I can’t hide what is on my face.” The song concludes, “My only sin is in my skin/What did I do to be so black and blue?” Armstrong had turned “Black and Blue” into a song of racial protest, one that he would continue to play for the rest of his life.
Here is Louis Armstrong and his band playing “Black and Blue,” in East Germany, March 22, 1965:
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