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
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