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