Another One

Can you stand another music post? If not, feel free to skip today’s post. I promise I won’t be offended.

It struck me the other day that there’s a medical crisis on our hands. It’s not as flashy as the current pandemic, but it’s been slowly building for the past eighty years or more.

Tony Bennett, of course, left his heart in San Francisco.

Sammy Kaye, Charlie Spivak, Jo Stafford, and the gods only know how many others left their tickers at the Stage Door Canteen.

And that only begins to cover the extent of the problem.

Pepe Llorens’ heart is in Barcelona. Nadia’s is in somewhere California–or perhaps scattered in pieces around the state. Want to check Herb Jeffries’ cardiac health? Better head for Mississippi.

It gets worse.

Edmund Hockridge deposited his heart in an English garden, Linda Scott abandoned hers in the balcony of her local theater–last row, third seat; if she ever wants it back, at least she knows where to look for it. And poor Ernie Tubb left half of his in Texas and the other half in Tennessee.

I could go on, but you get the gist.

Eighty years of research and yet medical science has yet to find a way to keep singer’s hearts in their chests where they belong.

It’s a crying shame.

Changing tracks (sorry).

Anyone else remember the Andrews Sisters “Three Little Sisters“?

The punch line of the song is the one about “tell it to the marine“. But in which sense?

The original meaning, dating back to at least the early 1800s, implies “because nobody else is dumb enough to believe it”. But the more recent American implication–circa 1900–is “because they’re the only ones who can do something about it.”

So which is it: are the girls going out on the town, or entertaining the troops at home?

Either way, it’s not a flattering portrait of those teenagers.

Of course it’s possible the song doesn’t know the whole story. Maybe whatever it is the young woman are doing is fully consensual, and the magazine bit is just a cover story for the girls’ parents, the armed forces censors, and anyone else who might get their hands on their letters.

Remember, no email or social media in 1942.

Now that I think about it, the song does say they’ll be “true until the boys came back”. Not a word about their plans for thereafter.

Let us not forget that Kerista was founded in the mid-Fifties. The philosophical underpinnings didn’t come out of nowhere.

I’m sure it purely coincidental that the founder, John Presmont, was–if contemporary accounts can be believed–an Air Force officer during World War 2. Still…one can only wonder how the Summer of Love might have evolved had there been four little sisters.

Getting to Bewildered

Some songs, though raise much more difficult questions.

Remember “Linda”? (Yeah, I’m sticking with the Forties here. Please place any objections in that circular filing cabinet over there. Thank you.)

The lyrics aren’t too bad. Okay, I’m stumbling a bit over why our narrator thinks telling his beloved that she puts him to sleep is a compliment. Other than that, however, it’s a fairly normal pop song.

The thing is, the song lyrics don’t tell the whole story here. See, the lyric sheet doesn’t include the spoken word segments that open and close the recording (dramatized here).

Yes, the post-WW2 period was one of great social change. I get that. And yeah, by some accounts, there was a shortage of eligible males in the latter half of the decade.

But, really!

How does Linda not notice that her stalker has completely failed to answer her perfectly reasonable question? Or does she expect to be ignored? What does that say about her upbringing?

She obviously doesn’t know–or doesn’t care about–the warning signs of an overly controlling, potentially abusive, partner. And that outro feels one set of broadcast standards away from “Forget about the coffee and talking, let’s just go to bed.”

The song–though not, I think, the framing device–was written for a young girl. Is it intended as a proper model for her behavior? An exaggeration for effect? It’s certainly not presented as a cautionary tale. And at the time the song was written, the girl in question* was less than a year old.

* Irrelevant to this discussion, the original Linda was Linda Eastman, the future wife of Paul McCartney–who wrote a few question-worthy lyrics himself. Clearly there’s a generational influence happening here.

And, of course, some questions can’t be answered. “Ain’t Nobody’s Business” springs to mind*.

* First published in 1922, but the most popular version is arguably Jimmy Witherspoon’s 1947 release.

When the singer talks about jumping into the ocean, she’s not talking about a little dip. The ocean gives and the ocean takes away; is suicide really nobody’s business but the principal? Morality aside, if the water gives back a body, someone has to deal with it.

Maybe it isn’t anyone’s business but those involved if a woman gives all her money to “a friend”, her man, or her father (or is that still “my man”? The language is ambiguous)–or the other way around, for that matter–but wouldn’t most people agree that an intervention is the correct response, especially if there’s physical abuse involved?

How did this song become such a huge hit?

Bewildered, Bothered, Not Bewitched

I can’t be the only person who finds popular music befuddling.

Not in a “how could anyone like that garbage” sense. Every group has been using that line against the music of anyone they don’t like for the last ten thousand years or more.

But we all have moments where a lyric just stops us dead in our tracks while we try to figure out what the heck someone is singing about.

Case in point: “On the Atchison, Topeka, and The Santa Fe“. The Johnny Mercer song–though I don’t doubt the Judy Garland song has a few headscratchers of its own.

But really: If the schedule is so regular that people use the train as a clock, why does the narrator need to tell Jim to get the rig? Doesn’t Jim know it’s that time already? And how big is that rig–it’s got to hold all the passengers from that “pretty big” list and their luggage. I suppose Jim could make multiple trips, but if everyone is going to Brown’s hotel, is that really the most efficient use of Jim’s time and effort?

Come to think of it, why Brown’s hotel? Is the town big enough to support multiple hotels? If not, why does the narrator specifically say “Brown’s”? Wouldn’t “the” be sufficient? Or if there are multiple hotels in town, why is Brown’s getting all the railroad business–does the singer get a kickback from the hotel for sending Jim’s passengers there instead of spreading the business around? Or does he just dislike the owners of the others?

Maybe these aren’t questions of great cosmic importance, but they’re the kind of thing that keeps me awake at night.

Don’t think this sort of confusion is rare. Consider “A-Tisket, A-Tasket“.

How does the singer know a little girl found the dropped basket, much less that she put it in her pocket? She isn’t reviewing security camera footage; not in the 1940s, certainly. Eyewitnesses? But if she’s found enough of those to confirm the kid grabbed the basket, shoved it in a pocket, and strolled off with it, wouldn’t one of them be able to identify the girl, or at a minimum, tell the singer which direction she went?

Come to that, if the basket was so important, how did she not notice she’d dropped it? Is this some kind of sting operation?

Did girl’s clothes in the 1940s have bigger pockets than girl’s clothes do today? Apparently so. Even if the basket was little, how the heck did the little girl get it in a pocket? And not just get it in, but have it be comfortable enough that she didn’t immediately pull it back out and carry it. It couldn’t have been all that tiny, after all, as the singer implies it was large enough to hold a letter.

This story isn’t adding up. At the beginning of the song, the basket is “green and yellow”, yet just a few verses later, it’s very definitively yellow. In fact, it’s specifically, not green (or red or blue) but yellow. And little.

Wait a second. A letter to her mommy? Where is Mommy that the singer couldn’t just give it to her instead of mailing it? And why is she more concerned about the basket than the letter? Was it a gift from Mommy?

Is it just my imagination, or is this getting awfully deep–and confusing–for a song based on a nursery poem?

And don’t be fooled by the fact that both of these songs are pushing 70. Confusing popular songs are a universal. I’d be willing to bet you can think of an example from your favorite decade with no effort at all.

Small Potatoes

Some things just don’t age well.

Take songs, for instance. Have you listened to the Beatles’ “Run For Your Life” lately? It starts out with “Well, I’d rather see you dead, little girl / Than to be with another man” and goes downhill from there. I don’t know how well it went over in ’65, but today? Not good at all. Nor is it the worst offender in the “relations between the sexes” category.

Remember “Go Away, Little Girl” (co-written by Carole King, yet!)? If the singer can’t resist her, why is it her responsibility to stay away from him? Is a restraining order appropriate about now?

By comparison, my current pet peeve in the “what was the writer thinking” sweepstakes is small potatoes, but still…

The radio woke me up this morning to “Deacon Blues,” which was, as some of you may remember, a hit for Steely Dan in the late seventies.

Mostly I take issue with the chorus.

“I’ll learn to work the saxophone”. Has anyone in the 173-year history of the instrument used this phrase? Nobody works a sax. They play it, just like any other musical instrument.

Yeah, okay, maybe it’s a regional thing. I’ll let it pass, because that’s not my major complaint about the song.

“Drink Scothc whisky all night long / And die behind the wheel.”

Did we really need a glorification of someone planning on committing suicide by driving drunk? Sure, you can read it other ways: the inevitability of a pathetic death, maybe.

But.

Perhaps it’s arrogance, but I think my interpretation is the likely one in modern ears.

I’m not boycotting my radio station, but I will change the channel or turn off the radio if that song comes on when I’m awake enough to reach the buttons.

Because there are already enough idiots on the road to give me nightmares. Weaving in and out of traffic at high speed, cutting across multiple lanes at the last second, and ignoring all traffic indicators. And that’s before they get on the highway and (probably) before they have a drink.

I know, I know. Not only have you all heard my griping already, but one outdated pop song isn’t going to make any real difference. It’s the attitude that chaps my ass. The song may have been written forty years ago, but the protagonist’s air of entitlement could have come out of today’s newspaper.

“Call me Deacon Blues”? Yeah, you can call yourself whatever you want, but “Call me Traffic Fatality In the Making” seems more appropriate. But I suppose that doesn’t scan. Too bad.

Still, there are signs of hope on the street.

Last night, the traffic lights were out at the foot of the freeway exit ramp we use. This is an ugly intersection: a major on- and off-ramp with dedicated carpool/HOV lanes meets a major commute arterial that connects I-80 and I-580.

In the normal course of things, the lights are all but ignored. Drivers don’t just stretch the yellow, they snap it in half and pee on the pieces in the cause of saving a couple of seconds.

Last night, with not a police officer in sight, everybody stopped at the intersection and politely took turns going through it. I’ve never seen traffic move through there so smoothly.

Nothing wrong with small potatoes.

What Was That Song Again?

I’ve used a huge number of words on this blog complaining about the short attention spans of the American population. Apparently I owe some of the population an apology.

I was browsing through the July browsing trends on Google and was stunned by ten top searches for songs.

The Number One song on the list is Happy Birthday. Let that sink in for a moment… Now let this sink in: It was also the most-searched song last month and has been in the top ten for the past eighteen months. That’s right: for a year and a half–longer than I’ve been writing this blog–Americans have been desperate to find a song they’ve heard at least once a year for their entire lives.

What’s going on here? Can the public not remember the words from year to year? Are they looking for recordings so they don’t have to strain their vocal chords with a fifteen second tribute to their loved ones? Maybe they can’t remember the tune? No, forget that last one; if it were The Star-Spangled Banner I might buy that, but Happy Birthday barely has a melody in the first place.

Speaking of The Star-Spangled Banner, guess what’s in third place? That’s right! The American national anthem. That’s been in the top ten for thirty-nine months, more than three years. Again, this is a song is pounded into every American’s head from childhood on. It’s taught in school*. It’s played at every sporting event (and we’ve seen that Americans are obsessed with sports). Why this strange determination to find it online?

* Well, the first verse is. But since that’s the only verse anyone ever sings, it doesn’t affect the argument any. All those searches aren’t coming from people who want the rest of the lyrics.

I’ll admit it’s damn near impossible to sing if you’re not drunk (the tune is lifted from an Eighteenth Century English song celebrating the pleasures of wine, women, and–amusingly recursively–song). Even so, it seems unlikely that all the searches are coming from people looking for recordings to play at the neighborhood kids’ soccer game. Maybe it’s drunks looking for sheet music? That seems doubtful too. Aside from the fact that alcoholic indulgence increases the drinker’s confidence in his memory, there just aren’t enough Americans who can read printed music to generate those kinds of numbers.

Still, the fact that both songs have remained in the top ten so long does run counter to claims that America’s attention span is declining. The rest of the list also supports the idea that Americans are capable of remembering things beyond a single twenty-four hour news cycle.

At Number Two, we have Let It Go, from Frozen. The song has only been on the list for three months, but the movie came out last year. Apparently people can remember last November if the spectacle is large enough.

Further support from positions Four through Seven: Katy Perry’s Dark Horse was released last September, as does Ylvis’ The Fox. Magic!’s Rude goes back to last October, and Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, which has racked up twenty-three months in the top ten, dates back to 1984!

This leads me to offer a suggestion to any activists concerned that their causes might get lost after the next news cycle. (Yes, I realize that’s all of them.) The evidence suggests that if you can set out your concerns in a single verse and set it to the tune of a popular song celebrating sex, drugs, and/or rock ‘n’ roll, you can stay in the public’s mind for years.

Just ask Arlo Guthrie