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Why Are Songs About Spring So Sad?

Today is the first day of spring, a wonderful day of new life and new growth. So, I thought what could be better than to celebrate this day of new life and new growth than to find some songs about spring. I thought there would be some joyous songs, expressing new love or how lovely nature is or something similarly upbeat. What I found instead was an impressive barrage of downbeat songs about loneliness and heartbreak. Who knew that spring could bring out more misanthropes than Christmas?

Here is a song by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, called “Spring is Here,” which sounds like a nice sentiment, until you realize that they are writing about how spring may be here, but they don’t notice because they are all alone. I really like this version, sung by Frank Sinatra. I generally prefer his earlier stuff to his later work; he seems to get too slick in his performance later, but has a touching pathos early on.

And here is another lovely, lonely, heartbreaking song called “Spring Will Be A Little Late This Year,” by Frank Loesser (“Guys and Dolls,” “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying”). It is sung by the great Sarah Vaughan. This song details how the singer has been left by their love, so now spring isn’t coming, or is coming more slowly.

Now this song is trying to have it both ways, though on the whole it is a more positive song. “April Showers,” made famous by Al Jolson, though sung here by Sinatra. Apparently, April sucks, but at least the second half of spring gets better. The rain and troubles bring flowers in May. I think it is significant that this song was written in 1921. There was a depression going during 1920-1921, to be followed by a relatively quick bounce back and the roaring twenties.

If you go to youtube and type in Ella Fitzgerald and spring, about a half dozen songs come up: “Spring Is Here,” “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most,” “I’ve Got the Spring Fever Blues.” I was wondering if “It Might as Well be Spring,” from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s State Fair should count as a spring song. It’s not technically about spring. The singer is in love and all in a flutter and restless and that “it might as well be spring,” but it’s not actually spring, though at least the singer is in a relatively happy state and new love is being born, which is a sentiment consonant with new birth in spring.

Finally, I did manage to locate one genuine happy springtime song, meant to be sung specifically during spring (though it is not a Jazz standard or standard of The Great American Songbook). It is from Seven Brides for Seven Brothers: “Spring, Spring, Spring.” Six brothers and their girlfriends welcome the coming of spring after a very, very long winter in the mountains.

 
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Posted by on March 20, 2015 in Great American Songbook

 

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Further Thoughts on Destry Rides Again – Marlene Dietrich and Femme Fatales

Marlene Dietrich as Frenchy

Marlene Dietrich as Frenchy

Last year I wrote a post about the movie Destry Rides Again, a comedic Western with James Stewart and Marlene Dietrich. I really enjoyed it, so several days ago I watched it again. It’s an extremely entertaining film that is also thoughtful. There is an underlying theme about how playing the way that your enemy plays opens you up to your enemy’s fate. Those who live by the sword die by the sword; or by the gun. It’s a curious point to make in 1939, when WWII was just getting underway, but perhaps what really stood out about the movie was how civilization wins out over lawlessness and brutality.

Tom Destry, Jr. (James Stewart) is determined to clean up the town of Bottleneck and believes that you can’t do it by using the methods of the enemy. If you do that, suddenly you’ve undermined your own goal. When he does take up arms, that decision has very serious consequences for him.

But what I was also thinking about when I watched it again was the role of saloon singer, Frenchy, played by Marlene Dietrich.

Frenchy is an interesting character. I am used to the idea of the saloon singer who has a heart of gold and that was my expectation of her coming into the movie. However, she’s really more of a femme fatale, who can recognize goodness. At the beginning, she helps her boyfriend and boss, Kent (Brian Donlevy) cheat a man out of his land and evinces no qualms when Kent kills the first sheriff. She rules at the saloon, almost more than Kent; though he is the one driving the quest for land. She seems happy to assist him,though, and rake in the money.

She also knew that Kent and his gang were going to break out their man from prison later in the film and that they would kill anyone who got in their way. She makes sure that Destry is not there, but as a result, the second sheriff is alone and he is killed. The only truly redeeming thing about her character is that she cares for Destry, though ultimately she is able to achieve redemption by dying for him.

Frenchy shows Destry how he can clean up the town while Kent looks on

Frenchy shows Destry how he can clean up the town while Kent looks on

In a contemporary movie, I don’t know if she would have died. There are so many things about her that we admire today. She can not only compete, but win, in a rough and tough man’s world. She is exactly the sort of fun and tough character we love. But in 1930s-’50s movies, the code dictated that people in movies had to pay the price for their crimes. If the film was made today, she would probably not only live, but get the guy. I’m not sure, though, if that would have been more satisfying or not. I have a sneaking feeling that it wouldn’t be.

She also represents our sneaking admiration for a more wild time. We don’t really want to live in a town where the sheriff can be shot and the gambling isn’t honest and the men are spending more time in a saloon than at home, but it’s fun to watch. We like femme fatales, we just don’t want them to win. And that’s the point about Frenchy. She really is a femme fatale, though a sympathetic one. It’s hard to imagine her settling down to civilized life. She belongs to the wild west and when that goes, she has to go, too. She is part of the lawlessness that gets overwhelmed by Destry’s law and order.

I really enjoy this movie. Despite the more serious points, the film is really an excuse to have a lot of fun and the film never allows its more serious points to overwhelm the general tone of the film.

There also some fun songs in the film, sung by Marlene Dietrich and written by Frank Loesser (who wrote the songs for “Guys and Dolls”) and Frederick Hollander (who had to leave Germany in 1933 because he had Jewish ancestors). This video is of Marlene Dietrich singing “Little Joe” from the movie, with movie stills from the film.

“See What the Boys in the Backroom Will Have” is probably the most enduring of the songs from the film. In this video, Marlene Dietrich is entertaining the troops during WWII. A German who emigrated to Hollywood in the early thirties to work, she was a staunch anti-Nazi and entertained troops indefatigably during the war, even going near enemy lines in Germany to perform. She officially became a citizen of America in 1939, the same year that Destry Rides Again came out.

 

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Murder, He Says – the song

I’m not quite sure how I happened upon this song – I think I was looking up songs by Dinah Shore on youtube – but this quirky, jazzy song immediately tickled my fancy and you gotta love the catchy introduction to this song, which brings to mind a kind of lively detective-ish grooviness. I quickly memorized the lyrics and it is a favorite song to sing while blow-drying my hair (why I wait until after my shower to sing this particular song, I don’t know. It’s just a blow dryer song).

In this case, the title of the song does not refer to an actual murder. It refers to murder used as a slang term. The singer is dissatisfied with the vocabulary of her boyfriend, who always exclaims “murder” whenever they kiss. The song then goes on to recount the other slang terms he uses, such as ‘solid,’ ‘Jackson,’ and other colorful expressions that the singer finds markedly unromantic.

The song was written for the 1943 musical movie Happy Go Lucky, with Mary Martin, Dick Powell and Betty Hutton. The lyrics were written by Frank Loesser (known for writing both the lyrics and music for “Guys and Dolls” and “How to Suceed in Business Without Really Trying) and Jimmy McHugh. McHugh is a slightly forgotten composer – definitely unknown compared to George Gerswhin, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Rodgers & Hammerstein, even Rodgers & Hart.

However, many of his songs are an integral part of what is known as The Great American Songbook: popular American music from the 1920s-1950s, much of which was written for movies and musicals. Perhaps his most well-known song is “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” – though , ironically, there’s controversy over who actually wrote the song. Many people believe that the song was actually written by Fats Waller, who sold the song to McHugh.

Betty Hutton also recorded the song and her live version is something altogether more peppy than Shore’s. Actually, peppy doesn’t begin to do her performance justice. Bob Hope called her a “vitamin pill on legs.” It’s something to behold.

It is fun to imagine the influence this song might have had on popular culture. I can’t confirm any of this, but I wonder if it is possible to trace the title of this song to the title of Angela Lansbury’s show Murder, She Wrote. I read that the show might have gotten its title from the 1961 movie, Murder, She Said, which was an adaptation of Agatha Christie’s novel 4:50 From Paddington, a Miss Marple mystery. There was also a 1945 comedy called Murder, He Says, starring Fred MacMurray. One wonders if the song influenced the title of the movie, which in turn could have influenced the title of the Miss Marple movie and then on to the famous TV show. It could just be a coincidence, though.

 
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Posted by on June 11, 2014 in Great American Songbook

 

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