Thursday, September 15, 2005

Blues in the Night and That Old Black Magic

Two Harold Arlen classics by Fred Waring and His Pennsylvanians. These are "right out of the Great American songbook" (Cliche Alert, beeeeep, beeeep), which apparently is now called the "American songbook." Nobody informed me of this change, and I'm sick of it. Of not being informed, I mean. (Um, let me rephrase that....)

I love both songs, especially Blues in the Night (My Mama Done Tol' Me). And, while the words (by Johnny Mercer) are very artfully written, I wonder why people shy away from pointing out the racist, black-dialect nature of them. I mean, really. Johnny Mercer wrote a lot of, frankly, minstrel-style lyrics that are never acknowledged as such--Lazy Bones, Rockin' Chair, I Never Has Seen Snow, and Fare Thee Well to Harlem among them. By 20th-century standards, they's not tha' much better'n some o' them ol' Stephen Foster words, ya know. Yet, who catches hell? Foster, of course, who was black-dialecting it in the 19th century, after all, and not the 20th. But that's the difference. We're too close to the American-songbook era, probably, to admit that many of the "great" tunes were lyrically in a class with Mississippi Mud.

Personally, I think we can enjoy Mercer's lyrics and the tunes that went with them while being more honest about things. Racism was alive and well in popular music until not all that long ago.

In American Popular Song, Alec Wilder notes the twelve-bar blues structure of BITN's A section but fails to note that the B section is also in that form. I've always considered it an AABA blues, with only the bridge departing from the classic twelve-bar form, but that's just me.

Let's listen to Fred Waring and His Pennsylvanians in superb contemporary performances of Harold Arlen's Blues in the Night and That Old Black Magic.

Blues in the Night (My Mama Done Tol' Me) (Arlen-Mercer), Fred Waring and His Pennsylvanians, Paul Owens, soloist, 1942.

That Old Black Magic (Arlen-Mercer), Fred Waring and His Pennsylvanians, 1944.

These remarkable arrangements were written by Roy Ringwald. I suspect that the Pennsylvanian's treatment of BITN is closer to what Arlen wanted than the treatments by, say, Benny Goodman (with Peggy Lee) and Tommy Dorsey (with Jo Stafford), both of which were, well, blusier. Keep in mind that Arlen wrote a Blues Opera Suite for middlebrow-music Maestro Andre Kostelanetz.

These were rescued from a fairly trashed LP... so, sorry about the somewhat muffled sound.
Please save, rather than open, for best results. Unless you choose to play the file at, which works well, too!



Post a Comment

<< Home