Thursday, August 29, 2013

`A Song Can Move You to Tears'

Even without thinking about the coming season I found myself humming “Early Autumn,” composed in 1949 by Ralph Burns and Woody Herman, with lyrics by Johnny Mercer. Herman’s band, the Second Herd, the so-called Four Brothers Band, had a hit with it that year that helped make Stan Getz a star, and Jo Stafford and Ella Fitzgerald also covered it. The phrase “Early Autumn” serves as the title of poems by Edward Dowden and Don Marquis, a story by Langston Hughes, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Louis Bromfield, a poetry collection by Geoffrey O’Brien and a mystery by Robert B. Parker. It’s a wistfully evocative pairing of trochees (think how different “Early Fall” would sound), suggesting life’s evanescence, and so forth – familiar ground for Mercer, who also wrote the fall-themed English lyrics to “Autumn Leaves.” Here are the words to “Early Autumn” as transcribed in Reading Lyrics (eds. Robert Gottlieb and Robert Kimball, 2000): 

“When an early Autumn walks the land
And chills the breeze
And touches with her hand
The Summer trees,
Perhaps you'll understand
What memories I own.
 There's a dance pavilion in the rain
All shuttered down,
A winding country lane all russet brown,
A frosty window pane shows me a town grown lonely.
That spring of ours that started
So April-hearted
Seemed made for just a boy and girl.
I never dreamed, did you,
Any Fall would come in view so early, early.
Darling, if you care,
Please, let me know,
I'll meet you anywhere,
I miss you so.
Let's never have to share
another early Autumn.” 

Three of the four seasons are named, capitalized into allegory, but the song, as is customary for the great “American Songbook” lyricists, is one individual speaking directly to another (not to a generation or the whole damned world). This lends the words a charged sense of intimacy. The “dance pavilion in the rain” reminds me of something in Cheever. The song’s one false note is “a town grown lonely” – too explicit and tritely forced – but Mercer recovers nicely with his subsequent rhyme -- “started” / “April-hearted” – and with the sad beseeching of “so early, early.” The conclusion is unpromising but not hopeless. Gene Lees writes in Portrait of Johnny: The Life of John Herndon Mercer (Pantheon Books, 2004): 

“The song is unique among literary forms, and by far the most exacting. It has the function of retarding emotional time, so that the listener can experience the feelings it is attempting to convey with an intensity comparable to the effect of watching the wings of a hummingbird in slow-motion cinematography. This is one reason a song can move you to tears.”

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