Thursday, March 10, 2016

`We Lived Our Little Drama'

We leave for Atlanta today and expect to spend tonight in Mobile. This will be my first visit to two of the states along the way, Mississippi and Alabama, the birthplaces of, respectively, Chester Burnett (aka Howlin’ Wolf) and Hiram King Williams (aka Hank). We’ll be listening to both on the drive but the song most on my mind will be “Stars Fell on Alabama,” especially Jack Teagarden’s version. It was composed in 1934 by Frank Perkins, with lyrics by Mitchell Parish, who supplied Hoagy Carmichael with the lyrics for “Star Dust” and Duke Ellington with the words to “Sophisticated Lady.”

I’ve always been a sucker for the song, both the improbable rhyme scheme – “drama,” “Alabama,” “glamour,” “hammer” – and the melody. In American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, 1900-1950 (1972), Alec Wilder says, “I find the release much more interesting musically than the imitative chromatic phrases of the main strain,” and for once I disagree with Wilder. Listen to the way Teagarden yearningly sings “We kissed in a field of white . . .” As Mark Steyn says, “There's a real ache, a real yearning in the upward leap into the third bar of the main theme.”

The song’s title is borrowed from the title of a book published in 1934, Stars Fell on Alabama, written by Carl Carmer, a folklorist specializing in Americana who taught for six years at the University of Alabama. It refers to the night of Nov. 12-13, 1833, when a Leonid meteor shower fell on the state and much of the eastern part of the country. Carmer’s prose, like Parish’s lyrics, can be a little plummy (I have the 1961 paperback from Hill and Wang):

“Alabama felt a magic descending, spreading, long ago. Since then it has been a land with a spell on it—not a good spell, always. Moons, red with the dust of barren hills, thin pine trunks barring horizons, festering swamps, restless yellow rivers, are all part of a feeling—a strange certainty that above and around them hovers enchantment—an emanation of malevolence that threatens to destroy men through dark ways of its own.”

It’s a long way from Carmer’s apocalyptic vaporizing to what so many musicians have made of “Stars Fell on Alabama”: Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra, Erroll Garner, Art Tatum and Lionel Hampton, Stan Getz and the Cannonball Adderley Quartet

1 comment:

Marius Kociejowski said...

'Stars fell over Alabama' is also the opening line of Bob Dylan's "Cross the Green Mountain" one of his most haunting songs of recent years and, arguably, one of the best ever written about the American Civil War. A good artist is a good thief.