Saturday, November 05, 2016

`It's Either Sadness or Happiness'

I grew up singing songs with lyrics by Johnny Mercer (and Hoagy Carmichael, and Irving Berlin, and Ira Gershwin . . .), while having no idea who he was. People my age thought lyric writing started with Dylan and Lennon/McCartney. Every song before that came with words straight from the factory, a sort of mechanized immaculate conception. Consider “Blues in the Night,” a song I assumed was titled “My Mama Done Tol’ Me.” Here’s the opening verse, according to The Complete Lyrics of Johnny Mercer (Alfred A. Knopf, 2009), edited by Robert Kimball, Barry Day, Miles Kreuger and Eric Davis:

“My mama done tol’ me
When I was in knee-pants [or pigtails, for female singers]
My mama done tol’ me –son [or hon]
A woman’ll [man’s gonna] sweet-talk
And give ya the big eye
But when that sweet talkin’s done
A woman’s [man is] a two-face,
A worrisome thing who’ll leave ya t’sing
The blues in the night.”

The music is by the great Harold Arlen, composed for use in a movie in 1941. As usual, Mercer wrote his lyrics after the composer had already written the music. The film had the working title of Hot Nocturne (sounds like Ellington), but was renamed Blues in the Night after the song. In the film, “Blues in the Night” is sung during a scene set in a jail cell by William Gillespie, who had a beautiful baritone and goes uncredited.

Here is the version I grew up hearing, by Ella Fitzgerald. And here is a gorgeous instrumental version, performed by Art Pepper on clarinet. One more time: Mercer and Jo Stafford singing “Blues in the Night.” The editors of Complete Lyrics report:

“Mercer’s own mama, Miss Lillian, lived near Five Mile Bend, where the trains turned, and she always remembered the sad sound of their whistles (`A-whooee-duh-whooee’). `Trains are a marvelous symbol,’ Mercer noted. `Somebody’s always coming in or leaving on one, so it’s either sadness or happiness.’”  

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