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Mark Steyn

Steyn's Song of the Week

The House I Live In

ImageWe had a Sinatra song from Canada for Dominion Day, and so we surely have to have an American Sinatra song for Independence Day. Frank sang all the familiar patriotic songs at some point or other over the years but without, it seems to me, really connecting with them: His versions of "America The Beautiful", for example, are perfectly fine, but without finding a way, as he does with his best recordings, to take the material to the next level. His attempts to bend the notes on "amber waves of grain" suggest a man trying to find a way to make the line come alive for him and not quite succeeding. Yet there is one song about America that Sinatra prized above all others: He sang it on screen, on stage, to at least three presidents, and to the Statue of Liberty. And he sang it for not quite half-a-century - for 49 years and some months, all the way to the end. In fact, it's the last track of the last studio album of Frank Sinatra's 55-year recording career. And through all those decades it begins, always, with a question:

What is America to me?
A name, a map, a flag I see
A certain word - democracy!
What is America to me?

And then the chorus proceeds to answer that question. Along the way the song answers a few other questions, too - like what's the connection between Frank Sinatra and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg?

The story begins with Frank on stage - not at the Paramount or any other theatre, but at a high-school auditorium in the Bronx. It's 1944, and George Evans, Sinatra's press agent, has been trying to promote his client as more than just a pop singer. The Hearst papers in particular have got it in for Frank, and Evans figures the way to counter that is to present Sinatra as something beyond mere showbiz. So he calls up a friend who happens to be a school principal and books Frank to give a talk to the l'il tykes on juvenile delinquency. Today, celebrity activists are a dime a dozen - Leonardo di Caprio on the environment, George Clooney on everything - but not seventy years ago. Sinatra thinks it's a dumb idea and that he's not qualified to give lectures to high-school students. But he goes along to the Bronx, and the story winds up on the front page of The Daily News, with a big picture of Frank talking to the pupils. So Evans puts together some more schoolhouse appearances across the country, and it gradually begins to dawn on Sinatra that there's a real rapport between him and these kids.

The message has evolved a little by now - it's about "tolerance", a theme close to the singer's heart: he had no use for bigotry and prejudice when it came to music or other aspects of his professional life, so he didn't see the point of it elsewhere in society either. "When I was going to school over in Jersey, a bunch of guys threw rocks at me and called me a little 'dago'," he'd tell the schoolkids. "I know now why they used to call the Jewish kids in the neighborhood 'kikes' and 'sheenies' and the colored kids 'niggers.' That was wrong." Any fellow who'd do such a thing would have to be "a Nazi or a dope" - and as the Third Reich was, in those early months of 1945, in the final stages of losing the war, the Nazis had pretty much wound up as dopes themselves - unlike America. As Frank saw it, "This country that's been built by many people, many creeds, nationalities and races ...should never be divided ...and can never be conquered." This was a sufficiently provocative thought seven decades ago that it's in Sinatra's FBI file.

Frank Ross thought it would be worth filming Frankie doing one of his tolerance pitches. Ross was married to the great Jean Arthur and had produced two of her recent films, The Devil And Miss Jones and A Lady Takes A Chance. Sinatra liked the idea and said he knew just the guy to direct - Mervyn LeRoy, whom he'd bumped into on a train a while back. LeRoy had a long list of credits from Gold Diggers of 1933 and I Am A Fugitive On A Chain Gang to Waterloo Bridge and Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo; he was the guy who'd green-lighted Wizard of Oz and (uncredited) shot significant bits of it as the production lurched from one director to another. So all of a sudden Sinatra had a viable team for a short film against bigotry.

The scenario, by writer Albert Maltz, reconfigured the singer's school speech as a dramatic scene. Frank Sinatra plays Frank Sinatra, and he's taking a smoking break from a recording session in a back alley when he comes across a bunch of kids chasing down some little Jewish boy:

SINATRA: Someone in for a lickin'?

BOY #1: You bet. We're gonna smear him.

SINATRA: Yeah, but ten against one - that's not very fair.

BOY #1: Aw, c'mon....[the gang attempts to push past Sinatra to get to the Jewish kid]

SINATRA: What's it all about?

BOY #1: None of your business.

SINATRA: Scared to tell me..?

BOY #2: We don't like him. We don't want him in our neighborhood or going to our school.

JEWISH BOY: I've been livin' here long as you.

SINATRA: What's he got - smallpox or somethin'?

Nah. They don't like his religion because "he's a dirty..." Sinatra says, "You must be a bunch of those Nazi Werewolves I've been readin' about", referring to the German plan for sabotage units of an anti-Allied resistance in liberated Europe. The kids don't take kindly to that:

BOY #5: Mister, are you screwy?

SINATRA: Not me. I'm an American.

BOY #6: Well whaddaya think we are?

SINATRA: Nazis.

BOY #1: Don't call me a Nazi. My father's a sergeant in the army. He's been wounded, even.

SINATRA: Wounded, eh? Say, I bet he got some of that blood plasma.

And then he asks the Jewish kid if his family ever gave to the blood bank, and boy, that dad in the army sure wouldn't like it if he'd known he was going to have all that Jew blood coursing through his veins, and he'd probably rather have died than "take blood from a man of another religion":

SINATRA: God created everybody... Your blood's the same as mine; mine's the same as his. Do you know what this wonderful country is made of? It's made up of a hundred different kind of people. And a hundred different ways of talking. And a hundred different ways of goin' to church. But they're all American ways. Wouldn't we be silly if we went around hating people because they combed their hair different than ours? Wouldn't we be a lot of dopes? My dad came from Italy. But I'm an American. Should I hate your father because he came from Ireland or France or Russia? Wouldn't I be a first class fathead? You guys remember Pearl Harbor? Why the Japs socked us so it looked like we could never do anything about it. But a couple of days later something very important happened... There was a Jap battleship, the Haruna, and one of our planes spotted it. You know what it takes to bomb a battleship? It takes guts and know-how and teamwork. And our boys sure needed plenty of it because that Jap was throwin' up enough flak to get out and walk home on. But the pilot had only one thing on his mind: to get over that ship. And he did. And then the bombardier pushed a button and a 500-hundred pound tomato smacked that Jap ship right in the middle ...and every American threw his head back and felt much better. The pilot of that ship was named Colin Kelly, an American and a Presbyterian. And you know who dropped the bombs? Meyer Levin, an American and a Jew. You think maybe they shoulda called the bombing off because they had different religions? Think about that, fellas. Use your good American heads. Don't let anybody make suckers out of you.

And then Frank says he has to get back to work and one of the kids asks what does he do. And Frank says, "I sing." So he has to sing something:

What is America to me?
A name, a map, a flag I see
A certain word - democracy!
What is America to me?

And having posed the question he starts to answer it:

The house I live in, a plot of earth, a street
The grocer and the butcher and the people that I meet
The children in the playground, the faces that I see
All races and religions, that's America to me...

He'd been singing it for a couple of months apparently. But it was, in fact, three years old, written for a Broadway revue called Let Freedom Sing! which opened at the Longacre Theatre on October 5th 1942 and was gone a week later: Let freedom flop. It fell to a classically trained singer called Mordecai Bauman to sing "The House I Live In". Brooks Atkinson, the New York Times drama critic, wrote: "Although Mordecai Bauman does not sing it particularly well, he sings it with earnest sincerity."

It's a song that demands a little more than "earnest sincerity", I think:

The place I work in, the worker by my side
The little town or city where my people lived and died
The howdy and the handshake, the air of feeling free
And the right to speak my mind out, that's America to me...

On stage through the Seventies, Eighties and Nineties, Sinatra would always put a bit of a defiant spin on that last line, as if he were asserting his right to speak his mind out right then and there and, if you got a problem with that, you're gonna have to get past him. "I can lick any sonofabitch in this joint," as he wound up telling the crowd at a high school in Gary, Indiana, when things got a little out of hand.

But, even had Mordecai Bauman wanted to test the waters for "earnest sincerity", there was a musicians' strike in 1942, so he couldn't record the song, and neither could anybody else. It seeped out to the world via the black vocal quartet the Delta Rhythm Boys, who sang it in the 1944 film Follow The Boys, complete with a potted history lesson in the middle section:

The words of old Abe Lincoln, of Jefferson and Paine
Of Washington and Jackson, and the tasks that still remain
The little bridge at Concord where freedom's fight began
Our Gettysburg and Midway and the story of Bataan...

That's quite a panorama, from the shot heard round the world 170 years earlier to a brutal death march in the Philippines the day before yesterday.

Did Sinatra see the Delta Rhythm Boys on screen? Or Mordecai Bauman on Broadway? Or was it just in a big pile of unsung songs that every songwriter and publisher sent his way? Wherever he heard it, by the spring of 1945 he'd decided to make "The House I Live In" the theme of his campaign against racial and religious bigotry. It was the song that sold Mervyn LeRoy on the picture, and gave it its title. They shot the film in a single day - May 8th 1945, the day the war ended in Europe - and they released it four months later on what, unbeknown to them, would become another landmark date: September 11th.

In concert in later decades, Sinatra would always credit the men who wrote "The House I Live In", even though, unlike Cole Porter or Rodgers & Hart, the names meant little to his audience. The composer was Earl Robinson and the lyricist was Lewis Allan. Robinson was best known for a 15-minute oratorio about freedom written with John Latouche called "Ballad for Americans". Latouche's most enduring hit is "Taking A Chance On Love", recorded by Frank in 1954, but, for a quarter-hour oratorio, "Ballad for Americans" was remarkably popular in the war years. Both Bing Crosby and Paul Robeson recorded it, and it was enthusiastically received at the national conventions of both the Republican Party and the American Communist Party.

Lewis Allan's best-known song was inspired by a newspaper story about the lynching of two Negroes, Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith. The accompanying photograph haunted him, until he had to write it out of his system:

Southern trees bear a Strange Fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black body swinging in the southern breeze
Strange Fruit hanging from the poplar trees
Pastoral scene of the gallant south
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh
And the sudden smell of burning flesh...

He gave it to a nightclub owner, who showed it to Billie Holiday, and she and Lewis Allan wound up with the first hit song about a lynching. Who was "Lewis Allan"? Well, his real name was Abel Meeropol, and if the change sounds like just a slightly more comprehensive version of the same assimilationist maneuver that translated Israel Baline into Irving Berlin and Jacob Gershowitz into George Gershwin, it was, in fact, more than that. Mr Meeropol chose the nom de plume "Lewis Allan" because they were the names of his two stillborn sons - a bleak fact that always hits me as unutterably sad whenever I'm reminded of it.

By 1945, it had been some six years since Abe Meeropol's hit with "Strange Fruit", and he was sorely in need of another. So you'd think he would have been delighted that the most popular vocalist in America had decided to resurrect a flop song of his as the title of the movie. But Meeropol didn't enjoy the film at all, and in fact grew so enraged at it that he had to be removed from the cinema. The reason was the second chorus:

The house I live in, my neighbors white and black
The people who just came here or from generations back
The town hall and the soapbox, the torch of Liberty
A home for all God's children, that's America to me...

The "neighbors white and black" was too much for RKO, so they dropped it. One could argue, from the luxury of seven decades on, that the short film surely ducks the real issue: The all-white gang hunt down a Jewish boy. Why not a black kid? Yet anti-Semitism was real in America and genocidal elsewhere in the spring of 1945. And one street gang can't hunt down representatives of every minority in five minutes. The only reference to color is in Sinatra's line "all races, all religions, that's America to me", and seventy years ago that was enough to persuade some southern theater owners that the film could not be shown to their customers. Whatever the make-up of the cast, there was no doubt about Sinatra's message: "A film that packs more power, punch and solid substance than most of the features ground each year out of Hollywood. The picture's message is Tolerance," wrote Cue magazine. "Mr Sinatra takes his popularity seriously. More, he attempts to do something constructive with it."

Frank, RKO, Mervyn LeRoy and the rest of the team donated their fees and the film's profits to various charities. At the Academy Awards the following spring, the film was singled out for an honorary Oscar. It turned out to be the high water mark for writer Albert Maltz's career. The following year - 1947 - he was one of the Hollywood Ten subpoenaed to testify before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee over their relationship with the Communist Party. They refused and were jailed in 1950 for contempt of Congress.

The composer of "The House I Live In", Earl Robinson, was also blacklisted, and left Hollywood to return to New York. He has the distinction, if that's the word, of having written presidential campaign songs for Franklin Roosevelt, Henry Wallace and Jesse Jackson. Of greater benefit to his bank statements, a song he wrote with Alan Arkin's dad about Brown vs Board of Education was recorded by a myriad of performers from Sammy Davis Jr to Three Dog Night. "I stayed in the Communist Party too long," said Robinson in 1989. "The party still has something to say, but I'm not sure it has anything worth listening to." He died in 1991 in a head-on auto collision on Southwest Admiral Way in the town of his birth, Seattle. A few weeks later, the man at the wheel of the other vehicle, Siver Hage, drove out of the city onto a dirt road in the countryside, pulled over, and shot himself.

As for Abel Meeropol and his wife, following the stillbirths of their two sons, they decided to adopt. In 1953, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were convicted of passing secrets to the Soviet Union and executed for treason. They left behind two boys - ten-year-old Michael and six-year-old Robert. The Meeropols adopted them, after a fierce legal battle, and the brothers took the name "Meeropol", it being easier to grow up with that than "Rosenberg". There wasn't much left of "Lewis Allan"'s songwriting career by then, but he wrote a faux folk song called "Apples, Peaches And Cherries" that Peggy Lee made a pleasant record of, but was given a much niftier French makeover and became a Number One on the Continent for the great Sacha Distel under the title "Scoubidou" (it's a song I always enjoy singing with francophone chums). And so it was that the children of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were raised on the royalties from a trio of songs recorded by Sacha Distel, Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra.

One assumes Meeropol, Robinson and Maltz ended their days with somewhat mixed feelings about "the house they lived in", at times very precariously. Yet even as they drifted further and further from the center of American life, the song, thanks to Sinatra, was embedded deeper and deeper within it. Frank wasn't exactly a Commie in the late Forties, but the Hearst columnist Lee Mortimer accused him of "veering to portside" and one notes that, a loyal FDR man, he apparently would have preferred, successor-wise, Henry Wallace to Harry Truman. Yet, as he embarked on his own political odyssey over the decades, Sinatra took "The House I Live In" with him. He organized the Kennedy inaugural gala, and sang it there (with Leonard Bernstein conducting) and then he did the same a generation later for Ronald Reagan. He sang it at a Martin Luther King fundraiser at Carnegie Hall and at the Nixon White House, with the US Marine Band. And 29 years ago today, he sang it on the eve of July 4th 1986 at the centennial observances for the Statue of Liberty. As Michael and Robert Meeropol wrote to the letters page of The New York Times:

To the Editor:

We were proud to hear our father's song 'The House I Live In' sung by Frank Sinatra as part of the 100th birthday celebration for the Statue of Liberty on July 3. Our father, Abel Meeropol (he wrote under the pen name Lewis Allan) adopted us shortly after our parents, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, were executed.

He lives in a nursing home near us and has been suffering from Alzheimer's disease for eight years.

A committed leftist all his life, he believed in our country's ideals.

As the verse about Lincoln and Jackson,Concord and Bataan suggests, Meeropol did not reject American history. As for "our country's ideals", another rarely sung quatrain is a blend of leftie egalitarianism and founding vision:

The house I live in, the goodness everywhere
A land of wealth and beauty. with enough for all to share
A house that we call Freedom, the home of Liberty
And it belongs to fighting people, that's America to me!

As Michael and Robert Meeropol told New York Times readers:

We hope that 'The House I Live In' will serve to remind all Americans that patriotism is not limited to the right wing.

Sinatra put it a little differently when he introduced the song at Madison Square Garden in 1974:

It's a song about this great, big, wonderful, imperfect country. I say imperfect because if it were perfect it wouldn't be any fun trying to fix it, trying to make it work better, trying to make sure that everybody gets a fair shake and then some. My country is personal to me because my father, who wasn't born here, rest his soul, he made sure that I was born here. And he used to tell me when I was a kid that America was a land of dreams and a dream land. Well, I don't know if our country fulfilled all of his dreams while he was alive, but tonight with all of us together for this hour it sure fulfills my dreams. And to all of you in the country and all of you watching tonight, here's a song about a place we call home - probably the greatest nation ever put on this earth:

What is America to me?
A name, a map, a flag I see...

His original recording for Columbia made the Hit Parade at the end of 1945. Eighteen years later, he went back into the studio and remade it with Fred Waring and his Pennsylvanians for the patriotic album America, I Hear You Singing. His last recording of "The House I Live In" was for the final track of his Duets II CD in 1994. Phil Ramone chose to pair Sinatra with Neil Diamond, who brought to the song all the bombast of his own "America" song from his ghastly 1980 remake of The Jazz Singer. "It's a good thing it's the last track on the album," said Sinatraphile Jonathan Schwartz on WQEW, "because once you've heard it you'll never want to hear it again."

Yet, live on stage, the song was always a powerful moment for the singer. He never failed to bring it conviction, and an obvious depth of feeling, to the point where he'd sometimes tear up afterwards. The man who had first sung it to American soldiers returning from the Second World War sang it to soldiers returning from the first Gulf War in 1991:

The things I see about me, the big things and the small
The little corner newsstand, and the house a mile tall
The wedding and the churchyard, the laughter and the tears
The dream that's been a growin' for a hundred and fifty years...

That's the original lyric, as sung on the Columbia record. One of the moving aspects of the song, as Sinatra grew with it, was that he and it outlived that line - "a hundred and fifty years" became "a hundred and eighty years" and them "about two hundred years" and finally, as in that Gulf War concert, "more than two hundred years..."

That was the dramatic high point for him, a crescendo for singer and band, and after savoring it he liked to bring it back down from the sweep of history to the intimate and the personal:

The town I live in, the street, the house, the room
The pavement of the city or a garden all in bloom...

More than 49 years after he had first sung the song for American school students, he sang it on stage for the last time, May 13th 1994, at the Sands in Atlantic City. As his introduction seemed to imply, he usually reserved it for grander, more formal occasions. But he seemed to intuit that he might not have time to wait for another one of those...

This is a strange piece of music to be sung in a saloon, but it belongs anywhere... I introduced it in a movie many, many years ago. It has to do with the great nation of ours, and, if you've never heard it before, I hope you'll like it...

For that movie of many, many years ago, the first arrangement was by Axel Stordahl, of course. At Capitol in 1957, he asked Nelson Riddle for a new chart. And for a 1976 bicentennial gala at the Jefferson Memorial Don Costa remodeled "The House" for the version that would stay with Frank all the way to the Sands in Atlantic City. But, through all those various versions, one thing never changed:

The church, the school, the club house, the million lights I see
But especially the people...

At that point the orchestra would swell with a musical quotation from "America The Beautiful", and then back to Sinatra:

...yes, especially the people, that's America to me!

I think he meant that. He liked purple-mountain majesties and fruited plains as much as the next chap, but he was never in doubt as to his response to that question he posed at the beginning:

What is America to me?

Across 49 years, his answer stayed the same: Frank Sinatra believed a great nation was its people.

Happy Independence Day!

~The Evil Blogger Lady also has a Glorious Fourth with Glorious Frank. For an alternative Sinatra Hot 100, the Pundette has also launched a Frank countdown. She's up to Number 50, a dice-rolling classic "Luck Be A Lady". Bob Belvedere over at The Camp Of The Saints is counting down his own Sinatrapalooza. At Number 32 Frank poses the musical question "Are You Lonesome Tonight?".

~You can find the stories behind many more Sinatra songs - including Cole Porter - in Mark Steyn's American Songbook, while Steyn's original 1998 obituary of Frank, "The Voice", can be found in the anthology Mark Steyn From Head To Toe. Personally autographed copies of both books are exclusively available from the SteynOnline bookstore.

SINATRA CENTURY
at SteynOnline

1) IT WAS A VERY GOOD YEAR

2) THE SONG IS YOU

3) HOME ON THE RANGE

4) AFTER YOU'VE GONE

5) IT HAD TO BE YOU

6) THE ONE I LOVE (BELONGS TO SOMEBODY ELSE)

7) LOVE'S BEEN GOOD TO ME

8) STARDUST

9) MY FUNNY VALENTINE

10) WHAT IS THIS THING CALLED LOVE?

11) CHICAGO

12) THE CONTINENTAL

13) ALL OF ME

14) WHEN YOUR LOVER HAS GONE

15) NIGHT AND DAY

16) I WON'T DANCE

17) I'VE GOT YOU UNDER MY SKIN

18) SOUTH OF THE BORDER

19) EAST OF THE SUN (AND WEST OF THE MOON)

20) ON THE ROAD TO MANDALAY

21) A FOGGY DAY (IN LONDON TOWN)

22) I GET A KICK OUT OF YOU

23) I'M A FOOL TO WANT YOU

24) OUR LOVE

25) ALL OR NOTHING AT ALL

26) I'LL NEVER SMILE AGAIN

27) FOOLS RUSH IN

28) MY ONE AND ONLY LOVE

29) EVERYTHING HAPPENS TO ME

30) I'LL BE SEEING YOU

31) THE WAY YOU LOOK TONIGHT

32) I'LL BE AROUND

33) THE NEARNESS OF YOU

34) PENNIES FROM HEAVEN

35) BLUES IN THE NIGHT

36) GUESS I'LL HANG MY TEARS OUT TO DRY

37) NANCY (WITH THE LAUGHING FACE)

38) SOMETHIN' STUPID

39) YOU MAKE ME FEEL SO YOUNG

40) I GET ALONG WITHOUT YOU VERY WELL (EXCEPT SOMETIMES)

41) SOLILOQUY

42) THE COFFEE SONG

43) I CONCENTRATE ON YOU

44) HOW ABOUT YOU?

from Steyn's Song of the Week Extra, July 3, 2015

 

How About You?

ImageDominion Day looms - on Wednesday - and we always like to have a Canadian song for the national holiday. Sinatra recorded many maple-infused numbers over six decades, from "I'll Never Smile Again" and "Put Your Dreams Away", both by my fellow Torontonian Ruth Lowe, all the way to Joni Mitchell's "Both Sides Now" and, of course, Paul Anka's "My Way" (he wrote the English lyric). But, for a great national occasion, I figured what could be more Canadian than...

I like New York in June
How About You?

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I Concentrate On You

ImageA Sinatra classic - as ballad, bossa or swinger

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The Coffee Song

Image

He was the saloon singer - quarter to three, set 'em up, Joe, drinkin' again and thinkin' o' when... spinning round in my brain, like the bubbles in a glass of champagne... But Sinatra liked a non-alcoholic tipple, too. He took "Tea For Two" with Dinah Shore in 1947, and in 1960 recorded "When I Take My Sugar To Tea". But he wasn't averse to something a little more caffeinated:

Way down among Brazilians
Coffee beans grow by the millions
So they've got to find those extra cups to fill...

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Soliloquy

ImageHappy Father's Day to you and yours. I miss my dad more and more as the years go by. Our Sinatra Century would be incomplete without this particular entry:..

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I Get Along Without You Very Well (Except Sometimes)

A one-hit wonder who never got to hear her one hit sung by anyone - from Sinatra to Molly Ringwald

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You Make Me Feel So Young

ImageOn January 9th 1956, Frank Sinatra went into the not yet famous Studio A of Capitol Records at Hollywood and Vine in Los Angeles for the first of a handful of sessions for a new album...

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Somethin' Stupid

ImageAs a companion piece to Friday's "Nancy (with the Laughing Face)", here's a Frank-and-Nancy moment from a couple of decades later...

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Nancy (With the Laughing Face)

ImageSeventy-one years ago this Monday, June 8th, a cute little four-year-old girl was having a birthday party, and a couple of pals of her dad decided to present her with a very special gift...

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Guess I'll Hang My Tears Out To Dry

ImageFrank Sinatra rescued a lot of songs over the years, but rarely on the scale he did with this one. It was from an awe-inspiringly hideous train-wreck of a musical. But Sinatra recorded it, and made it a standard - and the only torchy ballad of lost love whose central image is of laundry...

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Blues In The Night

ImageOn June 24th 1958 Nelson Riddle raised his baton, and Frank Sinatra made one of the greatest recordings of a great song...

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Pennies from Heaven

ImageThis one stayed in Sinatra's book almost to the end, mainly because he just had so much fun singing it...

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The Nearness of You

ImageWhat's the connection between Frank Sinatra and Mickey Rooney?

Oh, that's easy. They were both married to Ava Gardner.

What's the connection between Frank Sinatra and William Shakespeare?

Hmm, well, lemme see...

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I'll Be Around

ImageIn the pithy summation of Terry Teachout, Alec Wilder "spent his life looking for cracks to fall through". Back in the days when we still had record stores, he didn't quite fit the pop bins or the classical bins or the jazz bins. Which is why, if you're hung up on categorization, it's easier to leave him out of the store altogether...

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The Way You Look Tonight

ImageMany years ago - when a lot of the guys who wrote the American Songbook were still around - I started asking composers and lyricists to name their all-time favorite song. This one came right at the top...

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I'll Be Seeing You

ImageAs much as "It Had To Be You" or "The Way You Look Tonight", "I'll Be Seeing You" belongs to a select group of über-standards, the ones we'll still be singing when 90 per cent of the rest have fallen away. It's one of those "our song" songs - especially if you happened to find yourself on a railway platform in the early 1940s waving a loved one off to war...

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Everything Happens To Me

ImageWhen I first got interested in the great standard songs as a teenager, I sort of assumed that they were all written by the big names - Cole Porter, Gershwin. It took a while to dawn that not everything from, say, the Thirties was concocted by a major writer for a famous Broadway score or a Fred Astaire movie. So after a while, when I heard a song I liked, I'd say, "Hey, I wonder who wrote that." Quite often, the answer would be "Matt Dennis & Tom Adair". Let's just stick to the Sinatra end of their catalogue: Who wrote "The Night We Called It A Day"? Matt Dennis & Tom Adair. Who wrote "Let's Get Away From It All"? Matt Dennis & Tom Adair. Who wrote "Violets For Your Furs"? Matt Dennis & Tom Adair. Who wrote "Angel Eyes"? Matt Dennis. Who wrote "There's No You"? Tom Adair. And who wrote..?

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My One And Only Love

Before St George's Day fades for another year, I thought we'd have a Sinatra English song

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Fools Rush In

Image"Fools Rush In" isn't thought of as a Sinatra song. If you were anywhere near a jukebox or a transistor radio in the early Sixties, you'll think of it in Ricky Nelson's bouncy-bouncy teenypop arrangement. But once upon a time the song was new, and Frank Sinatra was the guy singing it...

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I'll Never Smile Again

ImageWe began the week with Sinatra's one big hit with the Harry James band. We end it with his first big hit with the Tommy Dorsey band. This essay contains material from Mark's book A Song For The Season:

I'll Never Smile Again
Until I smile at you
I'll never laugh again
What good would it do?

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All Or Nothing At All

ImageIt was June 1939 and the singer Louise Tobin was in her room in the Lincoln Hotel in Manhattan, packing for a gig in Boston with Bobby Hackett's band. Her hubby was napping on the bed. He was a trumpeter, name of Harry James, who'd just left Benny Goodman to put together his own orchestra. The radio was carrying a remote from some joint in New Jersey, and a male vocalist came on...

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Our Love

Someday someone should release an album called Classical Frank. I mentioned a couple of days ago that "Take My Love" was adapted from Brahms' Third Symphony. Aside from Brahms (whose Lullaby he also recorded), Sinatra sang over the years Anton Rubinstein, Grieg, Rachmaninov, Ravel and Borodin. That's to say, "If You Are But A Dream" (Rubinstein's Romance No 1), "I Love You" and "Strange Music" (Grieg's "Ich Liebe Dich" and "Wedding Day At Troldhaugen", respectively), "Full Moon And Empty Arms" and "I Think Of You" (both from Rachmaninov's Second Piano Concerto), "The Lamp Is Low" (Ravel's Pavane pour une infante défunte)...

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I'm A Fool To Want You

Image2015 is not only the centenary year of Frank Sinatra but also of Billie Holiday, born April 7th 1915 in Philadelphia. We will mark the occasion formally a little later this week, and acknowledge Sinatra's admiration for Holiday. But the respect was mutual, and on Billie Holiday's last major recording the stand-out track was a Sinatra song...

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I Get A Kick Out Of You

When Frank Sinatra was 18, it was a very good year. Anything Goes opened at the Alvin Theatre in November 1934 and provided young Frank with a slew of Cole Porter material he would sing in his maturity:.The title song turned up in 1956 on his landmark album Songs For Swingin' Lovers; "Easy To Love" was dropped at the insistence of leading man William Gaxton, but became a highlight of Sinatra's first album at Reprise...

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A Foggy Day (In London Town)

Sinatra sang a lot of Gershwin over the years, but if you had to name the most important "Gershwin song" in his book it would probably be "The Gal That Got Away" - words by Ira Gershwin, but music by Harold Arlen. He made a terrific record of it when the song was new, and then returned to it a quarter-century later to make it - in a medley with "It Never Entered My Mind" - the last great saloon-song sequence to be added to the Sinatra act.

But a lot of George Gershwin tunes stayed with him to the end, too...

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On The Road To Mandalay

ImageSeventy years ago, the 14th Army under the command of General Bill Slim finally liberated Mandalay and returned it to British rule. Given the popularity of this song among British military concert parties of the time, more than a few of Slim's men must have found themselves singing:

Come you back to Mandalay
Where the old flotilla lay...

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East Of The Sun (And West Of The Moon)

Where do you head after you've gone "South Of The Border"? Oh, that's easy...

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South Of The Border

St Patrick's Day looms, and so a Sinatra Irish confection would seem to be appropriate. Unlike Peggy Lee, he never recorded "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling"; unlike Rosie Clooney, he never recorded "Danny Boy". In the 1949 film Take Me Out To The Ball Game, he sang a song called "O'Brien To Ryan To Goldberg" - Gene Kelly, who was of Irish ancestry, played O'Brien; Jules Munshin, who was of Russian Jewish ancestry, played Goldberg; and Frank Sinatra, who was of Italian ancestry, played, er, Ryan.

But what of the great Irish songwriters..?

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I've Got You Under My Skin

The night it took 22 takes...

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I Won't Dance

The 1930s were the golden decade of American popular song. The great Broadway blue chips - Cole Porter, Rodgers & Hart - were hitting their stride, and, as we've explored in recent weeks, a whole generation of far lesser known names were providing great individual numbers that, thanks to Sinatra, have lasted across the decades...

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Night And Day

What's the connection between the Muslim call to prayer and Frank Sinatra?

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When Your Lover Has Gone

E A Swan?

Who's he?

Well, if you saw Frank Sinatra on stage...

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All Of Me

A Sinatra classic, born from a happy accident at a summer resort, and a widow's grief

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The Continental

It's the wee small hours after Oscar Night, and so our Sinatra Centenary song is obliged to take a nod at least in the direction of the Academy Awards. Frank made a whole album of Oscar winners, with the unwieldy title of Sinatra Sings Days of Wine and Roses, Moon River, and Other Academy Award Winners...

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Chicago

An anthem to "the town that Billy Sunday couldn't shut down"

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What Is This Thing Called Love?

On March 27th 1929 the Charles B Cochran revue Wake Up And Dream opened at the London Pavilion, with a host of West End talent, including Jessie Matthews, Sonnie Hale, Tilly Losch and Douglas Byng. And at one point in the evening Britain's "Radio Sweetheart Number One", Elsie Carlisle, stepped forward and sang...

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My Funny Valentine

Valentine's Day looms, and, given his contribution to its popularity, we would be remiss not to include in our Sinatra Century the one great Valentine standard...

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Stardust

It's July 8th 1939 and the Harry James orchestra is on stage at the Roseland Ballroom in New York. They have a new singer - a 23-year old boy vocalist who signed with the band a few days earlier - and he steps to the microphone to sing...

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Love's Been Good To Me

ImageThe other day I was reading, strictly for pleasure, The Complete Lyrics Of Johnny Mercer, and in particular the work of his somewhat frustrating final years. And a handful of pages before the end you turn the page, and from one of those projects that never came to fruition are a couple of songs bearing the credit "Words and music by Johnny Mercer and Rod McKuen".

My God, what was he thinking?

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The One I Love (Belongs To Somebody Else)

We're spending this weekend with the Isham Jones/Gus Kahn end of the Sinatra songbook. Following "It Had To Be You" on Friday, here's a song Frank sang for almost half-a-century from June of 1940, as the new boy vocalist with a hit orchestra, to deep into the 1980s, as a lion in winter jumpin' all over a hard-swingin' band...

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It Had To Be You

An über-standard everyone sang before Frank

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After You've Gone

A song as old as Sinatra that he only got to in the Eighties

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Home on the Range

I received a letter, as I do from time to time and particularly since we launched this series, making the familiar complaint that I "only write about the kind of songs Frank Sinatra sings" and thereby ignore the older, vernacular American musical tradition. Well, I happen to think Frank chose pretty good songs, so why kick the habit? For example, here's a ring-a-ding-ding Sinatra classic he recorded in 1946:

Oh, give me a home where the buffalo roam
And the deer and the antelope play...

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The Song Is You

It's often said that the pop songs you like when you're 17 years old are the pop songs that stay with you your entire life. And in that respect Frank Sinatra was very fortunate: When he was 17, to pick up where we left off last week, it was a very good year. The songs in the air as a Hoboken schoolboy prepared to start his adult life were the songs he would record a quarter-century later and still be singing on stage, at Caesars' Palace and the Royal Albert Hall, another quarter-century beyond that...

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It Was A Very Good Year

Our Sinatra Song of the Century Number One

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Auld Lang Syne

This essay is adapted from Mark's book A Song For The Season

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Baby, It's Cold Outside

Esther Williams and Ricardo Montalban launch the clash of civilizations

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All I Want For Christmas Is You

Mark hits a new high as he takes a crack at Mariah Carey's Christmas classic

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Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer

A happy 75th birthday to the most famous reindeer of all

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Morning Train (Nine To Five)

I love the Great American Train Song. It's a genre that has the sweep and size of the nation...

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It's the End of the World as We Know It

After "Cat Scratch Fever", Mister Squaresville goes in search of other rockers to cover

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Witchcraft

In this week before Halloween, how about a Song of the Week for the witching hour? I've always loved songs that use magic as an image of romantic seduction and intoxication. Cole Porter got in on it early in "You Do Something To Me" (1928):

Let me live 'neath your spell
Do do That voodoo
That you do So well…

Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer extended the thought in 1944:

That Old Black Magic has me in its spell...

But it was Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh who wrapped up the subject once and for all...

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The Quality of Mercer

A musical moment from The [Un]documented Mark Steyn

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The Party's Over/Just In Time

It's twenty years since Jule Styne died - back in September 1994. By then he was the last of the Broadway giants, the composer of Funny Girl, Peter Pan and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and perhaps the greatest of all American musicals Gypsy; the prodigious hitmaker of "Time After Time" and "People" and "Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend"; the guy who'd supplied all those sidewalk Santas and shopping malls with "Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!" I write about him in Mark Steyn's American ...

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Can't Take My Eyes Off You/The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore

Mark celebrates the late Bob Crewe and two Sixties classics

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Over The Rainbow

Last week we marked the 75th anniversary of The Wizard Of Oz, but without getting to the film's big song. It's about five minutes in, when we're still in drab, dusty, cheerless, broken-down black-&-white Kansas. Dorothy has tried to tell her folks about an unpleasant incident involving Miss Gulch, but Aunt Em advises her to "stop imagining things" and "find yourself a place where you won't get into any trouble". Dorothy wanders off, taking the injunction seriously. "Do you think there is such a ...

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Ding-Dong! The Witch Is Dead

This month marks the 75th anniversary of one of the greatest and most enduring film musicals ever made, and one of the few to match the dramatic ambition of the best Broadway shows. The Wizard Of Oz gave us a standard song that won the Oscar that year and was potent enough to provide Eva Cassidy with a posthumous hit in the 21st century. We'll get to that next week, but for this week's Song of the Week here's one of my personal favorites from a truly marvelous score: Ding-Dong! The Witch Is ...

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They Didn't Believe Me

When this weekly feature began eight and a half years ago, our Song of the Week Number One was "San Francisco", to mark the centenary of the 1906 earthquake. But, if I'd been thinking about a Number One song in more profound terms, our Number One song would have been the song we're finally getting round to almost a decade later - because this week's song was really the Number One song for an entire school of songs. As Mel Tormé put it, when Jerome Kern composed this melody, he "invented the popular song". If your idea of a popular song is "Call Me Maybe" or "Ain't Nobody Here But Us Chickens" or "The Tennesee Waltz", Tormé's claim is a bit of a stretch. But it's not unreasonable to claim that with this tune Kern invented what we now call the American Songbook - standards that endure across the decades and can be sung and played in almost any style. It is, thus, the Number One Song, the first and most influential entry in that American Songbook...

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A Greasepaint Medley

Three hit songs from one flop Sixties musical

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The Boy Next Door part two

To mark the centenary of composer Hugh Martin, here's the second part of Mark's two-part audio tribute to the man who gave the world "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas"...

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(I'm In Love With) A Wonderful Guy

A few weeks back, apropos "June Is Bustin' Out All Over", I mentioned that we hadn't done a lot of "month" songs in the years we've been running this feature. Some months - mostly spring ("April Showers", "April In Paris") and fall ("September Song", "September In The Rain") - seem to lend themselves to musicalization. If "June Is Bustin' Out All Over" is about as big a hit title as the sixth month of the year has ever produced, the eighth (which looms this very week) can't even manage a title ...

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Cinderella Rockefella

What with all the Jew-hate around on the streets of Europe in recent days, I thought it would be nice to have a big Europop hit from that fleeting cultural moment when the Continentals regarded Israel not merely as a normal sovereign state but in fact a rather cool and enviable one...

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Fly Me To The Moon

I wouldn't want June to recede too far into the rear mirror without noting that it marked the 50th anniversary of a great and historic recording that, before the Sixties were out, burst the bounds of the planet. In June 1964, Frank Sinatra and Count Basie were in the studio making their second album together, It Might As Well Be Swing. The arranger was Quincy Jones, and his work for the set included a chart Frank kept in the act all the way to his very last concert...

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Put On A Happy Face

Some musical advice from Mark's graduation season

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Nessun dorma

The all-time great World Cup song

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Georgia On My Mind

Steyn celebrates the song Ray Charles used to hum in the back of his car on the way to the gig - until one day his driver told him to record it.

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June Is Bustin' Out All Over

Well, it's the beginning of June and that means June is bustin' out all over! Except that June doesn't really bust, does it..?

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The Battle Hymn of the Republic

Happy Memorial Day to all our American readers. My youngest will be playing with the town band in the parade, and I do believe this number is on the song list. This essay is adapted from my book A Song For The Season...

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Yesterday When I Was Young/She

Ninety years ago this Thursday a baby boy was born in Paris ...well, that was the first unexpected plot twist. He was supposed to be born in America...

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Waterloo

Four decades ago, "Waterloo" hit Number One in the British charts, and the four Swedes never looked back, except to check whether their hot pants had split...

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My Lady Nicotine

Mark explores the art of the cigarette song

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Tea For Two

One of the biggest pop standards of the 20th century celebrates its 90th birthday this month. Exactly nine decades ago - April 21st 1924 - a new musical comedy opened in Chicago on its pre-Broadway tour. The plot was the usual fluff - three couples in Atlantic City, complications ensue, etc. It should have been a breeze, but it wasn't going well...

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Rock Around The Clock

Six decades ago - April 12th 1954 - a chubby-faced kiss-curled man pushing 30 with a backing group named after a theory published in Synopsis Astronomia Cometicae in 1705 went into the recording studio at the Pythian Temple on West 70th Street in New York and sang a song written by a man born in the 19th century...

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Blue Moon

A Rodgers & Hart classic - after three false starts...

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Till There Was You

The 50th anniversary of the Beatles' only showtune

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On The Good Ship Lollipop/Animal Crackers In My Soup

Shirley Temple - singer, dancer, actress, and rock'n'roller

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Angel Eyes

Mark celebrates a classic saloon song

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Almost Like Being In Love

A song for Groundhog Day?

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The Lion Sleeps Tonight

Pete Seeger and the "folk song" he stole

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Smoke Gets In Your Eyes

Number One in January 1934 ...and January 1959

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A Marshmallow World

Mark tells the story behind "his" Christmas song, and presents an audio special celebrating the man who wrote it...

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The Boy Next Door

Hugh Martin, composer, lyricist, vocal arranger, pianist, singer, actor and the man who gave the world the great seasonal gift of "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas", was born one hundred years ago this week...

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Camelot

As the years go by I grow less and less interested in grassy knolls and all the rest, but I am struck by one genuine, non-conspiracy-theorist feature of November 22nd 1963...

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Ain't That A Kick - Sammy Cahn All The Way

2015 is Frank Sinatra's centenary year, which necessitates a few modifications to SteynOnline's music, film and entertainment coverage. Our official observances commence tomorrow when our Song of the Week department becomes a Song of the Semi-Week in order to squeeze in 100 Sinatra songs of the century between now and December. Several other folk seem to have opted for this approach, too - our old friend the Pundette has launched a dedicated Sinatra Centenary site for that very purpose - so we ...

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Where Do You Go To (My Lovely)?

For Bastille Day it seemed appropriate to have a French number for our Song of the Week. Unfortunately, this one's British, but it does have an accordion...

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Light My Fire

How a psychedelic anthem from the summer of love became an easy-listening blockbuster

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What A Diff'rence A Day Made

A day late for Cinco de Mayo, here's Steyn's Song of the Week: the most successful composition by Mexico's first successful female composer.

~and don't forget, if you like Mark's Song of the Week essays, some of his most requested are collected in his book A Song For The Season - including many songs for national days, from "America The Beautiful" to "Waltzing Matilda". You can order your personally autographed copy exclusively from the SteynOnline bookstore.

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The Sheik of Araby

April 29th apparently marks the anniversary of the launch of the Islamic conquest of the Iberian peninsula in the year 711. So I thought it would be fun to have a suitably Islamo-dominant number for our Song of the Week.

~and don't forget, some of Mark's most popular Song of the Week essays are collected in his book A Song For The Season. You can order your personally autographed copy exclusively from the SteynOnline bookstore.

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Easter Parade

Happy Easter and Happy Passover to our readers around the world. We moved our Saturday movie night to Good Friday for Mel Gibson's blockbuster The Passion Of The Christ. So, for the weekend proper, here's a special podcast, audiophonically adapted from an essay that appears in Mark's book A Song For The Season. Mark traces the story of Irving Berlin's "Easter Parade", from its obscure origins as a First World War morale booster to its re-emergence a generation later as the American Songbook's ...

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MUST-FLEE TV!

If you need a few extra fireworks this Fourth of July weekend, Mark will be talking about the new book Climate Change: The Facts and his legal battle against Michael E Mann on C-SPAN's Book TV on Saturday night at 12 midnight Eastern/9pm Pacific, with an encore presentation on Sunday at 7am Eastern and again at 7pm Eastern

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