The Season of Sequestering appears to be drawing to a close - either because, as in Germany and Spain and the State of Georgia, the lockdown is being lifted; or because, after the better part of two months, the lockdown is being ignored, as Apple has suggested after studying the whereabouts around the world of its mobile telephones, which are suddenly mobile again and darting hither and yon after having been all but entirely immobilised since March.
So before the Great Desequestering turns into a stampede I thought we'd spend some time with the word's two great contributions to the standard songbook. Our first song is also appropriate for this weekend, if you know its verse:
On the first of May
It is Moving Day...
May 1st was, for a century and a half or so, New York City's Moving Day - the day the leases all expired, and the city's residents packed up and moved to their new dwellings. It was a chaotic day on New York streets, but then, until this March, when wasn't? The chaos endures, but the reasons for it change: Circa 1800, the thoroughfares were jammed with New Yorkers lugging their household goods from downtown to uptown or vice-versa. There were never enough carters around, so farmers from Jersey and Long Island would further clog up the town by bringing their best wagons and offering them for rent.
The Second World War did for the May Day mayhem - because there were no longer sufficient able-bodied men to move all the furniture downstairs and uptown. So Moving Day fell away to be replaced by rent control, which, as is the New Yorker's way, is a whole other kind of racket.
Moving Day survives just up the road from me in Quebec, but in the Seventies they moved it from May 1st to July 1st - same old one-day chaos, but with the additional benefit for separatists of denigrating and diminishing Dominion Day, as it's hard to celebrate Canada's national jubilee when you're spending the day trying to get your sofa up an exterior spiral stairway to your new walk-up in Hochelaga.
So we should be grateful to Rodgers & Hart, within whose catalogue May 1st is preserved as Moving Day now and forever. Here's Mel Tormé - and hang on for the pertinent couplet:
How we'll love sequestering
Where no pests are pestering...
Beans could get no keener re-
ception in a beanery
Bless our Mountain Greenery home...
If you're interested, that re/ception business is what they call apocopated rhyming. But smart, clever, exhibitionist rhymes are a thousand times more fun for being set not to some tumty-tumty versifier's serviceable tune but to a really terrific melody - and, for "Mountain Greenery", Richard Rodgers wrote a corker.
He had a fondness for scales. The verse of Rodgers & Hart's first big hit, "Manhattan", simply climbs up the major scale, and one of the big songs from Rodgers & Hammerstein's very last show, The Sound of Music, is of all things (as the critic Gerald Mast put it) "a hymn to the musical scale itself" - "Do Re Mi". In between came this great effortless swinger: It starts very emphatically with a trio of repeated notes ("In a moun-") and then steps down the scale for the first half of the phrase and climbs back up for the second. It has a verse that sets up the chorus perfectly, and a middle-eight that's a lulu, arising organically from the main theme - "one of those songwriter's dreams," as the musicologist Alec Wilder put it, "seldom achieved, often dangerous, but when right, as in this case, perfect."
And then Lorenz Hart put words to it. As noted last week, the difference between Richard Rodgers' two great writing partnerships is that with Hammerstein the words came first, and with Hart the music did - mainly because the ill-disciplined lyricist was invariably face-down in the punch bowl in some den of debauchery leaving his composer at home with nothing to do but write the music. Nevertheless, when Larry Hart did eventually stagger back to the job, he took an especial pleasure in fitting words as breezy as the tune:
In a Mountain Greenery
Where God paints the scenery
Just two crazy people together...
Greenery/scenery? Why saddle yourself with a three-syllable rhyme scheme?
Because, to Hart, it was no burden at all:
While you love your lover, let
Blue skies be your coverlet...
Even in the verses:
I've a banquet planned which is
On the other hand, when the middle section calls for plain old monosyllables, he's fine with that, too:
It's not amiss
To sit and kiss
For me and you
There are no blue laws...
"Mountain Greenery" comes from the most difficult stage of any career - immediately after your first breakout smash. For Rodgers & Hart that had been The Garrick Gaieties of 1925 - the youthful show that had produced "Manhattan", their valentine to the city of New York. Twelve months later and the boys were back for The Garrick Gaieties of 1926. Does lightning strike twice? The team covered themselves by writing a song called "We Can't Be As Good As Last Year":
We've lost all that artless spirit
With our Broadway veneer
Then it was play
But we're old hams today
So We Can't Be As Good As Last Year
...which can become a self-fulfilling prophesy: the '26 Garrick Gaieties ran fewer performances than the '25 edition, and certainly was never the same sensation. But "Mountain Greenery" endures as a kind of rustic riposte to "Manhattan". In the original show, the latter had been introduced by Sterling Holloway and June Cochrane. A year later, Miss Cochrane had graduated to The Girl Friend, and it fell to Bobbie Perkins to partner Mr Holloway in hymning the charms of life beyond the city line. (Mr Holloway is probably best remembered today as the voice of Disney's Winnie-the-Pooh, Sleepy in the Seven Dwarfs, and Kaa the snake in The Jungle Book.) The couplet which distills the difference between "Manhattan" and "Mountain Greenery" is, of course:
How we love sequestering
Where no pests are pestering...
Lorenz Hart means "pest" in the sense of a nuisance, or an annoying, bothersome person, which type tends to be more numerous and intrusive in the heart of Manhattan. But, as you'll know if you followed my serialization of Daniel Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year, the pest was a common term in those days for the very plague - and, if you had the disease, you risked getting banged up in the pest house, where all the other pests were pestering. So Larry Hart's couplet is peculiarly apt for the last couple of months around the planet:
How we love sequestering
Where la peste ain't pestering...
The other great sequestering standard is a little younger than "Mountain Greenery" but has the affect of something rather older. Otto Harbach sounds like the perfect name for a German operetta librettist just in from Vienna or Berlin. In fact, his family arrived in America in the 1830s and settled near Salt Lake City. And they weren't Germans, but Danes: They were the Christiansen family, until Otto's gram'pa went into the army and some military bureaucrat decreed that, as was not uncommon at the time, he would be known by the name of the farm on which he worked - the Hauerbach farm, back in Utah. And the name stuck - at least until World War One, when Otto noted the growing anti-German sentiment and semi-de-Teutonicized it to "Harbach".
In those days, he was a lyricist of peppy musical comedy numbers with up-to-the-minute vernacular expressions - like "Cuddle Up A Little Closer (Lovey Mine)" (our Song of the Week #100). But a couple of decades on, with younger fellows like Rodgers & Hart making all the running, Otto Harbach had decided to live up to his name and was awash in faintly florid archaisms. In this case he gets the sequestering in the very first rhyme:
Days I knew as happy sweet sequester'd days...
Here's my old friend Elisabeth Welch to sing it. Liz always had excellent taste in songs. (She had "As Time Goes By" as a permanent fixture in her cabaret act in 1931, twelve years before Bogie and Bergman and Casablanca.) A black American who introduced the Charleston in Runnin' Wild (1923) and starred in Chocolate Dandies and Blackbirds of 1928 and sang "Digga-Digga-Doo" with the Hotsy-Totsy Gang, here she taps into the faint art-song air that suffuses the number:
Then gay youth was mine
Truth was mine
Joyous, free and flaming love
Forsooth was mine!
Who puts "forsooth" in a pop song in 1933?
"Yesterdays", by Kern & Harbach, is not to be confused with "Yesterday", by Lennon & McCartney. The great harmonica virtuoso Larry Adler once said to me that the only Beatles song worth a damn was "Yesterday". And then he added, "And that's not as good as 'Yesterdays'."
I think about that from time to time. In a certain sense, "Yesterday" is a much better proposition for a title than "Yesterdays": Yesterday I was happy because my bird hadn't chucked me yet. Yesterdays are about something less precise and more elusive - the loss not of a love but of the very possibility of young love, the sense that it's slipped out of reach and you can never grasp it again.
As it happens, the original sheet music of "Yesterdays" shows the title as "Yesterday", which appears to have been a careless clerical error by the publisher and must surely have exasperated Jerome Kern and Otto Harbach. Singular or not, the number comes from the same Broadway score as our Song of the Week from a year or so back - "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes":
The composer and his longtime collaborator Otto Harbach found themselves adapting a novel by Alice Duer Miller called Gowns By Roberta. In the teens, Kern had more or less invented American musical comedy in the Princess shows with Guy Bolton and P G Wodehouse. In the Twenties, he'd written the great Broadway epic in Show Boat. In the early Thirties, he was having a tougher time of it, and it's hard to figure what he and his librettist ever saw in Roberta. The novel begins:
'When a man is six feet two, handsome as a god, captain of his college football team, and universal choice for All-American halfback, he cannot burst into tears because a girl is cruel.'
Harbach dutifully turned in a tale in which the aforementioned all-American college football god inherits a dress shop in Paris and goes over to run it. He is, inevitably, smitten by the young sales assistant, who is revealed in the finale to be a princess. This is usually good news, as it means she's just been slumming as a shop girl and they can now retire to a palace in Mitteleuropa. Unfortunately, in this variation of the old operetta standby, she turns out to be a Romanov princess, which is no good for anybody, since she's not going to be returning to Russia any time soon, and, if the Commies got wind of her whereabouts, even the dress business might attract more attention than a genial football jock might be game for.
But never mind the idiot plot: They had Ray Middleton as the lead, supported by a bunch of up-and-comers: the pre-NBC Bob Hope, the pre-Hollywood Sydney Greenstreet and Fred MacMurray, and the pre-US Senate George Murphy. For the role of the aunt the producer Max Gordon lured out of retirement the great turn-of-the-century Broadway star Fay Templeton. Three decades earlier, as his friend Alan Jay Lerner (author of My Fair Lady) told it to me, Otto Harbach had been taking a street car uptown, passed a giant billboard advertising Miss Templeton in some forthcoming attraction and thought: 'I wonder what it would be like to write a musical show.' That Fay Templeton poster had prompted Otto to abandon a teaching career and go into showbusiness, and now here they were half a lifetime later working together on a brand new show.
Miss Templeton had just one song, the wonderfully sensuous 'Yesterdays'...
It's a very languorous tune: it shimmers in front of you, within the narrowest of ranges (a tenth), and yet it's a forceful and insistent melody, at least in its original key (D-minor). Like so much of Kern's best work, the very muscular melody would more than suffice, but it benefits also from a harmony that imbues it with great emotional depth. The downward movement in the bass as the melody climbs up on "Days I knew as happy sweet..." is one of the great moments in Kern's catalogue.
But then again there's that perfumed lyric, sequester'd in its forsoothness. "Forsooth!" is an ejaculation meaning "In truth!" or "Indeed!", but neither fine singers nor the producers of their recording sessions seem to be aware of that. So you wind up with Billie Holiday warbling to the apparent content of the chaps in the control room:
Joyous free and flaming life
The sooth was mine...
What the sooth does that mean? Lady Day has to make do with one sooth, while Fay Templeton gets the full quartet of four sooth?
Billie Holiday, sayer of the sooth.
Perhaps for that reason "Yesterdays" has prospered more among the instrumentalists than the vocalists, in which world it's possible to drink deeply from Kern's music without choking on Harbach's text. As an example of contrasting takes on the same tune, here's Artie Shaw bookending his recording career. First from 1938, before he began the beguine:
And here he is a mere decade and a half later, just before the world's greatest clarinettist hung up his instrument for good. From my acquaintance with the man, I would say no one was less interested in his own yesterdays than Artie Shaw. So this 1954 track is, so to speak, today's abandonment of his own yesterday:
However, we are, as a general rile, eschewers of instrumentals in this department, for a song is the fusion of music and words. On the latter, in my own yesterdays I tended to side with the mockers in "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes":
Now laughing friends deride...
I was a laughing derider with respect to Harbach's anachronisms: Where was the lightly worn wit of Porter or Hart? Or the romantic effervescence of Dorothy Fields or Frank Loesser? Ah, but I am older now, and these days all my own favorite words seem to be archaic in an age when human communication has dwindled down to lol! omg! rotflmao! stfu! Forsooth, I'd rather be sequester'd with Otto Harbach. Perhaps he was just responding to the brooding grandeur of Kern's melody. Or perhaps, at the age of 56, he'd decided to quit pretending he was into the jive talk and just luxuriate in heady archaisms.
Either way, if the Great Sequestering is coming to an end, I thank two great songwriting teams for providing a contrasting soundtrack to its tensions:
How we love sequestering
Where no pests are pestering...
Forsooth! Here's Ella:
~If you enjoy our Sunday Song of the Week, we have a mini-audio companion, a bonus Song of the Week Extra, midweek on our Coronacopia edition of The Mark Steyn Show - and sometimes with special guests from Mark's archive, including Eurovision's Dana, Ted Nugent and Paul Simon.
Our Netflix-style tile-format archives for Tales for Our Time and Steyn's Sunday Poems have proved so popular with listeners and viewers that we've done the same for our musical features merely to provide some mellifluous diversions in the Land of Lockdown. Just click here, and you'll find easy-to-access live performances by everyone from Herman's Hermits to Liza Minnelli; Mark's interviews with Chuck Berry, Leonard Bernstein and Bananarama (just to riffle through the Bs); and audio documentaries on P G Wodehouse's lyrics, John Barry's Bond themes, sunshine songs from the Sunshine State, and much more. We'll be adding to the archive in the months ahead, but, even as it is, we hope you'll find the new SteynOnline music home page a welcome respite from house arrest without end.
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