"The Great American Smokeout" falls this Thursday. I had always assumed it was a promotional event in support of smoking, but I see that it is, in fact, an anti-smoking event. Bit of mixed messaging I would say.
I never really smoked, except when I was fourteen or fifteen and all my pals did and the girls expected us to. So, as soon as I was butch enough to resist peer pressure, I gave it up. But I regret the decline of nicotine in cultural terms: It has had a diminishing effect on movie acting, and it has had a rather larger one on Tin Pan Alley, in whose precincts the cigarette song once trembled on the brink of becoming a genre. About the only thing I found in the least bit interesting (and indeed authentic) about Barack Obama was his nicotine habit. I even wrote a clerihew about it:
Is like Bogie in Casablama.
When things aren't oke
He'll have a smoke
A quarter-century ago I discussed the art of the cigarette song in an essay that's anthologized in Mark Steyn From Head To Toe (personally autographed copies of which are exclusively available, etc, etc). Not long after the book was published, I received this letter:
My uncle (1889-1967) played piano for a lot of dances on the south side of Chicago from around 1910 into the 1920s or 30s. Later he played two songs a lot for the family, so I identify those two songs as his songs. One of them was 'Tea for Two' and the other one he said was named 'Lady Nicotine.' I have searched (the local library's reference books, experts in popular music, the Internet) for 20 or 30 years to find out anything about 'Lady Nicotine' (if, indeed that was the name of the song). I have not found anything about it including not finding the sheet music for the piano. I recall it had a lot of swing to it, syncopation probably, and was an uptempo song.
If Mr. Steyn or any of his associates knows anything about this song - maybe some words in it refer to 'Lady Nicotine,' even if that is not the title - I would greatly appreciate hearing from you...
Immediately I received the above, I cursed Mr Savage for not mailing me his query a couple of years earlier - because "My Lady Nicotine" would have made a much better title than whatever it was we used in the book. It captures perfectly the idea of Nicotine as a seductress, and almost persuades you of the truth of Kipling:
A woman is only a woman
But a good cigar is a smoke.
Ever since Robert Savage's note, I've used "My Lady Nicotine" as the title of the folder in which I keep my expanding list of cigarette songs. The earliest smoking tune I've ever come across is "Tobacco's But An Indian Weed" - and you'll note that this is the first cultural artifact extant to tie cigarettes to mortality:
That's from the late 1600s, which seems a bit slow off the mark: Sir Walter Raleigh had brought the first tobacco leaves back from the colonies to Queen Elizabeth almost a century earlier. On the other hand, he also brought back the potato, and how many great potato songs had anybody written by then?
By 1725, J S Bach was composing (music and lyrics) "Erbauliche Gedanken eines Tabakrauchers" ("The Edifying Thoughts Of A Tobacco Smoker"). Despite its title, this too is freighted with intimations of mortality. From the second verse:
The smoke in the open air disappears
Nothing but the ashes remain
This is how man's glory is consumed
And his body turned to dust.
In the ensuing three centuries smoking songs have lit up the musical catalogue - from the intimate if bittersweet imagery of "Two Cigarettes In The Dark"...
...to the rather bleaker affect of "Three Cigarettes In An Ashtray":
Smoking is a key accessory in the opening lines of big standards. Frank Loesser's "Two Sleepy People":
Here we are
Out of cigarettes
Holding hands and yawning
Look how late it gets...
Miss Jessica Martin and I take a crack at that in our mega-opus "Heart And Soul" on our Frank Loesser centenary show. How about "These Foolish Things"? Eric Maschwitz's opening line is one of the most quoted in popular music:
A cigarette that bears a lipstick's traces
An airline ticket to romantic places...
Is a fag end with some lip gloss on it really that romantic? Without the music, not so much. But of all the marvelous imagery in Maschwitz's laundry list - "wild strawberries only seven francs a kilo", "the waiters whistling as the last bar closes" - he chose the cigarette to open with, and he made it stick.
To be honest, I prefer Jean Sablon's record, but Bryan Ferry's distinctive take always reminds me of Eddie Izzard and yours truly doing an impromptu recreation of it on an otherwise very terrible BBC Radio London show many decades ago, so long indeed that Eddie was still using male pronouns.
What about the word "nicotine"? There've been a bunch of songs using the term, including as a title, in the rock era. But, as far as I was aware, the first pop hit to deploy it was "Black Coffee" (1948), a smoldering Peggy Lee favorite:
Now man was born to go a-lovin'
But was woman born to weep and fret?
To stay at home and tend her oven
And drown her past regrets
In coffee and cigarettes?
I'm moanin' all the mornin'
Moanin' all the night
And in between
Paul Francis Webster (who wrote everything from "Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing" to the Spider-Man theme) is the guy who put that word in the Hit Parade via Sarah Vaughan's record, No 13 in 1949. But its symbolic use in popular culture belongs to a couple of generations earlier. In 1890, fourteen years before he hit the big time with Peter Pan, J M Barrie published a novel called My Lady Nicotine: A Study In Smoke, a novel published by J M Barrie in 1890, fourteen years before he hit the big time with Peter Pan - about a bachelor approaching middle age whose betrothed tells him he has to choose between her or his smokes. You can read the 131-year-old review by an anonymous predecessor of mine at The Spectator here.
Was the phrase more generally in the air? Very much so. Here, from 1925, is a New Yorker Talk-of-the-Towner calling on the director of the New York Public Library to end his smoking ban and see to it that "Lady Nicotine is received at court"; and, from 1929, here's a Pathé newsreel, "Lady Nicotine's Latest", about a novelty cigarette case that attaches to your garter. (This Vitagraph short from 1909 raises Lady Nicotine to Princess Nicotine.) So it was the kind of vernacular phrase that someone would have eventually put into a song, and, by the time Robert Savage's uncle was playing those Chicago dances in the teens and twenties, someone had:
The vapory cloak
Of My Lady, Nicotine...
Isn't that great? "Smoke! Smoke! The vapory cloak..? The song is by Will Marion Cook and F Clifford Harris - and Lord knows how those guys wound up together. Mr Harris was a journeyman wordsmith of the West End Stage in the early 20th century. His best-known song was "A Bachelor Gay Am I", with which concert-party baritones thrilled audiences around the British Empire until the meaning of its titular adjective evolved in ways unhelpful to the song's posterity:
So Clifford Harris was a reliable British lyricist. Will Marion Cook, on the other hand, was a black American composer. He belongs to the ranks of pre-jazz African-American composers who've been more or less wiped out of black cultural history. And unlike James M Bland ("Carry Me Back To Old Virginny") or Bob Cole ("Under The Bamboo Tree"), Scott Joplin ("Maple Leaf Rag"), Shelton Brooks ("Some Of These Days") or Spencer Williams ("I Ain't Got Nobody"), Cook has no single composition today that's still played sufficiently even to keep his name alive as a credit on CDs or sheet music. But he was a big man on Broadway at the beginning of the twentieth century, the first black composer to have a sell-out smash on the Great White Way - with In Dahomey (1903).
How did a black American on Broadway and a jobbing British lyricist from the West End wind up writing together? I've no idea. But the song's rather good:
For she is the siren whose only cloak
Is thinner than silk or chiffon
She's the mad little, bad little queen of smoke
She is here, then she's there, then she's gone...
To the best of my knowledge there are no existing recordings, but, if you go to the Library of Congress website, you'll be able to download the sheet music, make the first recording, and wait till the royalties roll in.
I've always envied my friend Dorothée Berryman, who also appears on our Frank Loesser centenary show, and who includes in her act "Love Is Like A Cigarette", an old Duke Ellington number that, in her version at least, seems to float across the air like the vapory smoke of Lady Nicotine:
Then just like a cigarette
Love seemed to fade away
And leave behind ashes of regret
Then with a flip
Of your fingertip
It was easy for you to forget
Oh! Love Is Like A Cigarette...
Thanks to Dorothée's somewhat woeful record company, her version no longer seems to be available, so we will make do with the original chanteuse, Ivie Anderson:
I'm sitting in ashes of regret myself. Not quite three centuries after Johann Sebastian Bach's contribution to the genre, it seems almost certain that the Tobacco Songbook has no new leaves to turn over. But it had a good run before it all went up in smoke like the eponymous rings of Glen Gray and the Casa Loma Orchestra's old theme song:
Puff! Puff! Puff!
Puff your cares away
Puff! Puff! Puff!
Night and day...
Like the fatalistic protagonist of the 1908 operetta Algeria, we should light up one last time in honor of the lost art of the cigarette song:
Fragrant clouds then from us veil
Ev'ry sorrow, ev'ry doubt
Till we wake at last to find
That our cigarette is out.
~If you enjoy our Sunday Song of the Week, we now have an audio companion, every Sunday on Serenade Radio in the UK. You can listen to the show from anywhere on the planet by clicking the button in the top right corner here. It airs thrice a week:
5.30pm London Sunday (12.30pm New York)
5.30am London Monday (2.30pm Sydney)
9pm London Thursday (1pm Vancouver)
If you're a Steyn Clubber and you'd like to toss the above into the ashtray of history, feel free to light up in our comments section. As we always say, membership in The Mark Steyn Club isn't for everybody, and it doesn't affect access to Song of the Week and our other regular content, but one thing it does give you is commenter's privileges. Please stay on topic and don't include URLs, as the longer ones can wreak havoc with the formatting of the page.