A week ago, as Hurricane Ian swept across Florida, we tracked its potential progress in song, from "Key Largo" north to "The Swanee River". And, as Monday turned to Tuesday and the winds swept onward, I received a fair few emails demanding to know why I couldn't even put in a word for the poor storm-tossed Carolinas.
To be honest, and not to go all effete-foreigner on you, I'm not as familiar with the geography of the Carolinas. But the point was a valid one, so I thought I'd take a trip to "Carolina In My Mind", as James Taylor put it. Which is not to be confused with "South Carolina On My Mind", which is the deputy state song of said jurisdiction. Carolina is one - or actually two - of the more hymned American states, in part because, like "Georgia On My Mind", the real estate can also double as a girl's name, even if in this case the states in question were named after a boy - King Charles (no, not the climate-crazed incumbent, but Charles I, or Carolus in Latin). Hence this song from 1914:
I miss you in the morning
When old bobwhite gives his call
And I miss you at the sunset
When the evening shadows fall
I miss you when the moonbeams
Out on the river shine
Oh, can't you hear me calling for you
Is the poor lad missing his gal? Or his state? Or his gal in his state? Don't overthink it. Carolina calls to many, including in 2004 Jimmy Buffett. I liked the opening couplet of his chorus:
From the bottom of my heart
Off The Coast Of Carolina
- which always sounds to me as if his heart's on the ocean floor in Davy Jones' locker. But, that aside, "The Coast of Carolina" doesn't have much else to say about the Carolina coast. If you want local color, try Josh Turner:
South Carolina Low Country
Southern words with an old Sandlapper tune
Palmetto trees swaying in that Atlantic breeze
Reaching up to touch the crescent moon...
I haven't done the math, but my sense is there are more South Carolina songs than North Carolina songs. So I was thrilled when a half-remembered semi-hit with North Carolina in the title popped into my head: "Just a Little Bit South of North Carolina". Except, alas, that the logic of the title is that, while it's named for North Carolina, it's actually about South Carolina - as the second line of the lyric confirms:
Sonny Skylar, Bette Cannon and Arthur Shaftel wrote that in 1941, and, while it's nobody's masterpiece, its easy swing retains a lot of charm. On the other hand, if it's masterpieces you're after, don't forget that Porgy and Bess, thanks to its librettist DuBose Heyward, was written just a little bit south of North Carolina:
In the summer of 1934, Heyward brought George Gershwin down from New York to Folly Island, a small barrier island ten miles from Charleston, in order that, as he put it, a composer from 'the most sophisticated city in America' could immerse himself in 'the music and bodily rhythms of the simple Negro peasant of the South'.
Musicologists claim that you can hear influences of the local Gullah music in Porgy, although it sounds mostly like Gershwin to me. But, speaking of simple peasant music and bodily rhythms, I thought I'd focus on what are respectively the biggest Carolinian song and dance hits, written within a year of each other at the dawn of the Jazz Age. As I mentioned in our Florida special, with city and state songs the location really has to be rhymed, and "Florida" doesn't rhyme with anything much except "I-4 corridor", where I passed a happy night in Lakeland a couple of years back. Indisputably the most famous rhyme for Carolina comes courtesy of Gus Kahn in 1922:
Nothing could be finer
Than to be in Carolina
In The Morning...
Gus Kahn has the distinction of having written our Song of the Week #1, "San Francisco", and amazingly enough our Song of the Week #2, "Dream a Little Dream of Me". Since then we've featured several of his other hits, including "It Had to Be You" and "The One I Love (Belongs to Somebody Else)". But we've never gotten around to any songs from his most productive partnership - with the composer Walter Donaldson (although we have celebrated Donaldson's blockbuster "My Blue Heaven"). The two men had a phenomenal run in the Twenties - "Makin' Whoopee", "Love Me or Leave Me", "Yes, Sir! That's My Baby", "My Baby Just Cares for Me", and a zillion other baby songs. Kahn and Donaldson had the good fortune to be pals with two of the biggest stars of the day, Al Jolson and Eddie Cantor. (I had a slight acquaintance with Gus's son Donald, who had the distinction of having Jolson as his godfather.) One day Gus and Walter were round at the Cantors' house, and Eddie's little girl was playing with a mechanical pig: You wound it up and it waddled around the room to the same insistent two-note phrase, driving everybody nuts. So eventually Kahn started singing words to the two notes: "Yes, sir..! No, sir..!" He and Donaldson then went home and worked up the two-note phrase into one of those songs that defines the Twenties: "Yes, Sir! That's My Baby."
There were a lot of two-note tunes around in those days. A couple of years earlier Kahn and Donaldson had written "My Buddy", using the same two notes Jerome Kern and P G Wodehouse had previously deployed for the lesser known "Siren's Song". "My Buddy" was a much bigger hit, but I prefer the ethereal Kern tune and you can hear it on our P G Wodehouse, songwriter special. Kahn and Donaldson's two-note blockbuster to end them all was written shortly after "Buddy" in the same year - 1922. Had little Marjorie Cantor sat down at the keyboard and played D B D B D B D B D B over and over before modulating to E C E C E C E C E C, you'd have hoisted up the piano and tipped it out the window. And yet, when Gus Kahn put words on that unending seesaw, the country loved it:
Nothing could be finer
Than to be in Carolina...
No one could be sweeter
Than my sweetie when I meet her...
Strolling with my girlie
Where the dew is pearly early
In the morning
Butterflies all flutter up
And kiss each little buttercup
In the midst of all that teeter-tottering there is a comparatively legato middle section:
Where the morning glories
Twine around the door
Whisp'ring pretty stories
I long to hear once more...
But even so you're betting the farm on the appeal of two notes and some internal feminine rhymes. As the great musicologist Alec Wilder wrote:
Granted, it's monotonous, yet its very insistence was what caught the public's fancy.
The only thing Alec Wilder liked in it was the "unexpected caper" in bar 25:
After another to-and-fro restatement the song suddenly performs this little romp.
If I had Aladdin's lamp for only a day
I'd make a wish and here's what I'd say...
Wilder loved the drop to the low note on "only a day", and I do, too. The two-note seesaw is ingenious, but that low "day" is a real pleasure to sing. I notice, though, that Jolson and almost every other singer tends to reprise that section with a martial beat, as if nervous it might lack the insistence of the rest of the song. And anyway, what is it the guy wants Aladdin's lamp for anyway?
I'd make a wish and here's what I'd say:
Nothing could be finer
Than to be in Carolina...
He doesn't really need Aladdin's lamp for that, does her? Just a Greyhound ticket. But then that's what makes it so dottily and delightfully American: the fancy of coveting Aladdin's lamp to facilitate the modest desire to wake up where the morning glories twine around the door.
Do you know who introduced "Carolina in the Morning"? Not Jolson or Cantor, but William Frawley - that's Fred Mertz from "I Love Lucy". He sang it in vaudeville, and recorded it many years later:
You want to see Fred and Ethel doing it on "Lucy"? That we can do, from an episode in which Ricky loses his voice:
A few years after that, Bill Frawley dusted it off for Fred MacMurray & Co on "My Three Sons":
It is, of course, a much parodied song. If you caught the Rat Pack clowning around on stage, you'll know Dino was wont to sing:
Nothing could be finer
Than to shack up with a minor...
There is also a rather obvious anatomical substitute for "Carolina". In my early days in radio, a colleague of mine - one of those older, cynical morning men ("feeling all of forty-five, going on fifteen", as Harry Chapin sang) - used to come into the studio fifteen minutes before his show and warble the gynecological variant as a kind of daily vocal exercise to get himself in the mood for opening the mike. Oddly enough, that's what sprang to mind when I was tuning the satellite radio dial on my return from overseas and noticed that Sirius had started a channel called "Carolina Shag".
As it turned out, it wasn't shagging in the Austin Powers sense, but in the beach-party dancing sense. You'll have heard me complain on Clubland Q&A about all these themed radio channels that seem to have only twenty records on their playlist, and Carolina Shag was in that sense very typical. But it reminded me that Carolina is not just for singing but dancing. The Carolina Shag supposedly originated at Carolina Beach, North Carolina in the late Forties as a variant of the Carolina Jitterbug, which itself derived from the Little Apple, which was a modified Big Apple from Columbia, South Carolina in the mid-Thirties. But before any of that there was the most popular and enduring dance craze of all - one whose splayed limbs even today serve as instant pop-culture shorthand for the Twenties. Indeed, just about the only moment I enjoyed in Leonardo DiCaprio's ghastly witless film of The Great Gatsby a few summers back was the sight of Long Island partygoers doing the Charleston to all that gangsta rap on the soundtrack.
That's right: the Charleston, as in Charleston, South Carolina. If you're keeping score, the state is named for King Charles I, but the town for King Charles II. Who never Charlestoned:
If you've read Broadway Babies Say Goodnight (personally autographed copies of which are exclusively available, etc, etc), you might recall that there's a moment therein in which Jule Styne, composer of shows like Gypsy and songs like "Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!", is denouncing rock music at some length, but feels obliged to let me know that it's not without its merits. And so he says, "I like rock because of its freshness - like when the Charleston came along." And at the time he said it to me, I thought, with all the arrogance of youth, that that was a pretty ridiculous comparison. I mean, Elvis and the Beatles versus a novelty dance craze? But Jule was eighteen when the Charleston was introduced on Broadway in 1923, and in nothing flat it swept America. It was a mania, with all the abandon and intoxication of "Rock Around the Clock", and then some. The Jazz Age was the heyday of dance crazes - the Shimmy, the Lindy Hop, the Black Bottom, the Varsity Drag - but none had legs like the Charleston. As The New York Times reported:
Debutantes are practicing it at the Colony Club; society matrons are panting over it in Park Avenue boudoirs; department store clerks are trying to master it in the restrooms at lunch hour; the models of the garment industry dance it together in the chop suey palaces at noon time...
Before it was a dance it was a song. Its composer was the great black stride pianist James P Johnson. He was New Jersey born and bred, but in 1913 was employed as the house pianist at New York's Jungle Casino. Many of its patrons were South Carolina longshoremen who'd come north for work and had a particular rhythm they liked to dance to. So Johnson started to compose tunes in what he called "that damn rhythm" and he named them, after their aficionados, Charlestons. A decade later, writing songs for an all-black revue called Runnin' Wild, he remembered one of them and pulled it out of the trunk. It was just another of those peppy tunes built around a two-note phrase, to which lyricist Cecil Mack set the obvious word:
The Charleston was introduced to the world on stage at the New Colonial Theatre on October 29th 1923 by my old friend Elisabeth Welch. She sang it, and then with the gentlemen of the chorus - the Dancing Redcaps - demonstrated the steps while the band stomped feet and clapped along. And once they'd seen the dance nobody needed the song - or, at any rate, not the lyric. Which may be why Liz Welch was never asked to record the number. Two years later, it fell to Lovie Austin and her Blues Serenaders, with vocalist Priscilla Stewart, finally to commit the song to disc:
You'll notice it relies on exactly the same rhyme as the previous year's Carolina hit:
Made in Carolina!
I'll say there's nothing finer
Than the Charleston!
Gee, how you can shuffle
Ev'ry step you do
Leads to something new
Man, I'm telling you
It's a lapazoo!
Elisabeth Welch lived until the age of 99, and was singing until 93, and through all those latter decades looked beautifully ageless with china-like sculpted cheek bones. Like many black American performers of her generation, she found it easier to work in Europe, and so settled in London. If there was a piano to hand, I'd want to hear her sing "The Nearness of You" or a little Kern. So, if memory serves, the only time I ever brought up the Charleston was at a dinner party in the early Nineties. The theme of that year's BBC Red Nose Day (on which Richard Curtis, Rowan Atkinson, Stephen Fry et al inveigle celebs into being good sports for charity) was "The Stonker" - as in Brit slang for something humongous. So, for weeks beforehand, whenever you switched on TV, the announcers were warning of a stonking great this and a stonkingly huge that. And along the way the comedy duo Hale & Pace managed to have a Number One hit with a parody dance called "The Stonk". And that night over dessert Liz Welch, in a very ladylike voice, said, "What is this 'Stonk' that everyone's on about?" And I said it was a dance craze. And she replied in her best Lady Bracknell: "A dance craze?" And I said, "Oh, come on, you're the girl who introduced the Charleston..." And then I asked her whether a "lapazoo" was bigger than a "stonk".
And that was the only exchange we ever had on the subject.
Still, if you're going to launch only one dance craze, better the Charleston than the Hucklebuck. It spread across America and then the world, including Bristol, England, where the Vicar of St Aidan's, the Reverend E W Rogers, savaged its depraved rhythms:
Any lover of the beautiful will die rather than be associated with the Charleston. It is neurotic! It is rotten! It stinks! Phew! Open the windows!
The Bishop of Coventry demurred: "It is a very nice dance," he decided.
It sparked, inevitably, a zillion sequels and imitations, of which one of my favorites turned up in the pre-DiCaprio Robert Redford Great Gatsby:
I'm gonna Charleston back
To my old shack
As the flood waters recede, if you're Charlestoning back to your luxury beachfront property I hope it's not reduced to a shack. Best of luck to Carolina in the morning after, and stay safe.
~Many of Steyn's most popular Song of the Week essays are collected together in his book A Song For The Season, personally autographed copies of which are available from the SteynOnline bookstore - and, if you're a Mark Steyn Club member, don't forget to enter the special promo code at checkout to enjoy the special Steyn Club member discount.
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