Although "Don't Smoke In Bed" was our Song of the Week #39, I last wrote about the art of the cigarette song more generally almost twenty years ago, in a piece that's anthologized in Mark Steyn From Head To Toe (personally autographed copies of which are exclusively available, etc, etc). So I was intrigued to receive this letter:
I just read Mark's discussion of 'Tea for Two,' and enjoyed it very much.
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 and then maybe being successful in getting the sheet music.
Well, as I've said before, our Song of the Week department isn't a request slot, but this intrigued me. The earliest smoking song I've ever come across is "Tobacco's But An Indian Weed" - 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 Tobackrauchers" ("The Edifying Thoughts Of A Tobacco Smoker"), and in the ensuing quarter-millennium smoking songs have lit up the musical catalogue - from the intimate imagery of "Two Cigarettes In The Dark" to the bleak morning after of "Three Cigarettes In An Ashtray". It's 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...
Jessica 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.
But what intrigued me about Mr Savage's song was 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 It's nicotine...
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, judging from Mr Savage's account of his uncle's time as a working pianist, his "Lady Nicotine" song would have come from a generation or two earlier. The first thing the phrase brought to my mind was 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. Lady Nicotine was about a bachelor approaching middle age whose betrothed tells him he has to choose between her or his smokes. You can read the 124-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 chances are it would have happened around the time Mr Savage's uncle was playing those Chicago dances in the teens and twenties.
So that's the period I started moseying around in, and here's where I picked up the scent:
The vapory cloak
Of My Lady, Nicotine...
I don't know whether that's Mr Savage's uncle's "Lady Nicotine", but as the first lines of a musical refrain I found them hard to resist. The song is by Will Marion Cook and F Clifford Harris - and, if you have as many pre-Golden Age composers and lyricists clogging up the depths of your memory as I do, your first thought is: How the hell did those guys wind up getting together?
Clifford Harris was a journeyman wordsmith who didn't want for work in the London theatre of the early 20th century. He contributed some "additional lyrics" to The Maid Of The Mountains, one of the three biggest West End stage hits of the Great War and a mainstay of amateur dramatics for the half-century afterwards. He was a handy chap to have around for "additional lyrics": Along with Jerome Kern and P G Wodehouse, he contributed extra numbers to The Beauty Of Bath, a big London show from 1904. His best-known song is probably one of those "additional lyrics" from The Maid Of The Mountains, "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 black 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. In 2009, Marva Griffin Carter wrote a biography of Will Marion Cook, Swingin' Around, and "My Lady Nicotine" doesn't rate a mention until the appendices when it shows up in a list of songs performed in Cook's last major Broadway work, Darkydom.
It was written at least five years earlier, and published by Harry von Tilzer, brother of Albert von Tilzer, whose enduring song "Take Me Out To The Ball Game" is featured in my book A Song For The Season. Its official title on the sheet music is the faintly irritating "My Lady, Nicotine (Smoke! Smoke!)" - I don't mind the exclamations, it's the comma. Fortunately, there's only one, because Mr Harris doesn't bother reprising the title after his marvelous opening:
The vapory cloak
Of My Lady, Nicotine
She's only a joke
But to men she is the queen
But she lures them away
From the world of today
Millionaire or the fellow who's broke
And they dream pretty dreams
But their beautiful schemes
End in smoke! smoke! smoke!
Harris belongs to that generation for whom verses were as important as choruses, and his has its moments:
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...
As for Cook's music, it sounds like it could be the song Mr Savage describes: The verse has ragtime syncopation, while the chorus goes into a rollicking waltz time. Could it have been sufficiently well-known to have been heard by Mr Savage's uncle on the south side of Chicago in the early years of the last century? Well, consider this theatrical review by Sylvester Russell in the November 9th 1912 edition of The Indianapolis Freeman, of a performance at Chicago's Monogram Theatre:
The advanced announcement that Miss Abbie Mitchell would appear at the Monogram last Monday filled the house at 7 p.m., something unprecedented; and when the diva appeared there was a big reception, which held back her song. Her first number was Will Marion Cook's "My Lady Nicotine," a smoking song of the French school, in which her art, in a rude classic, was supreme.
The Monogram Theatre was on the south side of Chicago, so maybe Mr Savage's uncle was there that night in 1912 and that was where he first heard "My Lady Nicotine". Who was Abbie Mitchell? Well, she was Mrs Will Marion Cook. They married young, and had two children before she was 19. Their son, Will Mercer Cook, grew up to become the first US Ambassador to the Gambia. Abbie Mitchell had a long career: She played a command performance in London before King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra (maybe that's where Mr and Mrs Cook met up with Clifford Harris). And a quarter-century after singing "My Lady Nicotine" in Chicago, she was in the original Broadway production of Porgy And Bess, playing Clara, in which role she got to sing the opening number and thus introduce the world to:
And the livin' is easy
Fish are jumpin'
And the cotton is high...
That's also in my book A Song For The Season. From the vapory cloak of Lady Nicotine to the easy livin' of Summertime isn't a bad career on the musical stage, and Abbie Mitchell certainly left her mark. Only Mr Savage knows if this is the "Lady Nicotine" his uncle tickled the ivories with all these years, so, if he goes to the Library of Congress website, he'll be able to download the sheet music and let us know. But I must say I find it rather beguiling and, if I hadn't been on the road this last week, I might have been tempted to slip into the studio and record my own version. 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 song 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...
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...
So I'm grateful to make the mad little, bad little Lady Nicotine's acquaintance this late in the 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.