Following our presidential edition of Mark at the Movies, this week's Song of the Week is the most senior political contribution to the American Songbook, and an enduring ballad across the decades. You can even find it in novels:
Timothy sauntered out of the cabin after dinner, rolling down his sleeves. He was actually humming, something he never did. What was worse, he was humming a song from his childhood that he had come to hate...
And what's worse than that is that it's the only hit song written by a candidate on a winning presidential ticket. Stuart Hamblen, composer of "This Ole House" (our Song of the Week #104), was the nominee of the Prohibition Party in 1952, but he lost. And at least one other presidential candidate has had his songs published and recorded: Senator Orrin Hatch from Utah, who ran for the Republican nomination in 2000, wrote a love song for Ted Kennedy called "Souls Along The Way". Gladys Knight made a record of it, and Orrin liked to play it over the speakers while campaigning in New Hampshire. Senator Hatch is a Mormon and, watching him on the stump in the Granite State, I came to realize that, yes, the American people are deeply prejudiced. They were willing to consider voting for a woman, a black, a Jew, a gay, a Wahhabi for President, but they weren't willing to consider voting for a guy who writes love songs for Ted Kennedy. That kind of bigotry is terribly unattractive, but, alas, Orrin was unable to overcome it.
I hasten to add, by the way, that Senator Hatch wasn't writing the love song to Ted Kennedy, it was for Ted and his wife. And I find it interesting that Senator Kennedy never wrote a love song for Orrin Hatch. So much for bipartisanship. I mean, where's Chuck Schumer's love song for Ted Cruz?
Anyway, putting aside Messrs Hatch and Hamblen, who is the only successful candidate on a national ticket to write a big hit song? A song so big it features in the plot of the novel cited above - Summer Blue by Floyd Skloot - not to mention a bunch of movies, including Diner and She's Having A Baby. It's the only American Number One and British Number One to be written by a Nobel Peace Prize winner, a distinction neither Barack Obama nor self-garlanded Fauxbel Laureate Michael Mann seem likely to threaten. A song so popular, it's been in and out of the charts pretty much every few years for six decades. A song so versatile it's been recorded by Bing Crosby, Van Morrison, Dinah Shore, UB40, Liberace, Barry White, Merle Haggard, Elton John, Lawrence Welk, Donny and Marie Osmond, Louis Armstrong, Gerry and the Pacemakers, Sammy Davis Jr, Phoebe Snow, Isaac Hayes, and the Gaylads. And, although it was written by an election winner, its opening lines are ruefully philosophical for those who come up short on a Tuesday night in November:
Many a tear has to fall
But it's All
In The Game...
Indeed. The man who wrote the notes on which those words sit was Charles Gates Dawes, a one-hit composer better known as Vice-President under Calvin Coolidge. Well, okay, not exactly "better-known". Still, in the pantheon of Elbridge Gerry, John C Breckenridge, Thomas R Marshall et al, "It's All In The Game" can reasonably claim to be the most enduring vice-presidential legacy of all.
Dawes was born in Marietta, Ohio in 1865, into a distinguished family. His father was the great Civil War general, Rufus Dawes, and his great-great-grandfather was the Revolutionary War hero William Dawes, one of the two men who rode from Boston to Lexington to warn John Hancock and Samuel Adams that the British were a-comin' on the night of April 18th 1775 - although it's the other midnight rider (Paul Revere) to whom posterity has accorded all but sole credit (mainly, it appears, because Longfellow thought the name "Revere" more poetic than "Dawes"). A century later, William Dawes' great-great-grandson Charles enjoyed a quiet childhood in Marietta and decided to become a lawyer. He made his name in Lincoln, Nebraska as "the people's advocate", attacking the unfair freight rates levied by the railroad companies. By the 1890s, he was in the utilities business, serving as president of the Lacrosse Gas Light Company in Wisconsin and the Northwestern Gas Light and Coke Company in Evanston, Illinois.
And at that point politics beckoned. In the 1896 election, Dawes was snapped up by Mark Hanna (the Karl Rove of his day) and put in charge of the Republican campaign in the western states. After duly delivering victory to McKinley he was offered a post in the cabinet, but turned it down and instead became Comptroller of the Currency. If you recall the Panic of 1893, you'll know that then as now there were a lot of failing banks around. Instead of showering them with a $700 billion bailout, Dawes managed to squeeze $25 million out of the collapsed banks, and reformed banking practice to prevent it happening again. After a failed Senate run in 1902, he returned to business and banking and became president of the Central Trust Company of Illinois.
If all that makes him sound of a bit of a dry old stick, not so. Charles Dawes was a self-taught pianist and flautist and in 1911 he wrote a melody in A major that he called, with banker's imagination, "Melody In A Major". "It's just a tune that I got in my head," recalled Dawes. "So I set it down" - all in one session at the piano in the drawing room at his lakeside home in Evanston. The muse had descended a handful of times over the years, but this time he played it for a friend, the violinist Francis MacMillan, and, unbeknownst to the composer, MacMillan took it to a music publisher in Chicago. "No one told me," said Dawes. "I was walking down State Street and came to a music shop. I saw a poster-size picture of myself, my name plastered all over the window in large letters..."
Which certainly never happened when he was vice-president.
The tune was a bona fide hit, and the banker developed a taste for somewhat heavy-handed self-deprecation. "I know that I will be the target of my punster friends," he said. "They will say that if all the notes in my bank are as bad as my musical ones, they are not worth the paper they were written on." Well, in music as in finance, it's not so much the notes as what you do with them. And what Dawes did in his little "Melody" is very appealing. The star violinist of his day, Fritz Kreisler, took it up as his regular encore, and it remained hugely popular as a concert lollipop. A decade and a half later, when Dr W E Dentinger of Riverside, Connecticut unveiled his thesis on the therapeutic powers of music, Dawes' "Melody" was conscripted to lead the charge. Play it to cows and they'll give more milk, he said. In a talk at the Hotel Astor, Dentinger instructed the ladies in his audience to lie back and close their eyes while an offstage pianist played Charles Dawes' greatest hit. "With proper care, diet, sanitation and music we can all live to be 150 years old," said Dr Dentinger.
By this time, the composer himself was getting sick of the tune. The intervening years had been busy ones. During the Great War, he was the general purchasing agent of the American Expeditionary Force. A "general purchasing agent" isn't exactly the same as a regular general, but nevertheless Dawes brought a real swagger to the task. Afterwards, Congress held hearings on war profiteering, and, summoned to prostrate himself before a bunch of hacks for whom he had little regard, he roared, "Hell and Maria, we weren't trying to keep a set of books over there, we were trying to win a war!" Thereafter, he was known as General "Hell'n'Maria" Dawes, though he always insisted he said "Helen Maria". The line went down well, and made him a rising star in the GOP. He served as Harding's Director of the Budget, devised the Dawes Plan on German war reparations, and shared the 1925 Nobel Peace Prize with the British Foreign Secretary, Sir Austen Chamberlain. Campaigning in 1924 as Calvin Coolidge's running mate, he was a colorful fellow - partial to strange collars and an upside-down pipe, and prone to outbursts of Bidenesque incoherence. But the crowds liked him, and everywhere he went across the land, from teeming metropolis to small town to railroad halt, as his biographer wrote, "his 'Melody In A Major' was being manhandled by bands of every description."
He was elected 92 years ago - November 5th 1924 - and can stake a persuasive claim to being the most obnoxious vice-president in history. Even before they took office, he sent a rude letter to Coolidge saying he wouldn't be showing up to cabinet meetings. On the day of their inauguration, he gave an address to the Senate so spectacularly offensive it overshadowed the President's speech that followed. Dawes insulted the Senate, the senators and all their doings, and was heartily criticized for it (though not by me: "the world's greatest deliberative body" could use more of that). The Vice-President and the upper house eventually reconciled to the point where Dawes played a key role in persuading them to pass a farm relief bill, which Coolidge promptly vetoed. By 1928, when the 30th president announced his decision not to run again, he and his vice-president so loathed each other that Coolidge let it be known to the party that he would regard it as a personal affront if they nominated Dawes - not just for president but for a second term as veep. Ol' Hell'n'Maria left for London and a tour as Ambassador to the Court of St James's, in which capacity he annoyed King George V by declining to wear knee breeches and complained about having to introduce American debutantes at the palace.
How odd that a master of such world-class orneriness should be best known as the composer of a beguilingly romantic tune. Dawes' "Melody" faded a little in the Thirties, but three decades after its first success it was still seductive enough to appeal to Tommy Dorsey. I believe it was Dorsey's recording that brought the tune to Carl Sigman's attention. Sigman was then in the early days of what would prove a long career. You don't know his name? Well, he wrote pretty much everything: "Pennsylvania 6-5000" for Glenn Miller; "Crazy He Calls Me" for Billie Holiday; "Ebb Tide"; "Arrivederci Roma"; "Civilization (Bongo Bongo Bongo)"; "Dance, Ballerina, Dance"; "What Now, My Love?"; "Answer Me, My Love"; "Where Do I Begin?" (the theme from Love Story) - ballads, novelty songs, foreign translations, and, of course, his seasonal masterpiece (even without my version to help it along), "A Marshmallow World". And four decades after an Illinois banker sat down and wrote a melody called "Melody", Carl Sigman put words to it, and gave it a proper title:
Many a tear has to fall
But it's All
In The Game
All in the wonderful game
That we know as love...
In 1951, Sammy Kaye, Dinah Shore and Carmen Cavallaro all picked up on the song. My favorite version from those early years is Gordon Jenkins' formal arrangement for Nat "King" Cole. It belongs to a group of Fifties ballads - "Unforgettable", "When I Fall In Love" - that he brought a strange sort of romantic dignity to. But his wasn't the hit. That honor went to a lesser balladeer called Tommy Edwards, whose smooth recording got to Number 18 in 1951:
You have words with him
And your future's looking dim
But these things your heart can rise above...
Ah, if only. By 1958, Edwards' career was on the slide. MGM Records was ready to drop him, but, with one session left under his contract, he was asked by the label to re-record his biggest hit in the new stereo format. Instead of using the 1951 arrangement, Edwards recorded it as a rock'n'roll ballad, with an insistent walking accompaniment. The new version of Vice-President Dawes' tune proved so popular that it was Number One in both America and Britain in 1958 - and topping the charts during the Eisenhower Administration isn't bad for a tune written by Coolidge's veep during the Taft Administration. Tommy Edwards' success with "All In The Game" started a lively fad for rock ballad versions of pre-rock hits - "Who's Sorry Now?" by Connie Francis, et al. But, because "It's All In The Game" was never that boffo in its previous incarnation, its own fate was rather different. Despite being concocted by Carl Sigman, the quintessential jobbing Tin Pan Alleyman, it was embraced as an authentic r'n'b ballad, and the pop crowd never left it alone. In Britain, Cliff Richard got to Number Two with it in the Sixties, and the Four Tops put it back in the Top Five in the Seventies, and Van Morrison wrung so much juice out of it on the eve of the Eighties that Dave Marsh included his interpretation as one of the indispensable 1,001 rock singles of all time.
It's one of those universal songs of deceptive simplicity. Sigman was a very skilled songwriter, and particularly good at images that don't seem terribly interesting on the page but have a palpable yearning when they're set to their notes:
Once in a while he won't call
But it's All
In The Game
Soon he'll be there at your side
With a sweet bouquet
And he'll kiss your lips
And caress your waiting fingertips
And your heart will fly away...
That last line is just lovely. The tune itself seems to fly away under the words.
What would Charles Dawes have made of Van Morrison? Or Isaac Hayes or Engelbert Humperdinck or UB40? He never heard any of them. He never heard Carl Sigman's words. He died at the age of 85 in April 1951, six months before Tommy Edwards' first version made the hit parade and "Melody In A Major" began its new life as "It's All In The Game". Perhaps the lyric would have tickled his fancy, for by then he was mighty sick of the tune. "General Sherman, with justifiable profanity, once expressed his detestation of the tune 'Marching Through Georgia,' to which he was compelled to listen whenever he appeared anywhere," grumbled Dawes. "I sympathize with his feeling when I listen to this piece of mine over and over. If it had not been fairly good music I should have been subjected to unlimited ridicule."
It is indeed "fairly good music". I'm often asked, when I mention Dawes, whether he wrote anything else. Why, certainly. He wrote The Banking System Of The United States And Its Relation To The Money And Business Of The United States. Snappy title. If I hum a few bars, maybe you can play it. So, yes, plenty of other writing - books on finance and war reparations and the federal budget. But nothing you'd want to hear Engelbert Humperdinck sing.
On the original sheet music, the credit read "Words by Carl Sigman" and "Music by Gen Charles G Dawes." Presumably "Vice-Pres Charles G Dawes" was felt to be less commercial. Nevertheless, "It's All In The Game" remains the only transatlantic Number One hit to be composed by a Nobel Peace Prize winner, an Ambassador to the Court of St James's and a Vice-President of the United States:
And he'll kiss your lips
And caress your waiting fingertips
And your heart will fly away.
~If you've enjoyed Steyn's Song of the Week these last ten years, in print, audio or book form, you might like to know that he'll be doing a TV version of them every week as part of his new nightly extravaganza, The Mark Steyn Show. You can watch it from almost anywhere in the planet - well, anywhere with electricity - at any time of the day you like on whatever delivery system you so desire: TV or tablet, iPhone or incendiary Samsung - and entirely commercial-free, for a full hour, five nights a week. Aside from our Song of the Week, many other favorite SteynOnline features will be translated to television format - including Mark at the Movies, Ave atque vale and Mark's Mailbox.
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