I know Mark has his Song of the Week planned well in advance, but would appreciate if you pass along a special request. My dog Zippy celebrates her tenth birthday November 22nd. As part of teaching her to respond to her name, I played eighteen versions of 'Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah' to her (everything from the classic Bing Crosby to Miley Cyrus's Disney and Don Carlos's reggae). I would be thrilled if sometime during Zippy's tenth year, Mark would give his take on 'Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah.
So happy for Mark's court victory, though I know from painful personal experience that doesn't always result in cold hard cash and it's an interminable process (four years here was a short stint by US legal standards). Best to everyone there for a Happy Thanksgiving. We give thanks for the wit & wisdom of Mark Steyn!
Well, we're not really in the request business in this department, Patty. But your PS about my tremendous legal victory reminded me that we had "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah" all scheduled as our Song of the Week in 2017 to mark the seventieth anniversary of its Oscar victory, and then litigious billionaire Cary Katz's ten-million-dollar lawsuit landed on me and I never got around to the column because I was tied up with attorneys all that week. So, almost two years later, I figure I might as well finish what I started, with all good birthday wishes to Zippy and many happy returns.
"Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah" is what the late Betty Comden described to me as a "singable song", by which she meant the very title on the printed page is infectious enough to get you warbling. Every so often, the kids and I go ziplining at Alpine Adventures in Lincoln, New Hampshire. I'm not a big zipper myself, but my fearless daughter got a yen for leaping off the tops of trees and flying through the White Mountains 200 feet in the air when she was seven or so, so I gamely jumped off behind her just to keep her company, and in the fullness of time her brothers got into the habit, too. There are lots of ziplining joints in northern New Hampshire and Vermont, but my youngest boy's theory is that what makes the difference is the banter - the pitch of the millennial guides as they try to oomph up the experience with labored puns and the like - and one reason we like Alpine Adventures is because the oomphing-up starts back at base when they hand out the helmets and carabiners and get you in the mood by playing Johnny Mercer. I don't know whether Patty's eighteen versions of the number included this one, but it got to Number Eight in 1947, outselling Bing and all other rivals:
That's a marvelous record that just sweeps you along with it: Jo Stafford and the Pied Pipers' wonderful harmonies, Paul Weston's orchestra, and of course Johnny Mercer's laidback Savannah vocal. Mercer was a very great songwriter, but, after founding Capitol Records, he developed a sideline as a big-selling pop star with Number One records including "Candy" and "Personality" and other smash hits such as "San Fernando Valley", "A Gal in Calico", "Winter Wonderland" and "Baby, It's Cold Outside". And, if you're saying, "Hang on, none of those are Johnny Mercer lyrics", you're right: One of the reasons he started making records is because he liked singing other men's songs. And, in the case of "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah", the other fellows' song he got a yen to sing was, in fact, written by Allie Wrubel and Ray Gilbert.
Well, Allie Wrubel was born in 1905 in Middletown, Connecticut, where his family owned Wrubel's Department Store, a fixture on Main Street until 1964. Allie studied medicine at Columbia, but then got a job playing saxophone in Paul Whiteman's band, and one thing led to another and he started writing music and lyrics, with not much success, which isn't surprising when you consider his idea of a hit title was "I've Got a Communistic Feeling for You". And, before you protest that we don't need any more showbiz Bolsheviks, Allie Wrubel was evenhanded enough to put in a word for the old regime with "Rasputin (That Highfalutin' Lovin' Man)". His biggest success in those early years was an almost absurdly formal tune with a florid lyric to match:
As You Desire Me
So shall I come to you
Howe'er you want me
So shall I be
Be it forever
Or be it just a day
As You Desire Me
Let come what may
I doubt not but you will do
What you will with me...
A long, long time ago I was putting together a compilation of Ring Lardner's short stories about Broadway and Tin Pan Alley for Stubby Kaye, and I came across a column (for The New Yorker, I think) mercilessly mocking Allie Wrubel for the above. Lardner disliked the song because he considered its title to be "flagrantly immoral" and everything that followed to be unliterate codswallop. Oh, and he assumed Allie was a woman:
Her (I hope it's a her) phrase 'I doubt not but' is one I dastn't criticize. A descendant of mine used it in an essay contest at Andover and won $15.00. Of course, he might have been first but for the but. 'Let come what may,' however, should read 'leave come what may' or 'let may what come'; otherwise, a person gets all mixed up.
Notwithstanding that critique, "As You Desire Me" survived to be recorded by Jo Stafford, Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee and Frank Sinatra, who almost persuades you he's taking all that howe'er I doubt not but be it come what may stuff seriously. Wrubel then went on to write two of the greatest songs anyone's ever written, "Gone With the Wind" and "(I'm Afraid) The Masquerade Is Over". The latter Sinatra was supposed to record in a rollicking Billy May arrangement in the late Eighties, but that night at the session Frank ran down one take on the first song ("My Foolish Heart"), decided he didn't like the way he sounded, and walked out the studio never to return. So Frank Sinatra Jr recorded the Billy May "Masquerade Is Over" chart about a decade ago, and it's a really terrific record. As for "Gone With the Wind", everyone assumes it was written to cash in on the movie, because the most commonly available sheet music bears the inscription:
Based upon the greatest of all Motion Pictures, by arrangement with Selznick International Pictures, Inc.
But, in fact, Wrubel wrote it two years before the movie, to cash in on the book. Jazz instrumentalists love it, and rightly so. By this stage, Wrubel had moved to Hollywood, and figured out that he was a better composer than a lyricist, which is why those two excellent tunes have words by Herb Magidson. In the Forties, he took a job with Disney and was assigned to supply a couple of songs for a picture called Song of the South, a clever mix of live action and animation adapted from the Uncle Remus folktales of Br'er Rabbit et al collected in the Reconstruction Era south by Joel Chandler Harris. It was Uncle Walt's first venture into non-cartoon filmmaking, mainly because he felt that, to be strong enough to hold the picture together, Uncle Remus needed to be a real flesh-and-blood human being. Hence James Baskett, who was made for the role. Wrubel's lyricist was a young fellow called Ray Gilbert, and they were told to write a number for the "Br'er Rabbit Runs Away" sequence early in the picture. The song cue is about as basic as it gets. Kindly ol' Uncle Remus explains:
Yessir, honey, it happened on one o' them zip-a-dee-doo-dah days. Now that's the kind o' day when you can't open your mouth without a song jumpin' right out of it.
And out it jumps, as reality transforms into a cartoon landscape of anthropomorphized delights:
My oh my, what a wonderful day!
But where exactly did that splendidly unforgettable phrase come from? The "Br'er Rabbit Runs Away" section is adapted from Joel Chandler Harris' story "Mr Rabbit and Mr Bear", which is popularly known as "Br'er Rabbit Makes a Dollar a Minute":
Brer Rabbit, he up'n say he makin' dollar minnit. Brer B'ar, he say how. Brer Rabbit say he keepin' crows out'n Brer Fox's groun' pea patch, en den he ax Brer B'ar ef he don't wanter make dollar minnit, kaze he got big fambly er chilluns fer to take keer un, en den he make sech nice skeercrow.
Which is why, in his hit record of "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah", Johnny Mercer responds to the question "How are you?" with:
Making a dollar a minute!
Mercer, like almost every American of his generation, had known those Uncle Remus tales since childhood. But there's not a "zip" or a "doo-dah" to be found in that yarn. So whence does it derive? Did the lyricist, Ray Gilbert, just conjure it out of the blue?
Not according to Allie Wrubel. As the composer recalled it, Walt Disney told him he needed a sad song at this point in the picture, and Allie decided the boss was all wet and determined instead to write the most un-sad song you could imagine. And, driving home from the studio, he remembered back when he was a kid in Middletown, Connecticut, and his mom used to stand at the back door and call him and his six brothers and sisters in for supper by yelling:
And the kids would yell back either "Doo-dah!" or "Danky-doo!", the latter of which would have been all wrong for the song.
"Doo-dah", of course, has a long pedigree going all the way back to Stephen Foster's "Camptown Races" in 1850. But, for such an irresistible singable sound on that low downbeat of Allie Wrubel's tune, "zip" is a remarkably unsung word in the American songbook. In Wrubel & Gilbert's time, there was only "Zip!", a Rodgers & Hart song for Pal Joey about an intellectual stripper loosely based on Gypsy Rose Lee. She thinks great thoughts as she disrobes:
I was reading Schopenhauer last night
And I think that Schopenhauer was right
- which is a bit too special for the standard repertoire. On the other hand, the performer's pretensions do eerily prefigure both Madonna and SinĂ©ad O'Connor:
I have read the great Kabala
And I simply worship Allah...
Other than that, you have to go all the way back to "Zip Coon", which is sung to the same tune as "Turkey in the Straw" and emerged around the same time in Jacksonian America - the late 1820s/early 1830s, written by George Washington Dixon or some other minstrel of the day:
Oh, ole Zip Coon he is a larned skoler
Sings possum up a gum tree an conny in a holler...
Which gave rise to a stock figure of 19th century minstrel shows, the blackface dandy. It may also be the first recorded usage of a common verb of the Internet era:
Ebry time de wild goose beckens to de swaller
You hear him google google google google gollar...
But, for our purposes, what's of interest is "Zip Coon"'s chorus:
O zip a duden duden duden zip a duden day
O zip a duden duden duden duden duden day
O zip a duden duden duden zip a duden day
Zip a duden duden duden zip a duden day.
You can hear a very thorough rendering of the song here, and, although the words are similar, the effect is not. So, if Allie Wrubel and Ray Gilbert did indeed recall the phrase from a cobwebbed corner of minstrelsy, they made far better use of it. A good song is not just words set to notes, but the coalescence of the two, and in "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah", the phrase has unforgettable buoyancy, which is impressive considering that, for a conventional 32-bar pop song, it sits at different places on different notes. First time round, it's up at the front:
My oh my, what a wonderful day!
I like the way the "wonderful day" descends counter-intuitively to the low notes. But second time round the title's moved to the back:
Plenty of sunshine headin' my way
After which the release:
Mister Bluebird's on my shoulder...
The bluebird is an ornithological fixture in early twentieth-century pop song - "Blue Skies", "I'm Always Chasing Rainbows", "When the Sun Comes Out" and somewhat more artfully present as "the bird with feathers of blue ...waiting for you/Back in Your Own Backyard". It's a tired image, yet never so fresh and right as when Uncle Walt's animators landed a cartoon bluebird on James Baskett's shoulder for "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah". A bluebird on your shoulder? Come off it!
It's the truth! It's actual!
Ev'rything is satisfactual...
Which was surely one reason why Johnny Mercer wanted to sing the song.
Song of the South was a rather bold film in its day. The leading man was a black actor, and indeed the first such ever to win an Oscar. And, even more striking, the trio of young tykes capering through the picture is, as we would now say, multiracial. Walt Disney was so anxious to avoid accusations of "Uncle Tomism" he hired Maurice Rapf, a Jewish Communist, to work on the script and keep it sufficiently au courant with enlightened thinking on the racial question. Mr Rapf was so up to the minute in progressive thinking that shortly before the picture's release he was outed as a Red by The Hollywood Reporter and became more or less the original blacklisted screenwriter. (He would up teaching Film Studies down the road from me at Dartmouth College.)
All this ultimately availed Disney naught. Joel Chandler Harris' rendering of Negro dialect came to be seen as "stereotyping", and, notwithstanding that the movie is set in the Reconstruction south rather than the slavery era, the scenes of plantation life were offensively idyllic to those who can't tell late-nineteenth-century dress from antebellum garb. So Song of the South is the only Disney feature never to be released on video or DVD, and thus has the distinction of being an early victim of our culture's intolerance of anything non-conforming to the pieties of the last three days.
The song, though, proved indestructible. It beat Frank Loesser's aching "I Wish I Didn't Love You So" to win the Academy Award that year, and planted itself in the heads of two generations of American children as part of the opening medley on "The Wonderful World of Disney". And in the Sixties it became, via Bob B Soxx & the Blue Jeans, the song on which Phil Spector perfected his "Wall of Sound". At the end of the Eighties, Steve Miller did a mellow laidback-guitar take on it, de-Zipped as it were. But I'm not sure there are many takers for a zipless "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah", and evidently Capitol felt the same, as it was his last album for them.
"Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah" turned out to be its composer's penultimate success. The Wrubels had moved to Twentynine Palms in California back when it was still officially called Twenty-Nine Palms and in 1947, the year after "Zip", Allie decided to celebrate his new hometown in "The Lady from 29 Palms", which wasn't as big as his "Lady in Red" but was nevertheless a Top Five hit. If you ever find yourself dating a lady from 29 or Twenty-Nine or Twentynine Palms, it may come in useful, although I hope you have better luck than her 29 thwarted swains. Here's Frank taking a whack at it on "Your Hit Parade":
Ray Gilbert became a publisher and wound up with a piece of Antonio Carlos Jobim's most beguiling bossa novas, to which he put some utterly indifferent English lyrics, which could still drive Gene Lees into paroxysms of rage decades later. Still, a man who rhymes "actual" with "satisfactual" has the satisfactualization of knowing he has left his footsteps on the sands of time.
And there's one more reason we should treasure "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah". Whenever some chap sits down to compile The World's Greatest Songs from A to Z, he's faced with the awkward fact that there are very few songs beginning with Z. It's basically "Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart" plus, if you loosen the rules to include instrumentals, "Zorba's Theme". So, alphabetically speaking, "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah" is where the Great American Songbook ends, and, if it has to end anywhere, it's hard to improve on:
Wonderful feeling, wonderful day!
Indeed. Happy birthday, Zippy!
~Mark tells the story of many beloved songs - from "Auld Lang Syne" to "White Christmas" via "My Funny Valentine", "Easter Parade" and "Autumn Leaves"- in his book A Song For The Season. Personally autographed copies are exclusively available from the Steyn store - and this weekend, to celebrate SteynOnline's sixteenth birthday, there's sixteen per cent off not only that book but every one of Mark's bestselling books and CDs and our Steynamite Christmas specials and even digital downloads like the all-time greatest Christmas disco single. So just shop till you drop as you normally would, and the discount will be applied to your basket as you check out - but only through Monday.
We also have fifteen per cent off tickets for the first ever Dennis Miller/Mark Steyn tour if you enter the promo code HOLIDAYS - but, again, you have to book before midnight on Monday.
Mark will be back later this evening with Part Seventeen of our current audio adventure, The Scarlet Pimpernel. Tales for Our Time is made possible thanks to members of The Mark Steyn Club, for which we are profoundly grateful. You can find more details about the Steyn Club here. And don't forget our special Gift Membership, which makes a fine Christmas present, and this holiday season comes with a special personalized Christmas card from Mark and a handsomely-engraved gift-boxed USB stick with three of our most popular Tales for Our Time for your loved one to listen to in the car or perambulating through the wilderness or almost anywhere else. (The trio of tales is The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, The Time Machine and The Thirty-Nine Steps.) For more on our Christmas Gift Membership, see here.