Well, it's the beginning of June and that means June is bustin' out all over!
Except that June doesn't really bust, does it? Not in Maine, where Carousel, the show for which the song was written, happens to be set. It's one of those indeterminate months - might be a glorious 70-degree summer's day, or (as in my corner of Northern New England a few nights back) you might have a frost advisory. A few years back on June 1st, my town was still recovering from a late (very late) snow clobbering that knocked out all power at SteynOnline corporate HQ for over a week.
Nevertheless, while partially dissociating myself from the notion of June as a calendar-buster, I was struck by the fact that in my book A Song For The Season (personally autographed copies of which are exclusively available, etc, etc) we don't have any "month" songs. There are, per the title, seasonal songs - "Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most", "Autumn Leaves" - and we dusted off Rodgers & Hart's "April Fool". But that's a "day" song that just happens to have a month in the title. I'm thinking rather of songs like "April Showers", or "One Morning In May", or:
Memphis In June
A shady veranda
Under a Sunday-blue sky
Memphis In June
And cousin Miranda
Making a rhubarb pie...
I like a number that gives you a real whiff of time and place, and there's a heavy scent of summer in Hoagy Carmichael's unhurried, meandering tune. tune. As for the lyric, Paul Francis Webster, having saddled himself with Miranda and the veranda and a fiend of a rhyme scheme, then comes up with a real lulu of an image:
Memphis In June
With sweet oleander
Blowing perfume in the air...
For a long while, I thought that was the only lyric ever to use the word "oleander", but every time I say so someone writes in with another citation (Steely Dan's "My Old School"). If you know any others, drop me a line: I'm planning an album called Mark Steyn Sings The Oleander Songbook and so far we've got enough for an EP. Despite June's best efforts, the most popular musical month remains September, as in "September Song":
The days dwindle down
To a precious few
That's why songwriters like the ninth month of the year, because it symbolizes the September of your years (to cite a Sinatra title), the autumn of your days, when an old man's fancy turns to melancholy contemplation of the falling leaves on his biological calendar. June can never have quite that symbolic heft, although Oscar Hammerstein certainly tries his hardest:
March went out like a lion
A-whippin' up the water in the bay
Then April cried
And stepped aside
And along come pretty little May!
May was full of promises
But she didn't keep 'em quick enough fer some
And a crowd of Doubtin' Thomases
Was predictin' that the summer'd never come
But it's comin', by gum!
Y'ken feel it come
Y'ken feel it in yer heart
Y'ken see it in the ground
Y'ken hear it in the trees
Y'ken smell it in the breeze
Look around, look around, look around!
Okay, enough with the scene-setting, man. What precisley is "comin' by gum"?
June Is Bustin' Out All Over!
All over the meadow and the hill
Buds're bustin' outta bushes
And the rompin' river pushes
Ev'ry little wheel that wheels beside a mill...
Ferenc Molnar wrote the play Liliom in 1921, and turned down offers to musicalize it from, among others, Puccini and Gershwin. Rodgers & Hammerstein evidently proved more persuasive and, after securing the rights, the first decision they made was to move the action from Budapest to down east in Maine. It was the team's second show, after their smash debut in 1943 with Oklahoma! (whose title song was our Song of the Week #76). Two years on, R&H gave us what I regard as their greatest score, including not only the magnificent "If I Loved You" but the tremendous "Soliloquy" (also included in A Song For The Season) that closes the First Act. Carousel is an entirely different show from Oklahoma! but it nevertheless shares what would become one of the preoccupations of their oeuvre: Community. How do you build it? How do you keep it? The chorus in Carousel isn't there merely to provide extra lung power in the showstoppers but to give voice to the community of New England coastal life, not in a heavily didactic signposted way but unobtrusively. "This Was A Real Nice Clambake" seems like a capering chorus number - what the director Hal Prince calls (after Pajama Game) a Once-A-Year-Day number. But then we get to the main course - the arrival of the clams steamed under rockweed - and Richard Rodgers' music moves into processional rhythm, and suddenly, through all the jolly knees-up, it's about ritual and sacrament and a kind of secular Yankee communion. The feckless Billy Bigelow is about to break faith with his community, and the anticipation of that courses through the clambake scene: The song represents the world Billy is throwing away.
On a National Review cruise a decade or so back, I was on a curious panel in which Jay Nordlinger interviewed Ken Starr about law, Midge Decter about novels, and me about music. And at one point Jay asked a question about the difference between Rodgers & Hart and Rodgers & Hammerstein. And I replied you can wander into any record store (for those old enough to remember such things) and find bins full of Rodgers & Hart albums: Ella Fitzgerald Sings Rodgers & Hart, Tony Bennett Sings Rodgers & Hart, The Supremes Sing Rodgers & Hart, Donald Rumsfeld Sings Rodgers & Hart... On and on. Singers love to sing Rodgers & Hart, but the public loves to sing Rodgers & Hammerstein, and one reason is those great rousing chorus numbers. To be sure, various star names from Bryn Terfel to Benny Goodman have recorded this material, but the rest of us love them because they're singable songs - not just songs you like listening to, but songs you like bellowing out yourself. They're lusty, and in this case explicitly so:
June Is Bustin' Out All Over!
The beaches are crowded ev'ry night
From Penobscot to Augusty
All the boys are feelin' lusty
And the girls ain't even puttin' up a fight
Because it's June!
June, June, June
Just because it's June, June, June!
"Augusty" is the capital of Maine, although I'm not sure I've ever heard any denizen thereof refer to it as such.
Oscar Hammerstein thought a lot about lyrics - his and everybody else's. His son James once told me that "Dad was always puzzled by 'Darktown Strutters' Ball'":
I'll be down to get you in a taxi, honey
You better be ready 'bout half-past eight...
"All that urgency, and then it's tomorrow night at the Darktown Strutters' Ball. He could never figure that out," said James. "He lived a lot of lyrics through." In his own work, he prized internal logic, and loathed inaccuracy. In "Oh, What A Beautiful Morning", he originally wrote "The corn is as high as a cow-pony's eye", and, upon discovering the corn was in fact higher, amended it to "an elephant's eye". In Carousel, "June Is Bustin' Out All Over" is, in essence, a paean to the mating season, and so at one point Hammerstein opted for a Maine version of the old joke about singing Gershwin in Wales or the Falkland Islands: "Embrace me, my sweet embraceable ewe." As Hammerstein wrote:
June Is Bustin' Out All Over!
The sheep aren't sleepin' anymore
All the rams that chase the ewe sheep
Are determined there'll be new sheep
And the ewe sheep aren't even keepin' score!
Etc. Everybody working on the show liked it. Then they started holding backers' auditions. And among the potential investors who attended a run-through of the songs was Mr G M Loeb, who subsequently sent Oscar Hammerstein a letter:
I do not think rams mate with ewes in June as they do in your lyrics but I am not really certain. We have been told to keep our rams separate at all times except when the ewes are in heat but we did not follow this precaution and in several years all mating seemed confined to September-October - no mounting whatsoever in June, or if so no results.
To modify a later Hammerstein song, the ewes were more likely to decline every mountin' than to exhibit the enthusiasm shown in "June Is Bustin' Out All Over". With the show slated to open on Broadway in April 1945, the author replied to Mr Loeb:
I was delighted with the parts of your letter praising my work and thrown into consternation by the unwelcome news about the eccentricly frigid behavior of ewes in June. I have since checked your statement and found it to be true. It looks very much as if in the interests of scientific honesty I shall have to abandon the verse dealing with sheep.
Sometimes, as Hammerstein liked to say, research "poisons" your work. And it seems to have done so in this case. But, after giving more thought to the matter, he decided to keep the offending quatrain. Which was just as well. A decade later, when Rodgers & Hammerstein were making the film version of Carousel, the enforcers of the Production Code Administration objected to certain "suggestive" sections and the author found himself running short of lyrics. The censors were relaxed about the four-legged friskiness but drew the line at those lines quoted above about the boys in Augusty feelin' lusty. Strange to think that a mere sixty years back, such a couplet was deemed too sexual for a Hollywood movie. But the producers conceded, and Hammerstein dutifully rewrote:
June Is Bustin' Out All Over!
The moonlight is shinin' on the shore
And the girls who were contrary
With the boys in January
Aren't nearly so contrary any more
- which the Production Code Administration graciously agreed to permit. As for the embraceable ewes, Hammerstein found himself fending off the occasional sheep breeder over the years and took to justifying himself as follows:
What you say about sheep may all be true for most years, but not in 1873. 1873 is my year and that year, curiously enough, the sheep mated in the spring.
So, if you're on the Maine coast in the next month and you see the rams chasing the ewe sheep, don't worry. They've probably just got Carousel on their iPods. Happy June - and get bustin'!
~As mentioned above, Mark's book A Song For The Season contains the stories behind many beloved seasonal songs from "Auld Lang Syne" to "White Christmas" - and don't forget, when you order through the SteynOnline bookstore, Mark will be happy to autograph it to your loved one. Also: if you're a Mark Steyn Club member, remember to enter your promotional code at checkout to receive special member pricing on that book and over forty other Steyn Store products.
Speaking of The Mark Steyn Club, we're just beginning its third year. We thank all of our First Month Founding Members who've decided to re-re-up for another twelve months, and hope that fans of our musical endeavors here at SteynOnline will want to do the same in the days ahead. As we always say, club membership isn't for everybody, but it helps keep all our content out there for everybody, in print, audio, video, on everything from civilizational collapse to our Sunday song selections. And we're proud to say that thanks to the Steyn Club this site now offers more free content than ever before in our sixteen-year history.
What is The Mark Steyn Club? Well, it's an audio Book of the Month Club, and a video poetry circle, and a live music club. We don't (yet) have a clubhouse, but we do have other benefits including not one but two cruises, on both of which we'll enjoy a live-performance edition of our Song of the Week. And, if you've got some kith or kin who might like the sound of all that and more, we also have a special Gift Membership. More details here.
Comment on this item (members only)
Viewing and submission of reader comments is restricted to Mark Steyn Club members only. If you are not yet a member, please click here to join. If you are already a member, please log in here: