Zinsser on Friday

In Bed by the Last Eight

By William Zinsser | March 18, 2011


The cabaret singer Mary Cleere Haran, who died last month in a bicycle accident at the age of 58, was one of the brightest stars in a small galaxy of American preservationists–singers and singer-pianists who perform the classics of the Great American Songbook and are custodians of that literature. Their accompanying “patter” is a scholarly edifice, usually built around one of the great songwriters or a particular period in American popular culture.

A partial list of those hardworking historians would include Karen Akers, Ann Hampton Callaway, Eric Comstock, Barbara Fasano, Michael Feinstein, Kathleen Landis, Andrea Marcovicci, Maureen McGovern, Daryl Sherman, and Ronny Whyte. Most of them have never known the luxury of a decent workplace: an adequate stage, a proper sound system, a landlord who doesn’t treat them as just another item on the payroll. Wedged into a cramped nightclub or hotel lounge, they emerge into the spotlight as elegantly turned out as if they had the biggest dressing room in the world, not the smallest. Wedged into my own cramped seat in the audience, I watch them with admiration.

Mary Cleere Haran had a pure singing voice and a clarity of diction that didn’t miss a syllable. Her quick intelligence and humor caught her affection for the social history of the songs she was singing. Except for Lorenz Hart, whose ballads of heartbreak she often sang, she thought that male lyricists were clueless in matters of romantic love. Oscar Hammerstein, she once said, told us what we “should feel,” unlike Hart, who told us what we “did feel.”

Only one lyricist, she believed, got it right about what the hormones were up to, and that was Dorothy Fields. Two of Fields’s earliest hits, written with the composer Jimmy McHugh–“I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Baby” and “Don’t Blame Me (for falling in love with you)”–were flat-out assertions of desire. Writing about Fields in The Village Voice, in 1993, Haran says that Fields’s persona in “Don’t Blame Me” is “forthright and self-assured, making the lyric just about as sexy as it can be. Never coy. Never hesitant. She gets right to the heart of the matter, unlike some of the boys, who could be ponderous (Oscar Hammerstein), verbose (Howard Dietz), or flippant (Cole Porter). Which only reaffirms the age-old secret that men, not women, are the prudes in this society.” Haran could also have cited Fields’s “I’m in the Mood for Love,” which proceeds from medium to full arousal (“But for tonight forget it! I’m in the mood for love”) or “A Fine Romance,” written with Jerome Kern for their great movie score Swing Time, in which Ginger Rogers complains to Fred Astaire that he won’t nestle and won’t wrestle.

Historically, the mother church of Tin Pan Alley was the Brill Building, on Broadway, where music publishers held court every day for songwriters demonstrating their latest tunes on a tinny piano. For those supplicants the publishers only had one piece of advice: “Get ’em in bed by the last eight.” Meaning the last eight bars of music.

(Pedagogical note: 99 percent of American popular songs are 32 bars long–no more, no less. The Western ear has long been habituated to getting its narrative information in four segments of eight bars each. Only rarely has a composer felt that he needed more room to tell his story–most famously Cole Porter, whose “Begin the Beguine” runs to 104 bars. The beguine, once begun, never ends.)

In theory the last eight bars should build to a predestined conclusion, happy or sad, and bed was the publishers’ destination of choice. But most lyricists didn’t get anywhere near the sheets. Ira Gershwin specialized in love hoped-for (“Someday he’ll come along, the man I love” or “There’s a somebody I’m longing to see . . . someone to watch over me”). Cole Porter dealt in grand abstractions, preferably cosmic (“Night and day, you are the one. Only you beneath the moon and under the sun”). Oscar Hammerstein ducked into the subjunctive (“If I loved you”) or the indirect (“People will say we’re in love”). Many songwriters just left the job to nature: “Every little breeze seems to whisper Louise,” “Skylark, have you anything to say to me?” Not much action there.

It took a savvy lyricist to slip around the codes of reticence. Frank Loesser managed it with “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” In the final bars of that antiphonal duet the long-resisting girl finally agrees with her boyfriend that it really is too cold for her to go home.

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