Zinsser on Friday

Singing Along With Mitch

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By William Zinsser

September 17, 2010


 

The recent death at 99 of Mitch Miller, proprietor of the long-running television hit Sing Along With Mitch, took me back to a summer evening in 1991 at Chautauqua, the lakeside town in western New York that comes alive every summer–as it has since 1874–with a cornucopia of lectures, concerts, and other self-improving events. Lighter entertainment is allowed after sundown, and it was on one of those evenings that my wife and I found ourselves singing along with Mitch in Chautauqua’s huge open-air auditorium. Densely seated among strangers, we were united by a tradition going back to 19th-century America: group singing on a summer night.

We had been given copies of the lyrics, but the songs were deeply familiar. We had sung them since childhood around a piano, around a campfire, on a beach, by a lake, in college dormitories, at Boy Scout camp and Girl Scout camp, in cars and buses, at Rotary and Kiwanis Club lunches, in American Legion halls, at church socials and Grange socials and impromptu gatherings of friend and neighbors.

Some of the songs date from World War I (“Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit-Bag”). Some are about the land (“Home on the Range,” “Carolina in the Morning”). Some are about work (“I’ve Been Working on the Railroad”). Some are spirituals (“Swing Low Sweet Chariot”). But most of them are innocent declarations of love and longing: “Shine On, Harvest Moon (for me and my gal),” “A Bicycle Built for Two,” “There’s a Long, Long Trail a-Winding,” “Till We Meet Again”:

Smile the while you kiss me sad adieu

When the clouds roll by I’ll come to you. . . .

So wait and pray each night for me

Till we meet again.

 

The melodies are remarkably beautiful, each one a simple line that leaves no doubt about where it’s going, inevitable in its arc, instantly learned and never forgotten. Many are in three-quarter time, the most sentimental of tempos, an intravenous drip of yesteryear. One of them, “Let Me Call You Sweetheart,” I was told by my wife, who grew up in the song-singing Midwest, has its own choreography, born of long custom. As the song begins, everyone puts an arm around the people sitting on either side and starts to sway with the music. Sure enough, when the first notes were struck, as if turned on by a switch, arms were deployed throughout the auditorium and the audience rocked gently to the lilt of the waltz.

Our host, the goateed Mitch Miller, was no TV talk-show pantaloon. A classically trained oboist and graduate of the Eastman School of Music, he began playing with symphony orchestras at the age of 16. In his subsequent career as a producer for Mercury Records and Columbia Records, he turned out to have a sure ear for vocal talent and a genius for packaging singers in catchy arrangements that would propel many of them–Rosemary Clooney, Tony Bennett, Johnny Mathis, Patti Page, Frankie Laine–to fame. He thereby shaped America’s taste in popular song after World War II, before rock blew all the old conventions away.

At one point Miller also formed a quartet of male singers, and in 1958 he reluctantly agreed to try a sing-along format. The resulting Sing Along With Mitch made him a TV celebrity, and when the show finally ended he took it on the road for the older population that never lost its love of the old songs. Now, in 1991, at Chautauqua, he was still at it, and so were we.

A few weeks later I interviewed Miller in New York for a possible article. I wanted to ask him what qualities gave those songs their amazing durability. My article never got written, but my notes were still waiting for me this week in a tattered folder. (Note to nonfiction writers: never throw away a morsel of unused material.)

“Singing along has always been a staple of American life,” Miller told me. “It’s an oral tradition. When all the ethnic groups came over from Europe and they huddled together, one thing they had in common was singing: the German Sängerbunds and the Swedish choirs and especially the Italians, who were always breaking into song.

“All these songs have one thing in common: they don’t throw you. They’re within a range that people can handle. They’re easy to remember because they build on the first phrase: ‘There are smiles that make you happy, there are smiles that make you blue, there are smiles that etcetera.’ Or ‘Avalon.’ It’s nothing but a scale. The scale plants the tune in the unsophisticated memory.”

Miller told me that he never used a bouncing ball on his TV show, as was once done in movie theaters, where a ball landed on every note to teach the audience how the tune went. “I only used the lyrics–it was the first captioned TV show,” Miller said. “If people have the melody in their system, all they need is a reminder of the words. What audiences wanted from me was to be a metronome that would keep them in time.”

At Chautauqua, as Miller led us metronomically back through the decades, it occurred to me that we were the last generation that would ever know and sing those songs. The postwar advent of television made us a nation of silent receivers, and since then digital technology has pushed us into deeper isolation. Today we sit alone with our computers, conducting our lives and our friendships without seeing anybody. Making music together is one of the pleasures that somehow got mislaid.

Thanks, Mitch, for keeping us connected.


William Zinsser is the author of 18 books, including On Writing Well.


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