“America”/ “American Tune”

Today, a double dose of Paul Simon. “America,” from Simon and Garfunkel’s 1968 album Bookends, represents a big step forward in Simon’s writing. When you listen to his earlier songs–“The Sounds of Silence,” “Scarborough Fair,” and so on–they can seem a little strident, or precious, or both. “America,” by contrast, is subtle and grown-up. The melody builds nicely from the chamber feel of the opening to a characteristically anthemic chorus. But its the lyrics that really stand out.  They’re a short story in song, complete with action, dialogue, and attribution.

“Kathy,” I said, as we boarded a Greyhound in Pittsburgh
“Michigan seems like a dream to me now…”

Laughing on the bus
Playing games with the faces
She said the man in the gabardine suit was a spy
I said, “Be careful, his bow tie is really a camera”

“Toss me a cigarette, I think there’s one in my raincoat”
“We smoked the last one an hour ago”
So I looked at the scenery, she read her magazine
And the moon rose over an open field.

“The moon rose over an open field.” The song pivots in that lovely and precise image. Just like the Gershwins’ “They Can’t Take That Away from Me” (which rhymes “the way you hold your knife” with “the way you changed my life”), it beautifully moves from the mundane to an emotional  knockout punch: “’Kathy, I’m lost,’ I said, thought I knew she was sleeping./I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why.”

Here’s a great version by the Swedish folk group First Aid Kit, performed recently on one of David Letterman’s last shows before his retirement. (Letterman introduces it by saying it was one of the songs he used to sing to his son when he was a wee lad.)

“American Tune” comes from Simon’s second solo album, There Goes Rhymin’ Simon. Based on a melody by Bach, it’s a solemn and indelibly affecting song that (improbably) blends the struggles and triumphs of one man with those of a nation. Rather than one of many wonderful cover versions, here’s Simon himself singing it at the induction ceremony of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 2011. The song holds up.

“The Waters of March”

By virtue of Joni Mitchell’s presence, we’ve already established that the word “American” in the title of this blog is to be taken not narrowly but hemispherically. Today we’re going down south with the great Brazilian composer and guitarist Antonio Carlos Jobim. Rather than the slightly more well known (and equally deserving) “Girl from Ipanema,” I’m starting out with his 1972 song “Waters of March” (the title refers to Brazil’s rainiest month), a hypnotic tune with repeating melodic and lyrical structures that never become repetitive. In a poll of critics, it was named the best Brazilian song of all time. Jobim wrote both the Portuguese and English words, which kick off:

A stick, a stone, it’s the end of the road
It’s the rest of a stump, it’s a little alone
It’s a sliver of glass, it is life, it’s the sun
It is night, it is death, it’s a trap, it’s a gun

The song has been covered hundreds of time. Here’s the very tight version by New American Songbook favorite Susannah McCorkle, which features both the English and Portuguese lyrics:

“Mama Tried”

One of the great figures in American music, Merle Haggard, turned twenty-one in prison and turns seventy-seven today. If you know Hag’s music, you know I just quoted one of his classic songs, “Mama Tried.” Admittedly, it doesn’t have the harmonic complexity of “All the Things You Are” or “Body and Soul,” and might not have the emotional tug of Haggard ballads such as “If We Make It Through December,” “Today, I Started Loving You Again,” and “The Bottle Let Me Down.”

But it’s just such a tight song: two minutes of modest perfection, instrumental solo included. I’ve thought so ever since I heard the Grateful Dead’s version back in the ’70s. (That one went a lot longer than two minutes.) In honor of the birthday boy, here’s one of Hag’s own renditions, recorded on “Austin City Limits” in 1985. (Sit tight through the forty-five-second intro.)

“Help Me”

Word today that Joni Mitchell was hospitalized after being found unconscious in her home made me realize, with a thud, that it’s high time for her to be included in  the New American Songbook. (Fortunately, she seems to be recovering.) But which song? Among her most covered and familiar compositions are “Both Sides Now,” “The Circle Game,” “Woodstock,” “Free Man in Paris” (wow, there are a lot of them), “River,” and “Big Yellow Taxi,” all of which I’ll hold off on, partly because they are so familiar (and, in the case of the first two, have the verse and refrain folk-tune structure that I’m generally avoiding in this project).

So I circled in on the following: “Carey,” “A Case of You,” “Help Me,” and “Coyote,” all great, absolutely original, indelible songs. A couple of things led me to “Help Me.”

  • It’s from what (to me) is her greatest album, 1974’s Court and Spark.
  • It was her most successful single, peaking at number 7 on the charts.
  • It was name-checked in Prince’s song “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker” (“Mind if I turn on the radio?”/”Oh, my favorite song,” she said/An’ it was Joni singin’/’Help me I think I’m falling’).

Most of all, it’s such a great pop song, filtered through the Joni’s idiosyncratic genius. It starts out “Help me, I think I’m fallin’/In love again,” and the first two notes themselves take a steep leap. Then the melody goes up and down in vertiginous syncopated swoops. She’s got it right: “When I get that crazy feeling/I know I’m in trouble again.”

Here’s a 1974 live version, with some extra vocal swoops, and backed by the great band that played on Court and Spark, Tom Scott and the L.A. Express. (Get well soon, Ms. Joni Mitchell.)

“Up On the Roof”

As with Stephen Sondheim, my first entry for Carole King comes down to a choice of two songs. Both were co-written in the early ’60s with her then-husband, Gerry Goffin (he did words, she did the music), and both are simple, lovely and haunting: “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” and “Up On the Roof.”

I’m going to have to go with “Up on the Roof,” because it’s just a little less simple. Goffin’s lyrics (matched by King’s melody) are such a perfect expression of urban ennui, and a temporary vertical escape. The first stanza is classic:

When this old world starts getting me down

And people are just too much for me to face—

I climb way up to the top of the stairs

And all my cares just drift right into space

Originally recorded by The Drifters in 1962, the song has been covered by the likes of Laura Nyro, Bruce Springsteen, Ike and Tina Turner, Kenny Rankin, and James Taylor, whose 1979 recording was his last top-40 single. JT still performs “Up on the Roof” in concert, often with simulated starlight at the line, “At night the stars they put on a show for free.” Here’s a version from 1998 (no stars, alas).

“Good Thing Going”

Today is Stephen Sondheim’s 85th birthday so naturally I am going to add one of his songs to the New American Songbook. But which one? The obvious choice is “Send In the Clowns”–a little too obvious. There are a whole lot of alternatives, many of which we’ll eventually get to, but today I want to spotlight Merrily We’ll Roll Along (1981), one of his most interesting and least successful (commercially) shows.

In his book Finishing the Hat, Sondheim writes:

In that apocryphal period know as the Golden Age of Musicals, the thirty-two-bar song was the mainstay of every show score and of most popular hits…. Merrily We Roll Along was written in 1980, but the story concerns two songwriters who came to their maturity in the 1950s, when traditional song forms still ruled the stage; it seemed appropriate, therefore, that it should be told as much as possible in a series of thirty-two bar songs…. I hoped to write the score … as if I still believed in those conventional forms as enthusiastically as I had twenty-five years earlier, before I and my generation had stretched them almost out of recognition.

I was trying to roll myself back to my exuberant early days, to recapture the combination of sophistication and idealism that I’d shared with Hal Prince, Mary Rodgers, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, John Kander and Fred Ebb, and the rest of us show business supplicants, all stretched back to our innocence.

To me, two songs from the show eminently fulfill Sondheim’s ambition. That is, they have the quality of the best songs of the period but do not in any way feel old-fashioned. (Broadway Baby, from Follies, is a perfect pastiche of a ’30s song, a well-made museum piece.) I refer to Not a Day Goes By and Good Thing Going. I believe I first heard the former on Carly Simon’s 1981 album Torch. I thought it actually was an old song, as I did when I first heard Good Thing Going, on Frank Sinatra’s late album She Shot Me Down, also from 1981.

I’m going to have to go with Good Thing Going. To me, Not a Day Goes By has always come across as a bit melodramatic, from the poetic diction of the title to the insistent refrain and, let’s face it, kvetchy lyrics. (“I’ll die day after day/After day after day/After day after day…”) Good Thing Going‘s melody is equally memorable, but it’s subtler. And the lyrics have a wonderful conversational quality, as in this section, which has Sondheim’s genius use of the private-eye “make”:

And if I wanted too much,

Was that such a mistake

At the time?

You never wanted enough–

All right, tough,

I don’t make

That a crime.

Here’s Sinatra television performance, which he prefaces by calling Sondheim “a good songwriter.” Hard to argue with that.



“My Girl”

James Jamerson thumps a heartbeat on the bass. Robert White’s guitar corkscrews out in reply. And the immortal David Ruffin sings, in a voice of sweetness shadowed by sorrow, “I’ve got sunshine on a cloudy day.”

That’s from Leonard Pitts Jr.’s syndicated newspaper column today, celebrating The Temptations’ “My Girl,” which hit the top of the pop charts fifty years ago this week. He observes (correctly, in my case), “you are probably humming it right now, recalling the airtight harmonies and the way the horns and strings danced elegant pirouettes of sound.” His next assertion about the song is seasoned with at least a dash of hyperbole, but I’m okay with it: “It is the most perfect thing ever recorded.”

The song–which was written by Smokey Robinson and Ronald White from another Motown group, The Miracles, and–embodies out one of the (many) tricky things about this blog’s enterprise. That is, it’s a great record and a great cultural moment (who among us has not tried to replicate the Temps’ dance moves while lip-synching to “My Girl”?), but is it a great song?

I am going to say yes, in part because of what comes through after a half-century as the purity of both the music and the lyrics. “When it’s cold outside, I got the month of May.” How could that possibly be improved on?

The website Secondhand Songs lists seventy-five covers of “My Girl,” not many of them memorable. (A collaboration between Count Basie and Jackie Wilson has historical significance, at least.) Dolly Parton’s version, from her 2007 CD New Harvest … First Gathering, did catch my ear; it’s a little bit country, a little bit gospel, with some nicely reimagined instrumentation and the refrain changed to “my love.”