Tuesday, October 21, 2014

I've Heard That Song Before

Words and Music by Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn

Even though most of the music in the dusty box is from this 1942 era, I don't want to overemphasize that period. I will probably pick one more pure war propaganda tune and move on. My current selection was based on the suspicion that the lyrics are a nod to the "Play it again, Sam" nostalgia that Casablanca created. But Casablanca was released in November 1942...so that doesn't add up. Youth on Parade, the musical film I've Heard That Song Before was introduced in was released in October 1942. So this is an example of a romantic ideal revolving around the memories we assign to music appearing consecutively and independently. Both Casablanca and the songs used in Youth on Parade were evolving at the same time and the fact Rick is reminded of his affair with Ilsa by the 1931 song As Time Goes By is probably unrelated to the line in this Styne and Cahn song "Please have them play it again...". In fact, am I being crazy to suggest this is why people historically get the quote wrong? Casablana was in the theaters only a few weeks after Youth on Parade was in theaters. So the same people who heard Ilsa say, "Play it, Sam." also heard Margaret Whiting sing a very similar line in a song that would soon be nominated for an Academy Award. I think over time the two scenarios got mixed up in people's minds. I'm sure this factoid revelation is super illuminating in the era of Ebola.

Maybe it's also no coincidence that Vera Lynn also recorded I've Heard That Song Before since she was the top recording singer in England at that time.

Youth On Parade was one of many musical films produced in the War years. Musical comedies are still produced but Hollywood kind of killed the golden goose when they released one musical comedy after another for two decades, around 260 musical comedies from 1940-1959. Youth on Parade, for example, demonstrates that even by 1943 the well was running dry for compelling stories. Songs can fit any mold but an entire plot is harder to fake. Youth on Parade has something to do with college students singing and dancing in zany costumes. Every scenario is forced into the musical comedy mold. I haven't seen it but I'll bet that the guy gets the girl and the film ends with a kiss. Distractions were desirable in 1942 as War against Japan and Germany had been declared in December of 1941. Consider this: in the 1940s there were 153 musical comedies produced. In the 1990s there were 11 musical films produced. Actually, the decade of the '30s holds the record for 200+ musical comedies. That means that if you went to the movies at any time during the Dust Bowl you were almost guaranteed of seeing a musical comedy.
Awesome use of Pink

I can't find fault with the theory that WWII is what sparked American industry and production to climb out of the 12 year depression caused by the Stock Market crash in 1929. Talk about putting a silver lining on a cloud! The World War was preferable to the Depression. My point is that after 10 years of dire and desperate, but peaceful conditions, America plunged into 6 horrifying years that involved the possible collapse of Europe, atomic weapons, mushroom clouds, radiation, holocaust, 60 million casualties. Musical comedies such as Youth on Parade are wartime distractions and songs like "I've Heard That Song Before" make no mention to war or Nazis or anything related to death. At this point the film producers did not have to remind Cahn and Styne to make the song cheerful.

Introduction, kind of awkward.
The song itself starts with an introduction that isn't lyrically symmetrical to my ear. Here are the two phrases:

Music. Helps me to remember. It helps remind me. Of things behind me.
Tho' I'm...better off forgetting. I try in vain. Each time I hear that strain.

 I see the rhyme of "me" and "me", and "vain" and "strain" but the melody that goes along with it seems arbitrary. It doesn't relate to the rest of the song. I feel this supports my theory that the writers put their effort into the refrain, the pretty part, and totally mailed in the introduction, maybe an assistant wrote it, or a parrot. Maybe they knew no one would sing the introduction.

Styne and Cahn were professional song writers. The same writing duo that brought you Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow a few years later probably sat in a Burbank office with a piano like secretaries for 8 hours writing anything they could think of. Though it was nominated for an Academy Award and seems deceptively simple, I want to encourage aspiring songwriters to get a real job and write songs on the side.

Here's a little music lesson to get you in the mood: Cut time, indicated by a big C with a line going down through it means that although the music is written like it's 4/4 or Common time, the Beats, the emphasis will be 2 beats to a measure. TWO BEATS TO A MEASURE. One. Two.| One. Two. |
Cut time is something you can shake your ass to. Even though you see 4 quarter notes in the measure you don't count 4 beats. Cut time is another way of writing 2/2, which means Two beats per measure, and a half note get one beat. Mathematically it's equivalent to 4/4, the difference is emphasis. If I were real talented I would record this in an obvious 4/4 and then in obvious 2/2 and you would see the difference.* It's possible my recording sometimes emphasizes a non-existent beat 3 or 4. Because of the syncopation of "Song-beeeee-fore----" this had to be in cut time. Everything in 1942 was dance music so songs from this era are almost always cut time. Ballads like Blue Moon or swing tunes like In The Mood are where you find 4/4. This isn't a ballad because it has no verse or chorus or multiple stanzas sung with the same melody. It has an introduction that was immediately discarded and a cute  2 part refrain. The refrain's melody is a perfect example of rhythmic recycling. The whole refrain is broken into 2 rhythmic phrases which I will present here for your education

1st Rhythmic motif

2nd Rhythmic motif
The 1st motif is barely modified from the 1st time you hear it to the 2nd time you hear it. A little tag doesn't add much to the phrase but it keeps the song moving until the 2nd motif arrives. The 6 note melody is introduced and then transposed up a 4th and repeated. That's the whole song as the 1st motif is then repeated to end the song. This is basic songwriting that Beethoven shoved down our throats with Symphony #5. Short-short-short-loooooong. (transpose down)....Short-short-short-loooooong. Repeat for 30 minutes and you have a symphony. Fancy shit is for the snobs. It is a songwriting rule that people respond to recycled material and the sooner you recycle it the sooner you will hook a listener. A 4 minute run of original, non-recycled notes sounds like total shit. The only rule you need to know to write music is to aim for simple phrases that are recycled/transposed and singable. Every good song at least follows that rule.

Top Staff is lyrics/melody. Bottom two staves are piano part.
Another lesson: You see three staves of music. The top stave is the lyrics and the melody. The bottom two staves are the piano part. But notice that the top note in the piano part is also the same note the melody has. So, the piano is actually playing the melody. If someone were singing then they merely have to match the piano part. When I play an arranged piano part that I've never heard before then I can either write in the chords I'm aiming for by analyzing the notes or look at the chords the arranger has given me. Em=E minor= E,G,B. That's it! I only have to know where those three notes are and basically play some combination of them as I sing "How a theme..." And notice that 2nd phrase has the chords Em, Fmaj7, F#7, Em, G7, G7(+5). I just play Em, G7. G7=G,B,D,F. Two of those notes are already in the E minor chord so G7 only involves moving the E note in the Em chord up to F so I could just play Em with an F and call it good enough. It's simple. I leave the fancy stuff to Keith Jarrett. I will also point out that I do not play all these notes because although I know where each note belongs on the keyboard and how long to play it I can't do it at a functional tempo. Sight reading piano music, even a simple arrangement like this, is a lifelong goal that I'm not sure I'll accomplish. I basically fake it by arranging on the fly. I follow the Jazz tradition of playing the whole thing once through either with the lyrics or not, and then trying to improvise something over the refrain chords, until the Refrain repeats for the final ending.

Styne and Cahn could each play and write music, which is not something that can be said for every songwriting team. Lorenz Hart (Blue Moon, The Lady is a Tramp) was a lyricist who didn't play an instrument during his collaboration with Richard Rodgers. This is the reason you'll see credits such as "Words by Lorenz Hart. Music by Richard Rodgers." I've Heard That Song Before does not split up the credits so it's recognized that both Styne and Cahn contributed to both elements. If I had to guess I'd say Jule Styne was the main musical inspiration while Cahn had a better knack with the words since Styne had a music degree and Cahn didn't.

Culturally, this song was part of the Woody Allen movie Hannah and Her Sisters. Allen is a big Swing music fan so that's not a surprise. The phrase, "I've Heard That Song Before" is actually a little ironic even though the lyrics are straight-forwardly nostalgic. The song itself is clearly about the memories that a song brings back to the listener. Melody, lyrics, unrequited love are the basic ideas going, but the way that phrase is used in modern times is not at all nostalgic. More likely you will use that phrase as a cheeky way of saying, "Don't sell me any of your bullshit, I'm wise to you." The clip from Youth on Parade where this song is performed is totally contrived. A woman sings to her sweetheart and it appears that she's actually referring to a song they can hear, then there is a song and dance, uptempo bit that makes no sense at all out of context. Today, the man would pledge his love to her, say he'll be true, etc. and then she would sing this song as a double meaning, implying that she's no stranger to "devotion" and "loyalty" so the "song" she's referring to is a man's pick-up line. I can't say for sure that the writers were totally oblivious to this dimension but the lyrics really support only a plain interpretation and the additional angle is a cultural phenomenon. If you've seen this movie (None of my free streaming sites have it available and there is no summary of the movie anywhere) please tell me what the exact scenario/context is when this song is performed. Is the actress simply singing about a song or is she telling the man not to feed her any more lines about love?

What we have here is a classic example of musical comedy film factory song writing of the Wartime era. With 150 films and maybe 8 songs each, that's like 1200 songs that had to be written and rehearsed and recorded before the Nazis developed the Hydrogen bomb. Talk about stress! You see that a song like this, innocent and sort of forgettable is actually a time machine. The very simplicity of this song, the bareness, the tasteless/bland and innocuous theme it highlights is not an accident or a sign of the lack of talent; it's more a sign of the times it was produced in, the urgency to make another cookie-cutter film with kids misbehaving and clowns singing, the need for music that could be quickly dispatched to the masses before London and New York were obliterated. These simple songs were milked by orchestras like Harry James and Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller because the music fit on one page and a good musician could learn in five minutes and then improvise over it all night. Music like this was the bread and butter of the 1940s. It could swing and it could slow down and you could whistle it...and that's precisely what Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and their Bebop contemporaries were trying to leave behind in the 1950s. Parker was weaned on innocuous, pleasant melodies. He'd had enough of Youth on Parade banality so when he matured he was compelled to "get dirty". No more virgins in white sweaters, no more monotonous E Minor chords and droning trumpet solos that merely repeat the melody in a different octave. That approach was done and done well for nearly 15 years and Parker said no more. He'd heard that song enough.
Music can not plod for too long on a factory treadmill because, as I've demonstrated, the variations to pop music still have to follow some basic rules and those rules, applied to the exact same topics at the same tempo, quickly run out of room. Modern Jazz, like Modern Classical are what happen when musicians don't want to play Bach Minuet in G minor any more and don't want to write a minuet in the Baroque style of Bach but in B minor. They aren't saying that they could write minuets better than Bach, they are really saying that Bach did that as well as it can be done so that's enough. You could spend your whole life listening to recordings of Baroque period music, so if you love it so much then don't complain it isn't being composed anymore. You will never hear every Baroque song recorded so who cares if it isn't composed anymore? The same goes for Big Band or Swing or Bebop. Yes, the catalog of Swing Era songs is basically finite, but it's enormous. Here we have a song called "I've Heard That Song Before" and I'll bet most of you have not heard that song before because you didn't watch Youth on Parade in 1942. Well, there were 150 other musical comedies and they all had songs in them too so if you love 1940 era musical comedy songs then you had better get started listening to them. Do not bemoan modern music for not being fit for Youth on Parade. Every time I read some comment on a video page for a song like Paper Moon or Autumn Leaves that says, "They don't make music like this anymore." I want to write, "Hey asshole, they didn't make much music like that then either." You can't cherry pick the best songs of the last 100 years and think there's been some terrible decline in musical talent. A person like Duke Ellington only comes around every 100 years and it's to his credit that people aren't regularly compared with him; no one compared to him in 1950 either. That's life. If Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn were alive today they wouldn't write I've Heard That Song Before.

*I'm really the last person to talk about rhythmic details as I once auditioned for a music program by playing a basic Minuet in G minor by Bach on the guitar, and I played the whole thing in perfect 4/4 time. When I was done the director said, "That was nice Oggy, but that piece is a waltz. That's 3/4 time." I had learned the whole thing while living under a plastic tarp in Santa Cruz, prior to ever studying music or even hearing a recording of it. All I had was a smudged, tear-stained tablature page a dying alcoholic street musician had given me. I still play it in 4/4 time.
Creative Commons License
Man in the Van by Oggy Bleacher is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.