Sunday, October 19, 2014

We'll Meet Again

Words and Music by Ross Parker, Hughie Charles

I've carried this ancient box of sheet music from an Upstate New York flea market to central Mexico with one goal: record all the songs in it. The oldest song in the box is 110 years old. The majority are copyrighted around 1940 and Bing Crosby's career is heavily represented. I'm trying to expand my own musical boundaries and maybe resurrect a few songs or at least prove why they should be forgotten. It's not fair to say this box of music represents music of an era because only select songs even qualified for publishing. The real lost gems were forgettable in 1936 also, so they weren't published. I'd have to return to the rare 1936 recording itself and transcribe those songs...which is beyond my ability. I want to take the music I have collected, biased though it may be having survived two World Wars to be sold for $10 by a junk dealer in NY who was also probably happy to get rid of it, and present it in trademark Oggy fashion to the world.

In my recording, I mistakenly say that the music is copyrighted 1934. This is because I have to read the Roman numerals and while I've improved my skill on that front, I incorrectly read MCMXXXIX as 1934. Here's a short lesson: MCM = 1900. XXX=30. IX=9. I thought the IX was IV, which is 4. But it's not. It's 9. The difference in this case is the difference between Adolph Hitler being curiously named Chancellor of Germany in 1934 and Czechoslovakia and Poland being invaded by Germany in 1939. So it's a big difference, but not so big that I'm going to rerecord the whole performance to get it right. That would be too close to petty editing. I also bungled the melody a few times, but the majority was in the ballpark and Oggy isn't striving for perfection. This box of music isn't going to play itself.

I've found that music history has no boundaries. You've already seen the mathematical element to music and there is also cultural, political, personal, military and racial. So, while the music itself might be innocuous or annoying, or pleasant, once I dig a little deeper I find cross-references and details that could take me months to sort out.

This song, We'll Meet Again, is famous for the sentimental value it had during World War II. It was so significant that Cold War Apocalypse planners decided that in the event of a complete nuclear holocaust this was one song that should be specifically preserved so that survivors would remain optimistic. Vera Lynn is the singer most associated with a recording. Vera Lynn also sang one of my all-time favorite tunes: A Nightingale Sang in Berkley Square, which I've recorded somewhere but maybe never uploaded because it didn't sound right. That alone would secure Lynn's place in history. But wait, I'm not English and my parent's weren't even born when Vera Lynn recorded this song so that's not my personal Vera Lynn emotional memory. The music is A+ pop music but what I remember is this:

The time is 1981 and I'm eating a ham and cheese sandwich at my buddy Evan's house, a cold Colonial building from 1805 with protruding granite foundation and faded 13 Star American Flag on the wall, like a museum of Victorian furniture and oppression, simmering hatred, brewing discontent, unspoken rebellion, etc. Evan and I played touch football at the riverside park with a dozen other kids and we were old friends from 1977. Evan liked AC/DC albums...he had personal tastes, posters on the wall while I was singularly devoted to baseball. Music was something like the lunch at school: chosen by experts for my ignorant consumption and I was fine with that status. Evan, however, had his own preferences and that Fall evening after our football game he took out a newish album called "The Wall" by Pink Floyd and he put it on the record player, grinning devilishly, closing the door of his room though his parents had forbidden such privacy. The local radio station did not play deep tracks from new albums. In fact, in 1981, it was a steady diet of Bee Gees and Led Zeppelin with the occasional Billy Joel tune. So I was not prepared for the tempestuous multimedia assault I heard. It shook me to my Puritan roots. The ham sandwich didn't taste quite the same.

"That was some catch Donny made on that play...huh, Evan?" I asked as I tried to bring our focus back to the important things in life. Evan held up his hand.
"Oggy, listen to the words."

So I listened and heard Roger Waters sing with razor blades in his throat above fading explosions and radio broadcasts and cello, bass guitar, acoustic guitar, droning organ:

"Does anybody here remember Vera Lynn? Remember how she said that we would meet again, some sunny day?"

The tone was plaintive and full of longing, like my nightly plea to the Baseball Gods to deliver a World Championship to the Red Sox. Evan stood looking out the window at the grey clouds. Summer was gone now, the wet leaves would be his chores for the evening, his father made him rake leaves at all hours, and made him do push ups if even a single leaf remained on the lawn. And he raked his neighbor's lawn too because she was old and his father told him it was what neighbors do for each other. Evan looked out the window grinding his teeth, mumbling to himself, maybe mumbling his father's sharp and critical script to his future broken self, or maybe mumbling an unspoken rebellion.

I swallowed hard, the dry bread, the melted Swiss cheese falling into my stomach like rocks in the river tossed from the rusting Pierce Island bridge. The song plunged on:

"Vera! Vera! What has become of you? Does anybody else in here feel the way I do?"

Evan was out of reach. A military drum cadence followed by an poly-rhythmic outburst of harmonized voices shocked me and brought an abrupt end to the song as Evan's mother opened the door and without a word picked the needle off the record.
"Evan, we talked about volume and since you chose to disobey the rules we agreed on you have lost the privilege to use this record player. Evan?"
Evan stared out the window, grinding his teeth, nodding. His mother turned to me, "Oggy, I think it's time you go home."
I stammered out some thanks for the ham sandwich and stumbled through the dark creaking hallway to the front door. I could hear Evan's mother's voice rising as I exited the house. Evan was still standing in the window of his room, staring at the rooftops as I started to jog home. I stopped because I suddenly remembered I'd forgotten the Nerf football in Evan's room. Dang it! I needed that football because I was so compulsive that if I did not complete exactly 100 throws and catches to myself during the jog home then I would have to go all the way back to the football field and run around 5 times while throwing and catching the football. Jogging home was almost impossible if I were not also throwing the ball up and running to catch it, dodging traffic, hoping fences, falling into bushes and piles of leaves. The ball was part of the process of getting home, bouncing it off walls, Civil War statues, trees, signs, telephone poles. I stood under a streetlight and waved my arms feverishly to get Evan's attention.
"Evan! I need the Nerf Football. It's under your bed!" I cried. But he didn't hear me because he had moved away from the window. Maybe his mother had ordered him to continue his bizarre digging project in the ancient basement. How was I going to get home without the football to direct me? How? I stood there a long time pondering the implications of knocking on the door. Explaining myself to his mother, or, God forbid, his father, seemed like an awful option but the thought of taking one step without the football repulsed me. It was like getting dressed without my Red Sox hat. Like the moon follows the sun through the sky, the day could not begin without my hat being on my head.

At last, I hunted in Evan's yard until I found a cracked and Duct-taped Whiffle ball from the Summer games buried in the holly bush. Finally! I tossed it a few yards toward home and ran to catch it. Catch Number 1 was successful. Then as surely as Evan's mom had spoke to Evan I heard an echo in the cold dark streets:

"Vera! Vera! What has become of you?"

It was like a strange ghost and it caused me to throw the ball far ahead. I ran to catch up but dropped it to the asphalt and proceeded with my ritual of bouncing the ball off my elbow twice to "clear" the drop and begin again with 100 consecutive catches. Then I threw it again so close that I knew I would catch it. Good, I thought. 99 more catches and I'll be home. 98. 97. 96. 95.....the streetlights winked, the coal-colored sky swallowed the night...jack-o-lanterns on porch steps spied through candle cut eyes. Every sound was a hidden demon playing cello strings with a bloody bow.

The Wall, mostly a Roger Water solo project imposed upon the other band members, focuses on a young man, Pink, who grew up in Post-War England, but whose sensitivity compels him to reflect on the roots of war, the cause of prejudice, the cultural defeats inflicted on his countrymen, the subtle discrimination ongoing in school and home. There is no easy answer for all of this, so Pink withdraws into a torturous seclusion, echoes of his father's radio broadcasts haunt him, cultural tidbits gnaw at him. Vera Lynn is one of those echos and her most famous song, arriving as it did at the awful beginning of World War II, haunts Pink because its casually optimistic, transparently Pollyanna overtone was disproved by some 60 million casualties from 1939-1945. Many many couples never met again and Pink takes offense with the contradiction. Speaking of contradiction and vast comical irony, this song is the closing soundtrack of Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove where multiple atomic bomb explosions and mushroom clouds, signifying the end of humanity, finally bear a familiar resemblance to a rising sun.

I want to point out that in the period of 1930-1940 songwriters would get extra mileage out of a short 2 part refrain by inserting a melodically unrelated introduction. I can't be sure, but I would bet that the Refrain was written and then the introduction was added. I sing this introduction but Vera Lynn doesn't. Many many songs from this era have a "sung freely" or spoken introduction that is in the sheet music but is never in the recordings. The most famous one is the introduction to the tune made famous in Casablanca: "As Time Goes By." No one ever sings the comical and catchy introduction. I'm going to make a point to sing all these introductions because I think if done correctly they set up the whole song in the style of the day. Neither Sinatra, Billie Holiday, nor Sam in Rick's Cafe give the song the full treatment intended by the writers. "We'll Meet Again" is no exception. To start the whole song with the Refrain is to jump into the sex without the foreplay. My Nat King Cole songbook is full of lyrics that he never sang because by the 1950s and 1960s even the crooners were instructed to get to the meat of the song, the good stuff, the memorable refrain with the good melody and omit the whole introduction. I can't even find a recording of "As Time Goes By" that includes the actual introduction so I might have to record one myself for nostalgic significance. We'll Meet Again was recorded by Guy Lombardo in 1941 and even he doesn't conduct the orchestra in the full version. My point is that what we hear today in recordings is not what the songwriters wrote and my goal as a musical historian is to play what is written as best I can so the music is completely recognized and perhaps give some editorial on why certain choices were made. I'm afraid that if I gave my editorial during my recording that would get out of control. I'm not going to make this my life's work and if I can explain myself in my essay accompanying each song rather than explain myself during my recording then that will save everyone some time.

Ukelele tuning and chords were common in 1940. Note triplet introduction.
A final note is that though this song was first copyrighted in 1939, the back of my particular sheet has song examples/promotions from 1940 (There Goes my Dream) and 1941 (Russian Rose). So my best guess is the actual publishing date of my sheet music is 1942. The song survived some difficult times and the sheet music itself has had a history I can't complete. I reluctantly bought it in January 2012 as I fled freezing New England with almost no money for gas and no room for a big box of music. But I wanted to take a musical trip through history on the notes these song sheets contained and I think with 20 of these essays I could feel my work accomplished.

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Man in the Van by Oggy Bleacher is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.