Saturday, November 1, 2014

Sail Along Silv'ry Moon

Sail Along Silv'ry Moon
Key: F Major
Lyrics: Harry Tobias
Music: Percy Wenrich

If it weren't for Sammy Davis Jr. I might claim Bing Crosby as the most talented entertainer in history; he was definitely the most successful. At one point he led in record sales, movie grosses, television ratings, and radio ratings. He has three stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He is also the significant growth ring in the American pop music tree stump that delineates the beginning of the era of "crooning" with the end of the full throat belting that we witnessed in the Harry Von Tilzer era, the pitch perfect "performance" era where Opera and Theater and Pop music fused. Crosby is the original king crooner, his performance technique is casual but professional and for the first time a mainstream audience responded to the lazy approach that was accepted in western swing and cowboy songs. This was a style almost anyone could sing. Crosby sounds like your next door neighbor, except good. Until Crosby, a recording artist was required to be exceptionally good, there are no duds prior to 1930; everyone was a first class singer. Nobody in your neighborhood sounds like Charles Hart singing Harvest Moon, but many amateur singers sound like Bing Crosby, at least in their own minds while singing in the shower. And that's the important thing, Crosby is casual, he sings sitting down, stretched in a hammock, riding in a car. I imagine Charles Hart standing with perfect posture, his chest puffed out, his jaw open wide like he's on a ship that's sinking and he wants the world to hear him. But Bing Crosby could sing with a pipe in his mouth, his character's casual personality was recognizable, and that's something that hadn't yet been accepted. Ask anyone on the street to sing a song and they will probably try to sing like Bing Crosby. Among other things, Bing Crosby proved a singer could be casual and still get his point across. Eisenhower loyalists only have themselves to blame for the popularity of degenerates like Jack Kerouac and Miles Davis because Bing Crosby was cool before cool was cool and he soon became not cool enough.

Bing Crosby's popularity signifies a particular moment in American culture when the charming personality of a singer was as important as the music. Is it too much to claim that Bing Crosby is the first American Idol? There were big talents before him like Al Jolson, Robert Johnson, and King Oliver and Louis Armstrong. The singing brakeman, Jimmie Rodgers, one of the originators of cowboy music, was popular before Bing Crosby and all of these entertainers influenced Crosby, but none of them dominated so many mediums. Others might be the kings of their chose niche, but only Crosby was the king of all the niches. The moon and stars aligned in 1931 and Bing Crosby rose to the occasion. Women loved him, men wanted to play golf with him, kids looked up to him, parents approved of him. Because Fred Astaire dominated choreographed dancing in the same time period dancing is one realm Bing Crosby didn't excel in but he made up for it by breeding race horses.

1937...related to the Hawaiian music fad of 1930s.

The Gilbert & Sullivan Pirates of Penzance style of performance heavily influenced all pop music until Bing Crosby found fame around 1931. Really, it's the introduction of the electric microphone into performances during the '20s that allowed more subtle nuance into a vocal style, but it wasn't until Bing Crosby arrived that the new electronic medium found its first star. Until that point, all through the first three decades of American pop music, the singer's job was hitting notes perfectly, evenly, and enunciating clear enough to be heard in the back rows, even if the song were recorded. I don't hear much difference between theater and recorded pop until Bing's buttery bass baritone managed to separate the two. For the first time a vocal star's approach would not work on Broadway. The primary trademark of Crosby's style, in my opinion, is his use of dynamics. He's mostly smooth, and soft but he can push the air when the situation demands it. Prior to Bing Crosby a song was either waltzy soft, or marching hard. The singer either belted it or whispered it. Bing Crosby goes through the whole range of dynamics in a single sentence, even a single word starts low and broadens in the middle and then fades away. That's a style that didn't exist before Bing Crosby. And lest ye think this was embraced by all, consider that by the early 1930s the term "crooner" was an insult that purists used to discredit Bing Crosby. "Cardinal O'Connell of Boston and the New York Singing Teachers Association publicly denouncing the vocal form, O'Connell calling it "base", "degenerate", "defiling" and un-American and the NYSTA adding "corrupt"."
If Bing Crosby was corrupt and degenerate then what does that make Miley Cyrus?

We all accept Crosby's smooth swinging, behind the beat vocal style as completely commonplace today for "romantic style music" but it was not conventional prior to Crosby. Hugh Jackman/Wolverine is the closest modern entertainer comparable to Bing Crosby but because of modern film production techniques Jackman will probably never be featured in the same way. My whole quest through the first 50 years of the 20th Century music publishing world is an effort to pinpoint the moments of evolution, like a biologist searching for the link between frogs and birds. Bing Crosby is a link between old music and modern music.

This specific 1937 example demonstrates continued evidence of Hawaiian music influence and vocal dynamic heard in the recording that is not in the music.

This rhythmic variation is called inversion...first it ascends, then it descends. Note the high Hawaiian fills.
The Ukelele* was popular in the first three or four decades of popular published music as a novelty instrument. The short scale and high pitch cuts through a recording in a time when there were no electric guitars. It was mostly used as a rhythm instrument to add a jangling chunk like a mandolin. Ukeleles didn't require much wood which is why they are a popular instrument on the island of Hawaii. Hawaiian music and Mexican music were popular sources for novelty songs and I sense Sail Along Silv'ry Moon was arranged with the novelty market in mind. In fact, this song sheet has a sample of the Hawaiian themed song Hawaiian Hospitality on the back side of the front cover. The back cover  offers several songs from Crosby's 1937 movies "Double or Nothing" and Waikiki Wedding" so, while I don't think Sail Along is included in either of those movies the song itself is trying to ride the popular Hawaiian wave. 

The Lunar Moon seems to be a popular theme in these songs, but I think it's merely a popular topic in general, especially in Hawaii. The two composers, Tobias and Wenrich were in the prime of vaudeville/ragtime/ Tin Pan Alley careers when they collaborated on this song. Bing Crosby was not yet at the height of his fame but he had found his voice and would continue to refine the crooner style for the next 20 years as Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Harry Connick Jr. all carried that tradition to further heights.

*Everyone in America pronounces this instrument as "you-ka-LAY-lee" but I've been taught by players that it is pronounced properly as "OOO-ka-lay-lee".
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Man in the Van by Oggy Bleacher is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.