Thursday, February 26, 2015

Good Night Little Girl Of My Dreams / Fading Like A Flower

I didn't intend to make a medley of these two songs but they are in the same key and they are on the piano at the same time.

Good Night, Little Girl Of My Dreams
By Charles Tobias and Joe Burke
Key: F Major
Typical 1933 sexism. That's Jack Fulton leering at you from the inset.
Charles Tobias was born a year before the great Hoagy Carmichael. He had two brothers Harry and Henry, who were both songwriters in the Tin Pan Alley and Vaudeville tradition. This particular song is kind of Tin Pan Alley gone to seed because the subject matter is generic, can't-miss, I love you and you love me, drivel that still appeals to youth, and the melody is actually a rip off of Home on the Range. At least, I hear the similarities, but it's more urbanized and I can imagine street cars and gas lights and, this being the last year of Prohibition, speakeasy juke joints and rum runners prowling the streets in the shadows. The Prohibition  is a social example of how a virus adapts to a hostile environment. The innocence of 1919 is awesome: Congress really thought they would eliminate alcohol abuse if they prohibited the manufacturing of alcohol. I think the evidence suggests Prohibition was sincere. Well, it forced criminals to get organized or die. Until 1918 criminals were content with disorganization, every man for himself, small gangs robbing stage coaches and trains. But Prohibition required a higher level of organization to succeed. All the lawless gangs of 1918 wanted to exploit the demand for alcohol but individually they all failed. The scale of the law required an organized approach never seen before on American soil. Maybe it was Italian and German and Spanish experience finally coming to fruit, but I don't want to blame it on those countries because by that time these were 1st and 2nd generation Americans. I watched The Godfather. Vito Corleone had no intention of returning to Italy. He was American. So, as an American, people like Vito put aside their childish petty thievery and embraced professional crime, crime that required bribes and corruption. Watch Leone's Once Upon A Time In America for a good dramatization of this time period. This is the law of unintended consequences in which the fantasies of some well-intentioned temperance folk forced the criminal element of America to organize to succeed. And like any good virus, they adapted, they built communication lines, they built bridges, they corrupted officials, they evolved. Some died, but the strong survived and built Las Vegas. This song, Good Night Little Girl, was published at the very end of the Prohibition, which ended in early December, 1933. Songs published in 1934 all were in a climate of legal alcohol and organized crime. True, the end of Prohibition forced the criminal cartels to adapt again, but they merely switched drugs. And while an end to the Prohibition of drugs will cause the cartels to adapt again, it will not eliminate them. That opportunity ended in 1919 when they first were forced to adapt. See, once the adaptation process starts, for a virus or a cartel, then there's no turning back the clock. All attempts to kill the virus or the cancer or the cartel will only cause it to divide and strengthen. No, I think there is a good argument that 1918 was the last chance to maintain some kind of innocence and domination over the outlaws of the West. And that's why there is a nostalgia for even the outlaws of that time, because it was the last time period when there was no organized crime. A handful of gangs with a handful of members impacted isolated areas but now a truckload of organized crime cartels impact the whole world.

That's a topic too far afield of music but I'm trying to glamorize a song that has little appeal or significance outside of the time it was published. Charles Tobias has a few songs to his credit that you would recognize if you were 120 years old, but he was not only publishing songs during the bleakest period of the Depression, he also didn't have the benefit of Broadway Musicals or a war. See, he was only recently starting his songwriting career when WWI ended, thus depriving him of material...then the Government immediately forced him to surrender his alcohol, which is all the tonic a songwriter depends on (just ask Cole Porter), and then the Depression hit and since he lacked Woody Guthrie's youthful curiosity and hillbilly poverty and disdain for capitalism, Tobias wrote songs to cheer people up. Tobias was from the East Coast so he didn't feel the effects of the Dust Bowl or immigration or get influenced by southern blues or western tunes of the Jimmy Rodgers type. The Tin Pan Alley tradition was entertainment, the show must go on, dogs wearing hats, make-em-laugh stuff. Vaudeville was live entertainment, 5 songs written in an hour, all of them forgettable, an audience of jobless hobos escaping the rain. That kind of environment creates songs like Good Night Little Girl because if you ask a guy to name the first thing that comes into his head it will be the name or perfume aroma of a broad he kissed somewhere in some park when the leaves were changing and kids laughed nearby. And that's what people want to hear to ease their weariness and forced sober depression. This box of dusty music is almost all from 1910-1948 so it's natural that all the artists and writers are from the East Coast. In 1950 there were still Orange orchards near Long Beach, CA. You could afford land or at least con an Indian or African American out of it.  There's only one decade, 1940-1949, when these songs even had an opportunity to be performed in a movie and almost all of those were performed by Bing Crosby. So, I admit I'm limited in my investigation of pop music of 1933 because whoever collected all this music was also from the East Coast and may have never heard of Woody Guthrie or King Oliver.

The song is a waltz and maybe that's why it sounds like Home on the Range, but I also hear a melody motif from that country song and this is what separates Tobias from Carmichael. It takes talent but I theorize that experience is even more important to writing original music. This is a paradox because it would seem that the more music you listen to the more likely you will copy something you heard, but with a musically minded person the opposite happens. Music is about patterns and mathematically divided time and 12 tones so the more examples of variety that a musician hears, the more likely he will realize and embrace the infinite possibilities. That's where a detailed investigation into the personal habits of Tobias or Carmichael or Rodgers or Von Tilzer would help because these aren't people who were limited to listening to only one type of music. They must've listened profusely to everything and realized they were naturally whistling original variations. It was work to write it down and to polish it, but the initial melody was effortless to write and it was original and people liked it. But there are levels of originality and where Carmichael was closer to one end of the spectrum, Tobias was closer to the opposite end. This is a derivative melody, easy to play and sing, structurally solid, but too close to a lullaby we've all heard before. And that sums up 1933 East Coast pop music.

Joe Burke, the other half of this writing duo, was 14 years older than Tobias and had an interesting career beginning as a silent film actor. He would have success in the films right up until 1929 when he was a 45 year old man and I suspect his voice was not what people had been expecting for the last 15 years because he switched to songwriting full time after only 2 years in "Talkies". Interestingly, Burke wrote a song for Al Jolson, who would be the lead in The Jazz Singer (1927), the first movie with synchronized voice and images. I'm not a big silent movie fan so I'm not sure what context a song would appear in a 1924 movie. Did the actors lip sync, or was it background music like in a cheesy Kevin Smith montage? I don't know, but there were songs with lyrics in movies before 1927, so I trust you'll do your own research on this and get back to me. 

Circumstantially related anecdote: It's strange, but when I think of Al Jolson I immediately think of Canter's Deli in the Fairfax district of Los Angeles. Once, I regrettably failed to get on The Price is Right, missing out in line by maybe 5 people, and instead of meeting Bob Barker and playing Plinko, I spent the day next door at The Farmer's Market, which is only loosely related to farming, where probably the most authentic pizza slices can be found in L.A., and fresh delicious donuts which are worth getting diabetes to eat, and also stumbling on Canter's Deli nearby. Anyone who lives in Venice knows that The Fairfax is a different world and stepping into Canter's Deli is like stepping into an Al Jolson movie. The original Deli was somewhere else in 1933 but I imagine it was very similar and I suspect Al Jolson was a customer. In fact, the movie Once Upon a Time in America includes a N.Y. Jewish deli that has the same production design as Canter's Deli. For some reason many of the bakery items are orange flavored so I favored the donut shops at The Farmer's Market, but for ambiance and atmosphere I thought Canter's was excellent.

Joe Burke's tendencies were probably to blame for this 1933 song still having roots in 1917. Burke himself was literally an anachronism, having acted in silent films, having lived through the turn of the century, having been to the West Coast and back. You'll thank me when this trivia question comes up...who wrote the song Tip-Toe Through The Tulips? Joe Burke and Al Dubin wrote that song in Burke's last year as an actor, 1929, for a film called Gold Diggers of Broadway. This fact provides me with more clues as I learn Burke was also a silent film piano accompanist in addition to an actor. As I understand it, a silent film accompanist was the cheapest musical option in 1916. There must've been a musical score that went along with the silent films but when that wasn't available then Burke would come in and either improvise something as he watched the film to one side or else he had some pre-written music. A man of many talents, was Mr. Joe Burke. He is also the person I'll hold responsible for stealing Home on The Range for part of this song's melody. Charles Tobias probably wrote the lyrics in a kind of nostalgic lapse. Or maybe it's like those songs I hear today in 2015 that make me think, "This artist is trying to sound like songs from the 1980s." Maybe this 1933 song was trying to sound nostalgic for the adults who had been youths in Burlesque 1917 with a few chromatic steps to make it sound slightly modern. A waltz almost always sounds old. Either way, the songwriting team were 35 and 49 years old at the time, having at least read about a bleak time in history, and when your biggest claim to fame is the song Tip-Toe Through The Tulips then there's no need to experiment further. I may be wrong in saying that because another Joe Burke tune Dancing with Tears in My Eyes from 1930 is also a waltz and it sounds as predictably composed as any song from the Prohibition Era. I think the better way to identify this song, Good Night Little Girl Of My Dreams, is to place it at the very end of Prohibition, but still solidly within that tradition of East Coast, White Pop Music from The Prohibition Era. It's not influenced by "Race Music" like Lionel Hampton or Paul Whiteman or King Oliver or Earl Hines or even Duke Ellington, all music that would heavily influence Nat King Cole and Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly. That's funny because the whitest song Nat King Cole sang, Rambling Rose, was written by Joseph McCarthy Jr. and Joe Burke. That's a case of the artist adapting to the writer rather than the writer adapting to the artist since Perry Como originally recorded Rambling Rose in 1948. In fact, I can't say for sure that the person who collected this music was white, but based on a complete lack of interest in the Blues, I strongly suspect it. There's a clear delineation between races, or at least regions, in 1933 music and this waltzing ode to dreamy love affairs falls squarely in the white camp.

Music purchased somewhere between Binghamton and Jamestown. Burke was born and died near Philadelphia.
As I have mentioned, this box of music was languishing in a junk booth at a convention center somewhere near Elmira, NY and I happened upon it because I had decided to only drive on one lane roads to St. Louis. It was my January 2011 Main Street America Tour and from Boston to St. Louis I didn't drive on a highway, instead passing through a wasteland of post-urbanization, post-manufacturing America looking for and finding vintage clothes and sheet music. There was one area of several miles that had been totally deforested by a tornado. The brick factories were all closed. Diners and roadside motels were closed. Every open restaurant had a sign, "World Famous Apple Pie" or "World Famous Pot Roast" I was so broke at the time I couldn't review their menu. The police normally eye me suspiciously, but there were no police. Smoke stacks were not operating. The streets were empty. It was probably more active and populated in 1933. These were the people Burke and Tobias had in mind when they wrote this song, not city slickers with their fancy spat shoes and high ideals about integration and booze. These were wheat farmers and farmers wives, small dairy farmers, refrigerator repairmen, cobblers, school teachers. A song like Good Night, Little Girl, would offend no one. It would push into no new boundaries of musical history; actually, it was still trapped in the past decade of Prohibition when towns like Elmira, NY probably were truly dry towns. The drinking done in Binghamton, NY in 1933 was probably done in private with no Cotton Club clarinets to accompany scandalous dancing. The Amish populate this area too and moderation is their tradition today as much as in 1933. The English farmers and mechanics of Jasper, NY drank in moderation in 1918 and in 1933 they still drank in moderation and in 2015 they still drink in moderation. A social problem in Boston or Chicago or Miami does not necessarily mean the same problem exists in rural New York, but nationwide application of laws is the most expedient method so that's what we're stuck with.

In summary, the Good Night, Little Girl song is an unoffensive tune with roots in the Prohibition and Vaudeville era. It begs for an effusive singer with a good voice, not a meek squeak like breathless Oggy. Simple songs require good technique and also provide opportunity for daughters to harmonize the melody. It's the last year of Prohibition but it may have been written before news of the return of booze was ensured. Burke and Tobias were both writing the music they were accustomed to writing. Maybe Prohibition would never end, maybe the Depression would never end, but at least folks could gather around a piano and sing about the girl they kissed in some park when the leaves were changing.

Fading Like a Flower (Everytime You Leave)
Written by Per Gessle
Key: F Major

I had the 1991 Roxette song on the piano so I tried to play it, butchering the piano intro. It was not in the box of music I bought in NY. Sorry if this ruins the 1933 Tobias and Burke song for you. If anyone really complains I'll re-record it alone. 

A note on the Roxette song: It's as bad as I thought it was. The lyrics aren't simply childish, they are inane.

Tell me why
When I scream, there's no reply
When I reach out, there's nothing to find
When I sleep, I break down and cry

Why? Because you aren't taking your medications?
Why, reply, cry are the easiest rhymes in the world (Gessle is Swedish, but is that an excuse?) It sounds like the writer had been trapped in a dungeon with one ABBA album from 1974-1989. What the hell does any of this mean? It's not only unrelated to itself, describing a crazy person, but the whole simile "Fading like a Flower" is ignored. Do flowers fade? Or wilt? Do colors fade? Do colors wilt? Do no words rhyme with wilt? "Wilting like a flower." There is no continuity to the lyrics. One seconds she runs a long long way home to find a heart made of stone, but she also reaches out and finds no one. Which is it? Did she find a heart made of stone, or nothing? Then she sings triumphantly about being codependent. Really inane song that I can only bring myself to play as a mockery of these clumsy pop/rock songs from 1991. It's well produced, includes all the hooks and modulations required to get radio play, great voice, adequate music, but it crumbles like a Buddhist cave painting before an Al Qaeda flamethrower under closer examination. A terrible song, almost a parody, but a song that I nevertheless like and appreciate.

Gessle was the guitarist for Roxette which is noteworthy because in 1933 recording artists and songwriters were rarely the same person but in 1991 it was pretty common. Gessle must've been listening to too much ABBA and Mr. Big and Boston at the time because this song has all the compositional trademarks of those epic artists. But, production value is what Gessle was after and he truly engineered an epic song from an otherwise repetitive and clumsy 4th grade poem. 

This is a bigger topic, but if I had an average voice and sang the 1933 song Good Night, Little Girl Of My Dreams on a church piano in a living room with 2 people as my audience, I think there would be an insubstantial difference between that performance and the most professional production of the same song in that year. It would emote the same emotions. The song simply does not benefit from additional instruments or voices. If anything, a single person singing it on an acoustic piano is the ideal way to perform this song.

However; Fading Like a Flower utterly depends on the production and instrumentation. This is probably the biggest difference in music from 1933 and music from 1991, production value became extremely important in, maybe, 1965 with Rubber Soul by The Beatles. Before that, the song was the song, there was no great emphasis on production. When I hear this Roxette song all I hear is clever sound engineering.

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