Sunday, February 22, 2015

Little Old Lady



Little Old Lady
1936
From: The Show is On
Words and Music by Hoagy Carmichael and Stanley Adams
Key: G Major

The quality of this particular song sheet is so good I think this is a reproduction/reissue and the publishers didn't change the copyright. The paper itself is slightly different, it's a thicker cardstock, but I'm still puzzled by the condition of the paper.

I wanted to record one song by Hoagy Carmichael (H-Oggy) so I could do a little research into why I've heard his name before. Hoagy's given name in 1899 was the unfortunate "Hoagland." His Scottish parents named him after a group of circus performers and his rags to riches story is interesting.
Hoagland's Broadway tune




Hoagy didn't write any other music for The Show is On but this song was included and became the first composition of his performed on Broadway. I'm thinking the 1936 Musical was a compilation of then current songs because I can't find much information on the plot. 1936 was a period of bleakness in American pop music due to the depression so it makes sense that songs were reused. It also makes sense that Carmichael would be in this box of dusty music because he was prominent from 1930-1951 with his most popular composing years coinciding with the rise of Bing Crosby, Frant Sinatra, Frank Loesser, Johnny Mercer. I bought this box of music at a rural Pennsylvania community "antique" sale held in a brick convention hall on the edge of some abandoned town I can't remember. The box traveled with me through Indiana, which is where Carmichael was born and now it's in Central America. 


It just occurred to me that this era of popular sheet music may really be gone forever because of the Internet. Modern musicians have so much access to recordings, chords, live performances that the actual sheet music to new songs becomes redundant. In 1936 I can only imagine that the existence of this song spread like a rumor until a small town music store ordered a few copies and a Friday evening pianist bought it for fifty cents. The song feels like it was "retro" in 1936, talking about the nostalgia of 1886, 50 years earlier in the compositional style of Harry von Tilzer. 

Back in eighteen-eighty six
when President Cleveland kissed you
bet you were the fav'rite debutant.
goodness knows the title sticks
cause no one can resist you
you are still so gaily nonchalant

Is it possible Hoagy was writing about the 1886 marriage of President Cleveland, who had been a 49 year old bachelor when was elected, to a woman who 21 years old? Actually, Hoagy was a musician and played piano and composed so he's responsible for the old time music while Stanley Adams probably wrote the lyrics. 

The former Mrs. Frances Cleveland (she remarried) may have been in the news briefly in 1935 and inspired Adams to pay tribute to her with this song. Grover Cleveland lost his bid for reelection in 1888 but then won again in 1892 allowing his wife to give birth in the White House. It's a bizarre story as Cleveland was about 27 years old when Frances was born and actually bought her first baby carriage as a present to her parents...and then married her 20 years later. And because she was so young and lived 51 years after Cleveland served one more term and left office in 1897, two years before Carmichael was born, she was actually alive and well when this song was written and Carmichael was 37 years old. What other explanation is there for a 1936 reference to President Cleveland, who had been dead for 30 years? Cleveland was involved in a 1884 scandal because he paid child support to a woman who claimed he had fathered her baby, but that was mostly over by 1886.

And as for all our modern things,
aeroplanes that don't have wings
Bet that you did pretty well
without them, didn't you?

So, Stanley is referring to a woman who is now old and Frances was 71 years old in 1936 so it makes sense. I don't think this interpretation is stretch because the number of songs referring to Grover Cleveland kissing someone are as rare as an honest politician. So, this song has to be referring to the former first lady's longevity. She was popular while married to Cleveland and remained a kind of pop culture icon up until her death in 1947 so this strange song is a proto-pop culture reference. I could be wrong and Adams was really writing about his grandmother but I think the clues all point to President Cleveland's young bride being the subject of the song.

Stanley Adams was a law student like Carmichael so they had some similarities. Adams was 8 years younger and isn't a household name but he had some success as a lyricist in the '50s and later as President of ASCAP.

Carmichael has many good songs and a handful of premium jazz/pop standards to his credit including Georgia On My Mind (1930), Stardust (1928), Daybreak (1932), Heart and Soul (1938), The Nearness of You (1937). He was prolific and immensely talented during the rise and peak of band-led vocal Jazz compositions. This 1936 composition is not one of his better offerings as the material is a bit of a novelty so the music followed suit and is retro, in the style of 1910. It's a showtune, but I don't think it started out as a showtune. I think Adams wrote it as a tribute to the fading star of Frances Cleveland and I think it was borrowed by the producers of The Show Is On and eventually the introduction was dropped and the context was lost. This is a case where if one omits the introduction, as was a common practice in the 50s, and skips right to the catchy "Little old lady..." chorus, then THE ORIGINAL MEANING OF THE SONG IS LOST . The introduction specifically mentions President Cleveland's wife and then never mentions her again. This introduction also demonstrates Carmichael's talent because normally these introductions were deleted from the recording so the composer barely tried to make it pretty, but this particular introduction sings quite well, even for Oggy, includes a modulation, and also sets a nostalgic tone consistent with the subject.

What have we learned? Hoagy had a strange name and is forever linked to Ray Charles, but he's white and came from Indiana and wrote the music for the song about Georgia 30 years before Charles recorded it and it may have been originally about Carmichael's sister, Georgia. These compositions are evidence of Carmichael's broad range of abilities from retro nostalgia to smooth jazz, to blues and to simple melodies. Heart and Soul is actually the classic I-vi-IV-V chord progression that I used for my Pipeliner tribute so I have Carmichael to thank for that. He came from humble beginnings, worked in a bicycle chain factory and a slaughterhouse in Indianapolis, worked through Law school and if things had gone differently he would've been a lawyer but one day he heard a composition he wrote playing on a record player and decided he had another destiny to fulfill so he threw himself into songwriting. This song, Little Old Lady is evidence that music can cover any topic at any time from first ladies to hearts and souls.


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