Tag Archives: abbey road

Play a Simple Melody

Irving Berlin wrote the words and music for the 1914 musical ‘Watch Your Step’, which included the song ‘Play a Simple Melody’. The musical was a ragtime revue starring the popular dancers Vernon and Irene Castle, who you may remember from my post on unsung jazz pioneer James Reese Europe. Relatively few songs have the cultural importance to merit their own Wikipedia page, this song’s got one. It notes that the song was one of the few true examples of counterpoint in American popular music – a melody running against a second melody, both with independent lyrics. The parts are musically independent and very cleverly also lyrically contradictory. The lyrics of the first melodic line yearn for a simple melody “like my mother sang to me”, melody in the old simple style of bygone years. The second melody line calls for music in the more exciting modern ragtime style.

Polo Moro recorded this wonderful version of ‘Play a Simple Melody’ for Hundred Years Late. I absolutely love the fiddle on it. And the good old-fashioned harmony. Really excellent work by Polo Moro. He had this to say…

A duet by Bing and Gary Crosby (listed on the label as “Gary Crosby and Friend”) was a hit recording in 1950. This was the main inspiration for my re-recording. Procuring a ragtime band, traditionally clarinet, trumpet, trombone and banjo was not feasible, so I have subbed in violin, mandolin, acoustic guitar, and what is known as a banjuitar, a banjo head strung with 6 strings in guitar tuning.

Its worth noting too that these music hall compositions were a strong influence on Paul MacCartney in his formative songwriting years, echoes of ‘Simple Melody’ can be heard in ‘Octopus’s Garden’ from the Abbey Road album, with very similar chord progressions.

 

You can hear more from Polo Moro on reverbation. Here’s that version by Gary Crosby and Friend… Gary Crosby’s vocal stylings seem to be making Bing laugh. I like when Bing says “Steady, steady!” It’s quite funny. He then adds, “Don’t lose your head.”

I also found this fun version of the song from The Muppet Show, Jean Stapleton singing a duet of ‘Play a Simple Melody’ with Fozzie Bear. Jean Stapleton was a popular American actress of stage, television and film (I knew her from her guest appearances in 1990s sitcoms). She died last year, aged 90. Fozzie Bear is still alive and well.

-Singer 1-
Won’t you play a simple melody

Like my mother sang to me?

One with good old-fashioned harmony.

Play some simple melody.

-Singer 2-

Musical demons set my honey a-dreaming.

Won’t you play me some rag?

Just change that classical nag

To some sweet musical drag.

When you play from a copy of a tune that is choppy

You’ll get all my applause, simply because.

I wanna listen to rag.

 

All these modern versions left out the opening verse section which is included on the 1916 recording by Elsie Baker (credited as Edna Brown) and Billy Murray (linked in the image below, the one disguised as an embedded player). Maybe the verse section was left out in later versions because of the use of the word ‘darkies’. Or maybe it just wasn’t as catchy. Casual racism in the archives, I’m getting déjà vu.

This image represents the earliest recording of the song I could find. Click to listen to it on US National Library of Congress website, National Jukebox.