Tag Archives: lyrics

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.

Creation vs Destruction

Creation vs Destruction

‘I Cannot Sing the Old Songs’
sung by Richard José in 1905. The 1914 version by Louise Homer unfortunately can’t be embedded in WordPress.

So far, every musician I’ve talked to has been very positive about the idea of reinterpreting archived material. But I’ve received zero submissions so far (apart from this one on this blog post, which was great). To be perfectly honest, I haven’t been as dynamic and forthright about promoting this idea as I could have been. I’ve been absorbed in my studies, and of course in the other areas of this project – listening to archived music, researching the people who wrote and performed it, and recording new versions of some of the songs I’ve stumbled across so far. The idea behind this blog, musicians, is that you can make something really creative and worthwhile by digging in the archives and finding any song recorded or published in 1914 that you like enough to learn, perform, arrange and record. Maybe you just want to sing it to the camera on your computer. Or maybe you want to record a video of a choral group in a cathedral performing a song you’ve found for them (if I don’t do that first). Maybe you’ll have your own imaginative ideas. There are many music archive resources available online, and a Music Resources section on this blog. You can do it in your own style, and put your own spin on it. Then you could write something about the experience, or any historical context you found interesting, or just your thoughts on the song.

In order to demonstrate to you that this idea has potential, I’ve done two different versions of an old song. I found it on the National Jukebox website, as sung by Louise Homer in 1914. The song predates that by some time since its writer and composer, Claribel, died in 1869. ‘Claribel’ was the pseudonym of Charlotte Alington Barnard, an English poet and composer of ballads and hymns. ‘I Cannot Sing the Old Songs’ couldn’t be a more fitting song for this project.

I Cannot Sing the Old Songs (Traditional Arrangement)

Initially I recorded a pretty minimal piano version, quite faithful to the original, then I added an organ and some harmonies. I came back to it a week later and some subversive impulse compelled me to put a slightly discordant bluesy guitar line over the last verse. I kept remixing the song, changing my mind back and forth as to whether to keep the electric guitar. Hearing the subversive melody so often, I started to sing along with it. Eventually another subversive idea occurred to me – to re-record the song using this as the vocal melody, with minor chords and heavy distortion. I have a bit of a history with this kind of thing. I used to do a minor version of Amazing Grace with my band. And I uploaded Minor Silent Night with new lyrics to YouTube on Christmas Eve a few years back. I’ve also written new music for Shakespearean poetry, perhaps his first foray into synth-rock. Some may see this as sacrilege. But I think reinterpretation helps to keep art alive. That’s valid even if you don’t happen to like what I’ve done with it.

Of course, musical taste is a hugely subjective thing. I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently. When I deconstruct a song and put it back together in my own style, it’s as much an act of destruction as it is a creative act. The listener’s personal taste determines my guilt or innocence. Have I befouled a sacred piece of art? Or have I reinvented and reinvigorated it? There are enough opinions out there for both views to be perfectly valid. These thoughts of individual aesthetic preferences, of creation and destruction, informed my new mix of ‘I Cannot Sing the Old Songs’.

I Cannot Sing the Old Songs (Creation vs Destruction Mix)

I went for heavy distortion and heavy emotion, encoded and compressed with destructive algorithms, ready for this digital realm of infinite distraction. I’ve been studying Audio Processing this term, and I’m kind of shocked to get down to the nuts and bolts of just how destructive these audio codecs are, especially the MP3. My immediate reaction to it, as evidenced by this mix, has been to process every signal with distortion and other effects, so there’s no acoustic fidelity left for the codec to destroy. Instead I tried to make the digital seem visceral, keeping it decidedly lo-fi, awash with feedback and noise – evoking the hiss and fuzz of my teenage practice rooms half a lifetime ago, which in turn tied me in to the theme of the song and its emotional core. I think my emotional response to the material is evident in my vocal performance (or what’s left of it with all that distortion).

Hundred Years Late on Bandcamp

The image I used for the cover is in the public domain and attribution details are included in a post entitled Designing Hundred Years Late. You can also click the image above to check out Hundred Years Late on Bandcamp, a wonderful website that facilitates musicians in the sharing of their work. I hope to upload many more songs in the coming months.

It’s a very different approach from the one I took to all the 1914 songs I’ve recorded so far. I had been keeping it to bass / drums / piano / vocals, with occasional organ, guitar and ukulele. This song sounds like a spaceship landed in the playlist. It’s brash, obnoxious, incongruous, subversive. And like the guitar line that spawned it, I’m still ambivalent about whether it belongs there, whether it is in fact creativity or a manifestation of a darkly destructive impulse. As I trace the map of ideas and influences back through my own thoughts, of all the things that fed into this reinterpretation, objectivity becomes impossible. I’m never entirely sure my own subversive aesthetic preferences will resonate with other people. I’ll continue to vacillate, I expect, and I’ll keep working on writing a masters thesis that gets to the bottom of these and other questions. For now, there’s these songs, this project, this open call to musicians. Like it or not, you’ve got to admit you didn’t expect this from a ballad written in the 1800s. Musicians, are you starting to see the potential here?