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…
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.
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.