I have been thinking about Willard Robison a good deal the past few days. For good reason, mind you: I was asked to write some notes for a forthcoming release on the Nif Nuf label of trumpeter Bob Barnard and friends playing Robison. Vocals of a most beautiful kind by Bob’s niece Rebecca; other musicians including Jo Stevenson and Andrew Swann.
I don’t know enough about Robison’s life to say much about it, but his beautiful intriguing music seems to divide into the Inspirational — WAKE UP CHILLUN, WAKE UP; ‘T’AIN’T SO, HONEY, ‘T’AIN’T SO; TRUTHFUL PARSON BROWN, the Affectionate — LITTLE HIGH CHAIRMAN, OLD FOLKS, and the Desolate / Lonely — ‘ROUND MY OLD DESERTED FARM, LONELY ACRES IN THE WEST, A COTTAGE FOR SALE, and his last great hit, DON’T SMOKE IN BED — circa 1948, and a success for Peggy Lee (whose version strikes me as too light-hearted for the song’s depths).
Matt Munisteri, who has made a deep study of Robison’s music as well as a beautiful CD of it, could add more titles to my list, but I am not intending to be comprehensive at the moment. Details of his strikingly fine CD here.
I know nothing of Robison’s emotional or marital life. I know he had great success in the Twenties and early Thirties, and he lived into his early seventies, but there is a deep strain of nearly hopeless melancholy in his work.
Where other writers were incessantly writing about the possibilities of Romance (think, for instance, of PENTHOUSE SERENADE), Robison is drawn to the emptied, the vacant, the mournfulness of a house when one’s partner has left. (Yes, there was the non-Robison 1931 song IN A LITTLE SECOND-HAND STORE, where the singer sees the belongings (s)he and spouse have so cherished up for sale in a window — but that singer is able to say, “Let’s get back together again and we’ll reconstruct that dream.”)
Robison’s songs — at least these two — sound as if the shared hopes have been shattered. I know that Larry Conley wrote the lyrics for COTTAGE, but I think the despair is not only Conley’s.
Here, although at a jaunty tempo, is Robison himself singing COTTAGE, with verse, in 1930. Be it ever so humble, there’s no home any more:
“Our little dream castle / With everything gone” is a definite way to begin a song — no optimistic extenuation possible. The tempo is far from dirgelike, and in 2013 we are long familiar with the beautiful ballad medley, but the lyrics remind us that what we are witnessing in the empty cottage is a death — not the death of a person, but the death of hope and love as embodied in a marriage.
Conley knew something either about domestic agriculture or had read a good deal of English poetry to draw on the images of lawns turned to hay, roses overrun by weeds — the untended garden as sign of a broken compact, an irreparable rip in the fabric of loving order. And the brief bridge presents a terrifying reality, where the singer can see the face of the absent spouse in every window but no such welcome is possible as the singer approaches the actual, desolate dwelling.
Robison was a light-voiced, gentle singer. I leave it to his friend Jack Teagarden to record the absolutely definitive version of this song in 1962. (I find the beautiful arrangements by Russ Case and Bob Brookmeyer slightly busy but so intuitively perceptive — although I would have liked to hear Jack backed only by Ellis Larkins or Jimmy Rowles):
And COTTAGE is emotionally less powerful than the song that has struck me at the center of my being ever since I heard Jack’s recording of it, DON’T SMOKE IN BED:
I do not know the circumstances that led up to the writing of that song. With thoughts of a recent posting connected to Marion Harris on my mind, whose death echoed the song’s title — I am sure that more than one spouse / partner told the other, “For God’s sake, don’t do that! You’ll kill yourself if you do that!” But DON’T SMOKE IN BED is about so much more than fire safety.
Whether you hear the song as the expression of the woman who leaves the note or the man who tells us of the event, it is absolutely heart-stopping as a record of a long-time marriage that has failed so irrevocably that no recourse is possible except for one partner leaving while the other is asleep.
And what hits so hard is that the woman (let us say) who is telling her husband, “I am gone. Do not try to follow me, look for me, find me. I am leaving behind ‘my old wedding ring,’ a severing more decisive than any divorce proceeding — can speak to her obliviously sleeping spouse with colloquial rueful tenderness: “Remember, darling, don’t smoke in bed,” as if she were simultaneously concerned about his welfare while finding it impossible to live with him, look out for him, take care of him one day more.
The singer calls the sleeper, “old sleepy head,” which could be read as deeply affectionate at best, slightly mocking at worst — but it is a sobriquet more tender than many of us have heard in arguments. But what follows is — although casually stated — final: “I’m packing you in / Like I said,” which says that this is not a single marital argument that has escalated but the end of a long series of them, where the possibility of one partner leaving has often been discussed.
Did Robison know such an incident? Did one of his friends, male or female, walk away from a relationship with such power and such regret, perhaps leaving a note and a ring? Did some spouse — playfully or with great seriousness — say, “One day you’re going to wake up and I’ll be gone. And when that happens, I hope you’ll stop smoking in bed. I can’t stand you, but I don’t want you burned to death.” Did someone wake up to find his / her partner gone? Was it Robison himself?
I don’t know.
But I do not think anyone writes such a song without having personal experience — heard or lived-through — to base it on.
And I know that it is bad scholarship (even though I am thirty years’ out of graduate school) to ascribe biographical details to art. But. By 1962 Jack Teagarden was happily married — but with the wreckage of several marriages behind him. Is it too much to hear world-weariness, despair, and knowledge in his voice? I think not.
The way Teagarden arches his voice to deliver “Don’t look for me,” part cry, part croon, suggests a sorrowing song underneath this performance that the notes themselves cannot notate or contain — echoed by the way, glorious and anguished, that Don Goldie’s trumpet rises at the end of his solo.
Bless Jack Teagarden, trumpeter Don Goldie, Willard Robison, and Larry Conley for giving us such dramatic experiences — passages through sorrow and loss in the form of music that make us shiver with sadness and recognition.
“With these few goodbye-words . . . . the end of our story is told on the door.”
May your happiness increase.