Daily Archives: March 25, 2015

A DIME A THROW: HILARY GARDNER and EHUD ASHERIE HONOR RODGERS AND HART at MEZZROW (March 17, 2015)

In my recollection, organized oppression is rarely the subject of American popular song.  Of course, it is a deep subject in folk song, but in popular music I can think of only OL’  MAN RIVER, BLACK AND BLUE, and BROTHER, CAN YOU SPARE A DIME?  (STRANGE FRUIT is in its own class.)

Most of the songs beloved in the canon are personal and smaller in scale, depicting the joy of new love, the sorrows of love disintegrating, the emptiness when it has gone.

A deeply moving exception is the 1930 TEN CENTS A DANCE, by Lorenz Hart and Richard Rodgers (I am reversing the order intentionally) — to me, is a poem about the debilitating and demeaning labor of lower-class women who cannot escape their fate in any dreamy romantic way.  Much of its intensity comes from the first-person narrative, unlike the later SHOE SHINE BOY, where the victim of economic circumstances is both optimistic and viewed tenderly by someone else.

Ten Cents A Dance

Hart’s gritty painful lyrics equal any poem about working in the sweatshops (think of “The Song of the Shirt”) or any anthropological study of human trafficking. And although the drama is intentionally narrow, with one exhausted woman telling us her story of grueling labor, dashed hopes, and no exit, it presents an excruciating to experience, Hart’s casual diction notwithstanding.

Heaven no longer cared to protect the working girl.

Here are the lyrics, taken from www.lorenzhart.com:

 

VERSE

I work at the Palace Ballroom,
but, gee that Palace is cheap;
when I get back to my chilly hall room
I’m much too tired to sleep.
I’m one of those lady teachers,
a beautiful hostess, you know,
the kind the Palace features
for only a dime a throw.

REFRAIN

Ten cents a dance
that’s what they pay me,
gosh, how they weigh me down!
Ten cents a dance
pansies and rough guys
tough guys who tear my gown!
Seven to midnight I hear drums.
Loudly the saxophone blows.
Trumpets are tearing my eardrums.
Customers crush my toes.
Sometime I think
I’ve found my hero,
but it’s a queer romance.
All that you need is a ticket
Come on, big boy, ten cents a dance.

PATTER

Fighters and sailors and bowlegged tailors
can pay for their ticket and rent me!
Butchers and barbers and rats from the harbors
are sweethearts my good luck has send me.
Though I’ve a chorus of elderly beaux,
stockings are porous with holes at the toes.
I’m here till closing time.
Dance and be merry, it’s only a dime.

TAG

Sometime I think
I’ve found my hero,
but it’s a queer romance.
All that you need is a ticket
Come on, big boy, ten cents a dance.

That’s a fully articulated dramatic statement — a novella in three minutes, worthy of Stephen Crane. And Hart’s word choice is so telling — the “gee” and “gosh” suggest a certain sweet naivete that has not yet been crushed utterly. Was our imagined “lady teacher” a young woman who came from the Midwest to the big city in search of love?  Or fame?  The patter, as well — part of a theatrical presentation — contrasts the woes of the woman drained of energy with the mad rush of the city, the headlong press of men eager to get their dime’s worth of sensation from her.

(As an aside, I worry about those later cultural analysts who crow over “queer” as evidence of homosexual code-speak.  Perhaps it was, but the beautiful meshing of sounds in “hero” and “queer ro” would have delighted Hart as well as the half-hidden surprise, I would wager.)

I’m not the only person to be captivated by this song: it became the basis for a film in 1931, and Reginald Marsh painted his version of it in 1933 — although his imagining is much more lurid than the song, whose narrator sounds like someone who remembers what it was to be innocent and hopeful. Marsh’s hostesses suggest by their dress and posture that dancing is merely the surface of their real intent and profession:

Reginald Marsh 1933

The song itself has been memorably sung and recorded by Ruth Etting, later Doris Day, Ella, and many others.

But I think the performance I witnessed just a week ago at Mezzrow — by Hilary Gardner and Ehud Asherie — is the equal of any more famous rendition. Ehud suggests the bounce of a dance-band (with greater harmonic ingenuity and rhythmic variety than any 1930 outfit) and Hilary shows herself a great understated dramatic actress.  Hear her reading of the lines — so rich, so quiet, so varied and convincing.

I invite you to listen to this afresh.  To me this performance is a triumph of despair, quiet resignation, and deep lyricism. Great art can make pain beautiful but it never attempts to pretend the pain is not there.

For a more cheerful evocation of Rodgers and Hart by Hilary and Ehud, listen to this.

There will be more of Hilary and Ehud doing honor to Dick and Larry — something I delight in.

May your happiness increase!

Advertisements