Please put your phones away and let’s begin.
I first heard this song in its original performance many years ago — it was issued on a Jack Teagarden compilation — and fell in love with it. Later, I’ve heard the three other versions (Joe Haymes, Chris Ellis, and the happily-still-singing Daryl Sherman) but I keep coming back to Mister Mercer’s original, recorded on August 24, 1934, with Sterling (or Stirling) Bose, trumpet; Jack Teagarden, trombone; Fulton McGrath, piano; Dick McDonough, guitar; Hank Wayland, string bass — and the session was directed by Victor Young.
I should mention that the music was composed by Bernard Hanighen — who’s not well-known today, but he is responsible for WHEN A WOMAN LOVES A MAN, lyrics to Monk’s ‘ROUND MIDNIGHT, and he co-produced Billie Holiday’s 1936-39 records . . . and was her dear friend and advocate.
Daniel, do you have a notebook? Would it be a good idea to open it up and write some things down? As I’ve said, you can burn it in the backyard when this course ends. But I digress.
The song is THE BATHTUB RAN OVER AGAIN, and blissfully this recording has everything: an unaccompanied Jack Teagarden cadenza to start and a Dick McDonough coda to close. In between, we hear Mercer — someone I think of as one of the finest singers ever in his early phase, with a distinctive boyish twang to his lyric delivery and a real flair for playful improvising (measure his second chorus against his first):
Everything on this recording works for me — the cheerful rhythm section behind Mercer’s first chorus, and the tag, “So before I drown / The whole darn town / I think you better say ‘I do,'” which to me is the first marriage-proposal-with-the-threat-of-apocalypse-attached I know. (So there, Andrew Marvell!) Then the instrumental interludes: Bose sounds just a touch uncertain, and my guess is that he hadn’t seen the song before, since it was brand new, but he doesn’t lose the thread. Teagarden’s minor bridge is easily tossed off, but what sounds! And McDonough’s accompaniment is a wondrous etude in itself. In the second chorus, I adore the larger freedom Mercer allows himself, the murmur of Teagarden’s horn under Johnny’s singing, the little break and stop-time additions.
I know. I tend to get carried away. But even when your professor is ecstatic in front of the room, if you take out your phone and begin to text, you will be asked to leave.
I assume that the song is meant for a male singer, but there are no explicit references. So the vision of someone in the bathtub, sprucing up for an eight o’clock date with someone so adored that a marriage can be envisioned, is dear. And the conceit that the bather is so deeply in dreamland that the tub overflows and the very polite people underneath protest in the most genial way, “Dreamin’ ’bout your baby’s OK / but the house is floating away!” is beyond charming. I know it is not an environmentally-correct song: wasting water is criminal, but I hope that in the name of dear love all things can be forgiven.
Your assignment for next class. Learn this song. Learn it so deeply that you can sing it, verse and chorus, with a smile on your face, with no lyrics in front of you. Sing it to the one you love; sing it to your children; hum it on the subway. I want to hear THE BATHTUB RAN OVER AGAIN being whistled on the street; I want to hear Mr. Mercer’s voice coming out of earbuds on this campus and elsewhere, I want to hear four men or four women harmonizing on it as they walk down the street, arm in arm, grinning.
It’s not too much to ask.
I have some papers to give back. Enjoy yourselves, and I’ll see you next class, when we’ll be reading Whitman.
May your happiness increase!