Members of repressive societies are forbidden to write about the forbidden; censorship blossoms in the name of morality. But ingenious writers and artists make their way around prohibitions. Even in the most conservative environment, sin can be explored in popular culture if the writer is lamenting the horrid effects of such behavior. Lost virginity and illicit drugs could be the titillating subjects of early films — if they were deplored rather than celebrated.
We could go back to 1900 for A BIRD IN A GILDED CAGE, by Arthur J. Lamb (lyrics) and Harry Von Tilzer (music), a huge popular hit that depicted a young woman in a loveless marriage who has chosen money over affection. The story goes that Lamb approached Von Tilzer with the lyrics, which Von Tilzer liked — but he wanted Lamb’s lyrics to make it clear that the young woman was not someone’s mistress. The famous refrain is: “She’s only a bird in a gilded cage, / A beautiful sight to see, / You may think she’s happy and free from care, / She’s not, though she seems to be, / ‘Tis sad when you think of her wasted life, / For youth cannot mate with age, / And her beauty was sold, / For an old man’s gold, / She’s a bird in a gilded cage.”
Girls, don’t sell your beauty and be sure not to mate with age!
Here’s a 1904 version, sung by Harry Anthony:
Forward to two late-Twenties songs, music that motivated my meditations on bad girls who wear cosmetics.
The 1928 GLAD RAG DOLL (music by Milton Ager / Dan Dougherty; lyrics by Jack Yellen) assertively states that money and flashy clothing and jewelry bring only the most shallow happiness, even asking us where and how that finery was acquired. The verse is almost accusatory: Hester Prynne has just gotten off the train in a small town, and everyone notices the way she’s dressed: “Little painted lady with your lovely clothes / Where are you bound for may I ask? / What your diamonds cost you everybody knows / All the world can see behind your mask.”
Here is Ruth Etting’s wistful version:
“Glad rags” become “sad rags” in a day; the brightly dressed young woman will never find a proper husband “to grow old and grey with,” and her many admirers will desert her — although she can always “amend” her flashy ways. Presumably the speaker is sedately dressed and long married — neither a boy who “plays” nor a “pretty little toy the boys like to play with” any longer. Respectable for sure, not aimed for disgrace or disappointment, but the painted woman seems to be having more fun, even if it is transitory.
I couldn’t leave GLAD RAG DOLL without offering Earl Hines’ wordless solo — rollicking without caring for the morals expressed in the stern lyrics:
Another song in the same moral mode is NOBODY’S SWEETHEART, which most of us know as a Chicago hot number. But its initial versions had the same warning coloration: the young woman, in this case, has left all her loyal small-town admirers behind for a shady life of glamor in the big city. Music by Billy Meyers and Elmer Schoebel, lyrics by Gus Kahn and Ernie Erdman.
Here’s the sad verse: “You were ev’rybody’s sweetheart / Not so long ago / And in our home town, each boy around / Longed to be your beau / But things are diff’rent today / I’m mighty sorry to say.” Urban fashion seems to require a loss of purity, in a dichotomy. Either small-town sweetheart or Painted Woman Wearing A Bird of Paradise.
Hat with bird of paradise feathers circa 1900
“You’re nobody’s sweetheart now, / There’s no place for you somehow, / With your fancy clothes, silken gowns, / You’ll be out of place in the middle of your own hometown, / When you walk down the avenue, / All the folks just can’t believe that it’s you. / With painted lips and painted eyes, / Wearing a bird of paradise, / It all seems wrong somehow, / You’re nobody’s sweetheart now!”
It echoes Frank Norris and Theodore Dreiser: the young woman who leaves her home for the big city will be changed irrevocably — exiled, outcast. Neither GLAD RAG DOLL nor NOBODY’S SWEETHEART suggests that the young woman has earned her clothing and jewelry through prostitution, but there seems no moral way for a single woman to earn her keep without a husband, so the worst suspicions are never contradicted. But she is beautifully and glamorously dressed. Vice doesn’t endure but it certainly looks good in the short run.
Here is Marion Harris’ sympathetic version from 1929:
A few years earlier, Billy Murray and a tough-talking Aileen Stanley deflated the song’s moral stance from the start:
And for those who might not have seen this 1929 short film, it contains a very swinging vocal by a young man from the heartland who would later say that his singing had always been an error. He sounds pretty good here!
(Incidentally, there were popular hits depicting small-town women, loyal and true, who would never think of wearing jewelry or painting their faces — MY GAL SAL is just one example. And thousands of songs, it seems, that celebrate impending matrimony — “when we two are one and someday there’ll be three”.)
Thinking about all those songs that both deplore and secretly celebrate young women who have wandered from the orthodox path of marriage, prudence, and dependence, I remembered a poem (from 1901) by Thomas Hardy, called THE RUINED MAID:
“O ‘Melia, my dear, this does everything crown!
Who could have supposed I should meet you in Town?
And whence such fair garments, such prosperi-ty?” —
“O didn’t you know I’d been ruined?” said she.
“You left us in tatters, without shoes or socks,
Tired of digging potatoes, and spudding up docks;
And now you’ve gay bracelets and bright feathers three!”
“Yes: that’s how we dress when we’re ruined,” said she.
“At home in the barton you said thee’ and thou,’
And thik oon,’ and theäs oon,’ and t’other’; but now
Your talking quite fits ‘ee for high compa-ny!” —
“Some polish is gained with one’s ruin,” said she.
“Your hands were like paws then, your face blue and bleak
But now I’m bewitched by your delicate cheek,
And your little gloves fit as on any la-dy!” —
“We never do work when we’re ruined,” said she.
“You used to call home-life a hag-ridden dream,
And you’d sigh, and you’d sock; but at present you seem
To know not of megrims or melancho-ly!” —
“True. One’s pretty lively when ruined,” said she.
“I wish I had feathers, a fine sweeping gown,
And a delicate face, and could strut about Town!” —
“My dear — a raw country girl, such as you be,
Cannot quite expect that. You ain’t ruined,” said she.
In theory, Hardy was writing about the hard life of the country maiden, but it seems difficult to take that as the message of THE RUINED MAID, which makes being ruined a delightful version of upward social mobility. A Moral? Live fast, paint your face, leave home for the city, and you’ll be the subject of popular art.
And just in case this socio-literary survey has left you melancholy, here’s a modern version of NOBODY’S SWEETHEART NOW by Hal Smith’s International Sextet at Sacramento in 2011. You can sing along with Kim Cusack by now:
That’s Hal Smith, drums; Clint Baker, string bass; Katie Cavera, guitar; Carl Sonny Leyland, piano; Anita Thomas, clarinet; Kim Cusack, clarinet and vocal. Uncredited appearance of a Recalcitrant Microphone Stand courtesy of the local Musicians’ Union.
May your happiness increase!