Why should someone happy sing a sad song?
This question has been part of my thoughts since Labor Day weekend. At the 2011 Sweet and Hot Music Festival, I had seen Dan Barrett and Marc Caparone join Dan Levinson on the stand — very informally. (Molly Ryan and Mark Shane were already there, and even though they are not the focus of this posting, they are dear to me and anyone who listens.)
Dan L. has long been making good things happen with the somewhat obscure Jimmie Noone repertoire, and he called READY FOR THE RIVER. After the instrumental choruses, he asked, “Want to do it as a band vocal?” — the three hornmen decided in the space of a few seconds that they all knew the words to the song, and this resulted:
I haven’t been able to get that song or that performance out of my mind. Although my life is happier than it ever has been, at odd moments through the day I find myself cheerfully sotto voce singing about committing suicide. Trying to plumb this mystery, I cheerfully told the Beloved once again about the song and sang it to her as we walked through Central Park this afternoon.
There’s no post-modern ambiguity in the lyrics. The singer is planning to drown himself. The lyrics to the bridge are “Made my will, wrote some notes. Goin’ to keep on walking till my straw hat floats.” But the paradox of the pleasure I am taking in this sad song doesn’t frighten me. Rather, it opens out into broader vistas.
I could start with the simple pleasure of a catchy melody and well-crafted, surprising lyrics. The song has an irresistibly simple melody: the “A” sections are within the span of an octave, and the bridge uses only four notes. Easy to remember, to hum, to whistle, full of emphatic repeated notes. They lyrics are clever: suicide never seemed so much like a nifty thing to do. The contrast between playful melody and direly witty lyrics is intriguing in itself. But I had heard the Noone record of READY FOR THE RIVER years ago with no particular compulsion to revisit it. I didn’t sing it to myself when I might have had much better reason to take it seriously.
And this rumination is not entirely self-referential: two Dans and one Marc take great joy out of singing those sorrowful lyrics on the stand. Watch them sing, and I believe you see three men singing a dark song — but they are so delighted with the music passing through them that they are having a hard time not giggling.
I am entranced by the performance and its implications. We perceive three artists, united by common language, shared knowledge, simultaneous emotions, breaking into song — harmonizing on a shared theme. They create a community that transmutes gloom. In performance, READY FOR THE RIVER is so much more than sheet of music or a disc.
And, as with all improvisation, a transformation happens: something is created that did not exist before. Marc Caparone inhales, passes his exhaled breath vibrating through the metal of his cornet, and what comes out perhaps twenty inches from his face is music. He sends his notes out into the room — “This is what I have to tell you!” — and the sound bounces back to him. Dan and Dan hear it; the three voices are triply individual and at the same time a choir.
In making a song about deep sadness, our feeling that nothing can be fixed, these artists turn the grieving darkness into something beautiful that will sustain us. If we sing about ending our lives, perhaps we have defused the impulse and have purged the need to act on it. If we can put our sorrows into song, we can endure the worst of them. Grief that once weighed us down is now just a bubble.
Thanks to them, my straw hat floats. Joyously.
I had assumed that READY FOR THE RIVER dated from late 1929, a song naturally catching the mood of the country after the Wall Street Crash. But I was mistaken: it was first recorded (according to Tom Lord) on March 27, 1928, by Emerson Gill and His Bamboo Garden Orchestra, vocal by Pinkey Hunter.
I’m always happy to have my assumptions refuted by evidence, and I now envision well-dressed men and women happily dancing to a snappy song about suicide. I wish that the late Dennis Potter (of PENNIES FROM HEAVEN and THE SINGING POLICEMAN) were here to savor this image: