© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
"Play me a Hoagy Carmichael song and I hear the banging of a screen door and the whine of an outboard motor on a lake — sounds of summer in a small-town America that is long gone but still longed for."
—William Zinsser, The American Scholar, 1994
There’s a dance pavilion in the rain,
All shuttered down ….
- Johnny Mercer, Early Autumn
On warm summer nights, in that epoch between the wars and before air conditioning, the doors and wide wooden shutters would be open, and the music would drift out of the pavilion over the converging crowds of excited young people, through the parking lot glistening with cars, through the trees, and over the lake-or the river, or the sea. Sometimes Japanese lanterns hung in the trees, like moons caught in the branches, and sometimes little boys too hung there, observing the general excitement and sharing the sense of an event. And the visit of one of the big bands was indeed an event.
The sound of the saxophones, a sweet and often insipid yellow when only four of them were used, turned to a woody umber when, later, the baritone was added. The sound of three trombones in harmony had a regal grandeur. Four trumpets could sound like flame, yet in ballads could be damped by harmon mutes to a citric distant loneliness. Collectively, these elements made up the sound of a big band.
It is one that will not go away. The recordings made then are constantly reissued and purchased in great quantities. Time-Life re-creates in stereo the arrangements of that vanished era, while the Reader's Digest and the Book of the Month Club continue to reissue many of the originals. Throughout the United States and Canada, college and high school students gather themselves into that basic formation-now expanded to five trumpets, four trombones, five saxes doubling woodwinds, piano, bass, drums, and maybe guitar and French horns too-to make their own music in that style. By some estimates there are as many as 30,000 of these bands. The sound has gone around the world, and you will hear it on variety shows of Moscow television—a little clumsy, to be sure, but informed with earnest intention.
Why? Why does this sound haunt our culture?
For one thing, it was deeply romantic. …
It was also dramatic.
- Gene Lees, Singers and the Song II
“Beyond argument, he's the key precursor of that phenomenon of our own times, the singer-songwriter. Whether Billy Joel or Elton John, Dave Frishberg or Bob Dorough, or the countless others who have made an industry of devising and performing their own material, all share a common ancestor in the wiry little guy at the piano, hat back on his head, often bathed in cigarette smoke as he chides "Lazybones" or "Small Fry," exhorts an "Ole Buttermilk Sky" to be mellow and bright, or extols the fragrant memory of "Memphis in June."”
- Richard Sudhalter, Stardust Melody: The Life and Music of Hoagy Carmichael
Through their music, songwriters and/or lyricists like Hoagy Carmichael, Johnny Mercer, and Matt Dennis, help us evoke time and place whether it be watching the clouds take shape during a languid midwestern summer, or fishing and bird watching along the shores of the Savannah river or the hip, slick and cool atmosphere of the New York club scene.
In the frenetic pace of today’s world, I think we need the nostalgic pauses of the songs written by Hoagy Carmichael because they help put us in touch with ourselves.
They cater to and cultivate our imagination which in turn, helps us visualize our dreams and desires.
If for no other reasons, their work needs to be remembered because ... “..., great songs are indestructible artifacts, impervious to time and changing fashion.” [Richard M. Sudhalter]
In his INTRODUCTION to his brilliantly research and easy and fun to read biography Stardust Melody: The Life and Music of Hoagy Carmichael [Oxford: 2002], Richard Sudhalter makes the case for Hoagy’s relevance to our times, this way -
“Our United Airlines 767 had barely lifted off the runway at Santiago when I found myself in conversation with my two immediate neighbors in row fourteen. Young, female, and blonde, they radiated a particularly American, particularly effortless, brand of assured good health.
They were college juniors, they said, and had just backpacked their way across the Andes, actually scaling some of the glaciers viewed distantly from the cruise ship I'd just left at Valparaiso. For the next hour they held me in thrall with tales of towering ridges and tenebrous valleys, mystical dawns and dazzling sunsets—all with a verve and immediacy hard to resist.
Finally, with things starting to flag a bit, came a few questions. What was I doing down here? What did I do in life besides ride in airplanes? Well, I explained, I played the trumpet, specialized in jazz, and had just finished entertaining passengers on an eco-cruise with the music of Hoagy Carmichael -
Their blank stares halted me in mid-sentence. "Hoagy... Carmichael ... ?" I repeated, enunciating each syllable slowly and clearly. "You know—'Star Dust?' " Not a blink of recognition. " 'Georgia on My Mind?' 'Rockin' Chair?' " I reeled off the familiar titles. " 'Ole Buttermilk Sky?'" Still no sign. Nothing. Oh come on, kids, I thought — and started humming the opening bars: "Sometimes I wonder why I spend the lonely night..."
"Oh, right," one of my companions declared, furrowing a radiant blonde brow. Haltingly, as if summoning the Pythagorean Theorem from the darkest recesses of memory, she ventured, "I'm sure I heard my mom singing that once ..."
Perhaps that's just the natural way of things: America is world-famous, after all, for celebrating the new, living in the moment. How quick we are to discard, to expunge what's not immediately relevant to us. Surely it wasn't all that long ago that Hoagy Carmichael — wise, thoughtful, casual in a grown-up, seen-it-all way — was a familiar, even reassuring, presence in our midst. But a lot of mileage now separates his times and ours: change
remains the constant, and we dare not forget that those sorts of seismic shifts have always gone on, were even going on in Hoagy's own lifetime.
He spent his first songwriting years in Indiana and New York, immersed in the almost gnostic subculture of hot jazz, a music that burst into 1920s America in its own kind of youth rebellion. By his mid-thirties he was in California, rebel no more, blending into the movie establishment, and he spent the rest of his career writing songs for, and acting in, films.
But then as now, Hollywood trafficked in ephemerality, and too many of the movies that brought Hoagy Carmichael — his face, his image, his songs — to a mass public now repose quietly on video store "classics" shelves, ignored by anyone not expressly seeking them out.
Various of the tunes escaped their films to join the roster of much-loved popular standards, alongside "Georgia on My Mind," "Skylark," and of course the incomparable "Star Dust." But all that exists on the far side of an immense generational divide. From time to time a k. d. lang will recycle "Skylark," or ex-Beatle George Harrison will have a go at "Hong Kong Blues." But for the most part there's no reason why today's kids would have the slightest idea about — or interest in — an old song celebrating the purple dusk of twilight time.
Broadway composers seem to have made out better. Perhaps it's because George Gershwin celebrated life and romance in fast-moving, superhip New York, Cole Porter's reach extended to high-society Paris and Venice, and the melodies of Richard Rodgers melded smartly with the acidulously world-weary lyrics of Larry Hart. Those songs never need reviving because they always seem to be around, and surely more youngsters today know them than know those of Hoagland Carmichael.
But anyone with enough curiosity to stop, look, and listen is bound to find that Hoagy and his songs are still very much alive and — here's the key word — relevant, occupying territory recognizably theirs alone. His melodies and (more often than is popularly realized) lyrics have little in common with the Ruritanian [references to romantic adventure and intrigue] conceits of Jerome Kern, the arch topicality of Porter, or the cutting-edge smarts of the Gershwins. But they have unrivaled strengths of their own.
Hoagy Carmichael's songs can evoke place and time as vividly as the work of Edward Hopper or Sinclair Lewis, the essays of H. L. Mencken, or the humor of Will Rogers. But they're not period pieces. They deal with eternal things: youth and age, life and death, a longing for home. Relatively few of the best known Carmichael songs, in fact, are about love — at least in any explicit, boy-girl, moon-June sense. Hoagy's love songs have their own spin: "I Get Along Without You Very Well," for all its bereavement, remains stoic, never approaching standard-issue "Body and Soul" self-pity. "Skylark" and "Baltimore Oriole" apostrophize birds in the service of amour; "Two Sleepy People" looks back on young romance with wry affection.
Finally, and above all, there's "Star Dust." Rangy, arpeggiated, structurally unconventional in its ABAC format, it stands alone; outfitted with its Mitchell Parish lyric, it's a song about a song about love. No other song even begins to challenge its unique primacy as a kind of informal American national anthem. Even the resolutely yuppified National Public Radio, selecting its "100 most important American musical works of the twentieth century," found time for a lengthy, affectionate Susan Stamberg ode to "Star Dust."
Numerically speaking, Hoagy didn't write many songs—perhaps 650 at a conservative estimate, a mere handful compared to, say, the prolific Irving Berlin. But quantity is at best an unreliable unit of measure: Carmichael's songs are personal statements, most often nourished and reinforced by his own performances.
Beyond argument, he's the key precursor of that phenomenon of our own times, the singer-songwriter. Whether Billy Joel or Elton John, Dave Frishberg or Bob Dorough, or the countless others who have made an industry of devising and performing their own material, all share a common ancestor in the wiry little guy at the piano, hat back on his head, often bathed in cigarette smoke as he chides "Lazybones" or "Small Fry," exhorts an "Ole Buttermilk Sky" to be mellow and bright, or extols the fragrant memory of "Memphis in June."
It's possible to talk of songs as having a "Carmichael flavor." Not that they all sound alike or conform to any one model: far from it. Overall, in fact, they're a pretty diverse lot. Yet they remain unmistakably his, and, in all but a very few cases, it's hard to imagine them having been written by anyone else. If such perennials as "Georgia on My Mind," "New Orleans," and "Moon Country" evoke the Southland, it's worth noting that Indiana, set on a firm east-west axis alongside Ohio and Illinois, can also be seen latitudinally, contiguous geographically and socially with Kentucky, Tennessee, and the Carolinas.
Except for Duke Ellington, whose primary activity was not songwriting, Carmichael is arguably the only major tunesmith whose musical roots are
discernibly in jazz. Though his later career grew in another direction, he never lost his early affinity for, and love of, the dynamic music of his youth. No coincidence, that some of Louis Armstrong's most majestic recorded moments are in performances of "Star Dust," "Rockin* Chair," and other Carmichael songs.
I discovered Hoagy Carmichael early in life, through the crystalline miracle of Bix Beiderbecke's cornet. Seeking out Bix inevitably meant running across Hoagy's "Riverboat Shuffle," "Washboard Blues," and the original, medium-tempo incarnation of "Star Dust." To a kid growing up in the Boston suburbs of half a century ago, the pair of them seemed American exotics, equal parts roaring-twenties college hepcats and Saturday Evening Post Norman Rockwell archetypes.
Imagine all that farmland. Those golden wheatfields and deep blue big-sky summer horizons. Lakefront ballrooms, with no ocean within thousands of miles; nocturnal expeditions into Chicago to find hot jazz in basement cabarets and South Side dance halls. What a wondrous world of discovery and exuberantly, timelessly youthful music!
How easy, too, and how welcome, to bask in the magenta glow of Carmichael's two published memoirs, The Stardust Road and the more matter-of-fact Sometimes I Wonder. But what about a biography? Books on Gershwin, Porter, Youmans, Kern, and the rest were easy enough to find, as were studies of Armstrong, Ellington, Benny Goodman, and other jazz notables. But no Hoagy. Had his own two books said everything that needed to be said?
Even shorn of its subject's embellishments and elisions, the story asked to be told, and the music badly needed addressing. Alec Wilder's brief Carmichael section in American Popular Song had made a start; various estimable writers, from William Zinsser to John Edward Hasse, had added much of value. But a full biography, of both the music and the man, was still yet to come.
I'd like to think that future generations, backpackers and music scholars alike, will read here about Hoagland Carmichael and respond to the American vision so lovingly preserved in his music, a vision now receding much too quickly from view. It's an idealization, of the people we'd like to think we once were and those we want to believe we still can be: open and decent, worldly but appreciative of simple pleasures; pragmatic yet principled, secular yet deeply moral. In our quest to find what's best in ourselves we need all the help we can get, and there's nothing like a Vorbild [person or thing that serves as an example : a shining, admired, good role model"] or two to speed things along. Above all, great songs are indestructible artifacts, impervious to time and changing fashion.
With all that in mind, then, I invite you (and my quondam traveling companions, wherever they are) to enter Hoagy Carmichael’s world—a world sprinkled, in the most truly magical sense, with Stardust.
SOUTHOLD, NEW YORK
R. M. S.
JUNE 1, 2001