Tidbits: More Songs of Mythical Proportions

In our Feature Article about Oscar Hammerstein II for this month, we point out the incredible power of Hammerstein's words, creating songs that are routinely mistaken for something else. In short, "Ol' Man River" (Kern & Hammerstein) is thought to be a "negro spiritual" over 100 years old, and "Edelweiss" (Rodgers & Hammerstein) is generally assumed to be a sort of Austrian/German folk anthem. Both of course are 20th century show tunes.

While no other songs come close to evoking the mistaken mythology of these two tunes, there are a few others that come to mind. So for this month's Tidbits, we'll examine a few tunes that aren't quite as significant as they may seem. Or maybe the mythology indeed makes them more than they really are.

A third Rodgers & Hammerstein song that we touch on briefly in this month's Songwriter feature is "You'll Never Walk Alone." The significance of this song has faded a bit in recent years, but about 30 years back it was routinely performed on Sunday mornings by soloists and church choirs across the country. It was treated as a hymn, and like "Edelweiss," became thought of as something more than what it really was.

Another standard that came to be treated similarly was Ervin Drake's composition "I Believe" from 1953. Drake composed this at the behest of Jane Froman, who wanted an inspirational song of hope to sing at the outbreak of the Korean War. Still reeling from World War II, Americans weren't emotionally ready for another conflict in Froman's eyes. She recorded the song, only to see it covered by Frankie Laine and rocket to the top of the charts. Although overwhelmingly secular and non-committal in its message, it has become thought of as a church hymn. If you don't think so, try to talk a politically-correct high school choir director into singing this song!

Speaking of hymns, let's get back to "Edelweiss" for a moment.

Around about 1970 a national convention of a Methodist women's group found words to a new benediction printed in their program, along with the instruction that it was to be sung to the tune of "Edelweiss." This melody is of course so moving and so much a part of the American psyche and moved the convention goers so much that they sang it repeatedly. As these delegates returned to their home churches, they bombarded their respective choir directors with requests to adopt this new benediction. Words in hand, choir directors then simply bought the charts to Edelweiss, and the song surged across the continent.

You won't hear this Edelweissian benediction today, yet you will find all sorts of rumors that your church will be sued and bankrupted by a powerful music publishing consortium if you play it. Well, maybe.

The facts (as we understand them) are that Rodgers heard about this new slant on Edelweiss, and felt that it directly contradicted with a long-standing agreement he had with Oscar Hammerstein II. Because Hammerstein played such an integral role in the songs, and really since his "book" for the various shows dictated the creation of the songs, Rodgers understood that he was not to use the resulting melodies with anyone's lyrics other than Hammerstein's. He honored this agreement long after Hammerstein's passing, and his estate honors it to this day. The Methodist church recognizes that performing this would be the same as stealing it, so they courteously abstain from doing so.

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featured performance

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Here's Englebert at the peak of his fame in the late 1980s with a very loungish version of "I Believe." Please note that you have to click on the little "play" arrow twice to get it to work.


Tidbits, continued from column at left

The words of some songs take on meaning they don't really have. "Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow" was a massive hit for Vaughn Monroe during the 1940s, an homage to winter, a sort of less menacing song along the lines of "Baby It's Cold Outside." It actually peaked on the charts during the month of February. Today of course, it is pegged as a "Christmas Song," and you'll be hard pressed to hear it played between January 1st and November 30th. That's a shame.

If we may digress for a moment, a tune from outside the realm of traditional pop standards that fits this mold is Bruce Springsteen's "Born In the USA." With its march-like melody and liberal use of horns and bells, it sounds exactly like you'd expect a patriotic rock song to sound. Ronald Reagan even began quoting Springsteen in his re-election campaign, talking about "a young man from New Jersey, Bruce Springsteen..." (Reagan was so accomplished as a speaker and so sincere in his delivery that no matter what he said, he made it sound important). Americans who would otherwise avoid Springsteen like the plague began buying the record. Patrons would sing along in bars. It was played at wedding receptions, reunions and dances, usually punctuated by slightly inebriated males pumping their fists in the air.

Only problem was that it was decidedly anti-establishment; Springsteen was actually criticizing America for the way Vietnam Veterans had been treated. Unfortunately the bulk of Springsteen's vocals sounded like gibberish to listeners who weren't familiar with his style; the only words they understood were the "born in the USA" chorus. No matter, it sold a lot of records on that basis alone. Perhaps someday this too will be a "standard."

And what of "Tie a Yellow Ribbon (Round the Old Oak Tree)"? Not so much a protest song as a show of support for troops overseas, it's become one of the most clichéd songs of the past half century. Yes, it did come out in the 1970s, long after most people feel that the Great American Songbook had been closed. Forgetting about the meaning it has now, if you simply consider the impact the song had, its lasting popularity, and the fact that it forever engraved Tony Orlando's name in the archives of American Popular Song, it is undeniably a "standard." As for Tony Orlando, he's still performing this and other hits around the country. And he's still one of the nicest guys you'll ever meet in the music biz. He may not have written the song, but his performance made it work. Who knows, 50 years hence this song may carry the same mythology as "Ol' Man River."



To revisit "Tidbits" from last month, focusing on parents and children who've separately topped the charts , please click here.