There is an old Italian saying, “Si non e vero, e ben trovato.” This translates, more or less, as “If it isn’t true, [at least] it’s well made up.” Still in all, many stories told about songs, their creations, their effects, and so on, sound pretty “ben trovato”; but after some thought about the power of song in our own lives, these stories gain a certain psychological credibility if not a factual one.
Take the tale of a certain pianist sitting at the keyboard in the reception area of a bawdyhouse. As he sang while setting to music the new lyrics written by one Arthur J. Lamb, he heard sobbing behind him; and when he realized that some of the “girls” were washing away their mascara with hot tears, he knew he had a hit on his hands. If these tough cookies were affected by the lyrics, what about the virgins in the respectable drawing rooms and theaters? Harry Von Tilzer was correct. The popularity of “A Bird in a Gilded Cage” is only slightly tarnished a full century after it was first thought out in 1900. I suppose its message is as fresh as ever.
Take the tale of Joseph Stromberg, who was the house composer for Weber & Fields. Poor health and who knows what other problems were parts of a chain of events that led to his death, perhaps by suicide. A manuscript of a song was found in his pocket, words by Robert B. Smith, music by Stromberg. Lillian Russell wanted to sing it in the smash hit “Twirly Whirly” in 1902, but she broke into tears on the first night and could not continue. After that, she made her audience weep with what became her most requested song.
The lyrics? “My evening star I wonder who you are,/Set up so high like a diamond in the sky./No matter what I do/I can’t go up to you,/So come down from there, my evening star.” Banal, cliché-ridden, and powerful in their very simplicity.
Take the ironic tale of Hart Pease Danks, who read a poem by the editor of a magazine out west and bought it for $3 so he could set it to music. Very much in love with his wife, Danks gave it a sentimental tune befitting the times, 1872; and when it was sung in minstrel shows (this was way before Tin Pan Alley), it became an enormous hit. The ironic part is that he and his wife separated the very next year, and Danks died a lonely man. The song? “Silver Threads Among the Gold.”
Take the tale of a very proper Victorian English gentleman, whose ambition it was to make his name writing oratorios, pieces for the parlor piano-fortes, and perhaps a symphony or two and even an opera. As fate would have it, he fell in with a playwright and made his fortune doing satirical musicals. After their second collaboration, the composer’s brother died; and he wrote a short piece set to a very Victorian set of lyrics. It became an instant hit; but not too many people today realize that Sullivan of the Gilbert & Sullivan team is also the composer of “The Lost Chord.”
Take the tale of a very popular American composer-lyricist who married, honeymooned in Cuba, and lost his wife to a disease she contracted on that island. Although this particular man never really showed his true self in any of his lyrics, he penned a few lines that can only show his true and deep grief over the loss of his dead wife. When he had it published, it sold over million copies and is still often sung today. Irving Berlin called it “When I Lost You.”
Take the case of the same composer when he was assigned the complete score of a 1942 film musical. One song in particular was designed to be a Big Hit, another to be something of a throw-away, sung simply by the star seated at a piano. That latter number became the Big Hit as thousands of GI’s so far from home listened with tears in their eyes to broadcasts of “White Christmas.”
Take the case yet again of Irving Berlin who put into his files a song written for his World War I musical “Yip Yip Yaphank” because he thought it was superfluous and too flag-waving in the worst George M. Cohan tradition. One World War later, a famous singer asked him for a patriotic song and he gave her the rejected number. Thus did Kate Smith and “God Bless America” become forever associated.
And while we are taking the case of that song, consider the lyrics. Most of the words are monosyllables, simple, to the point, and eminently singable in a way that our official national anthem is not. The power of words when combined with the power of music can be more potent than even the Pen, let alone the Sword.
Tell me. What do YOU think are some other songs that still move strong people to tears after many years have rolled by?