By Bill Bronk
Phooey! Balderdash! Horse Hockey! That’s to all the naysayers who say you can’t or shouldn’t go back. Of course you can. There’s no need to feel guilty about pausing every once in awhile and leisurely meandering back to other times in our lives. Not to live in the past, but to enjoy meaningful and indelible memories…slivers of bygone days that occasionally — but most definitely — beckon us there.
And one great way to do that is through music, especially those popular songs we grew up with. I emphasize ‘grew up with’ because that’s the time when our musical personalities and other interests begin to blossom. We get hooked on our favorite songs through lyrics and/or melodies that make us want to get up and dance, sing along with or (ahem) give us a leg up in wooing a romantic interest.
While vintage popular music is our theme generally, this article will put a spotlight on love songs. Songs about love and romance help us to express what is often hard to put into words. We’ll get more into the love connection later on…but first, we will offer a smidgen of trivia about what “popular” music was like long before there was any such thing as a love song.
For the sake of brevity (ha!), this piece will highlight some of the music that was popular during the 1800s and 1900s, up through the Gay Nineties, the Tin Pan Alley era, the Great Depression and the World War II Years, and just quickly touch on the Fabulous Fifties, that period that began what is known as the Golden Era of Rock ‘n’ Roll. You know, that was that crazy time a few momentous decades ago when a 19 year old kid from Tupelo, Mississippi named Elvis Presley, with quiverin’ lips, shakin’ hips, and a voice that rocked the world…came mumbling onto the scene changing popular music forever. “Thank you very much”!
Actually, I should just round it off and say about a hundred plus years or so…give or take a decade or two or three. And to be clear: even though the subject of later pop music receives little to no coverage here, there really was (cross my heart and hope to die) plenty of great music still around in the 60s and 70s, that we in my generation, lovingly known as the old pharts, could appreciate (if it had a good beat and we could somehow extricate ourselves from our chairs long enough to get up and shake whatever would still move). This while the youth of the land were busy demonstrating, meditating and celebrating (whatever it was they could find to celebrate back then)! I can hear Goldmine’s editor, just about now, pulling out his hair (if he’s not already follically challenged) and crying “holy crepe suzettes….what the heck (#*&=@+! ) is Bronk trying to do this time?
Seriously though, from today’s perspective, particularly for those of us who were born in the 1930s and 40s, there’s a plentitude (give me 25 cents for that one) of great popular music that we can look back on, relish, and like pigs in the proverbial sty, wallow around in and get down and dirty in to our heart’s content (so much for being serious); a vast goldmine of musical treasure (or gasp!, trash… to the rare breed of old fuddy-duddies who don’t like music…period) that just boggles the mind. And let me just say, with some trepidation, as diplomatically as I can, that the stuff I’m talking about is as long ago and far away as you can get from Hard Rock, Heavy Metal, Rap, Hip Hop, Power Pop, New Age, Electronic and other now popular genres (alien to this ancient, and by some marvel of medicine, still vertical being) that have invaded the airwaves…and for some of us, assaulted our senses. Not to cast aspersions on the importance of those genres to those who enjoy them, but hey, for a good number of us, that stuff just isn’t with it! Like they used to say back in the “good old days” (whenever that was), It ain’t hip! It ain’t cool! It’s nowheresville!
Seriously though (here we go again), speaking for old geezers like myself, those of us who are now long in the tooth (but short on just about everything else), I’m really happy to say that we were introduced to a great many wonderful popular songs from the time period we’re focusing on, by osmosis, when we, still in grammar school and not yet into our teen years, first heard them performed in vintage movie musicals on “The Late Late Late Show” (of course our parents gave their permission!), listened to what our moms and dads and grandparents were playing on their brand spanking new Zenith Trans-Oceanic Wave-magnet radios and Victor Victrola VV l-X Table Top record players or what we saw and heard on early TV variety shows hosted by Ed Sullivan, Uncle Milty, Jack Benny, Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca, Jimmy Durante and Dinah Shore.
Some of us, thrilled to death (yeah, really!), may even have taken a more active role in experiencing these songs by volunteering (uh… how about being coerced?) into performing in minstrel or vaudeville type shows held in the community room at the local church hall (wearing gaudy makeup and outrageously garish costumes, with wigs no less!) that were in vogue way back then or, heaven forbid, the perennial parent-pleasing annual school play. (I have somehow learned to fondly embrace the utter embarrassment that resulted from my mother’s excited exhortation—“but Billy, what a wonderful opportunity”!). Ah, the art of persuasion…that only a mother could get away with!
But I digress. We may have been kids at the time but the music we heard back then, those great songs, lyrics and melodies, many of which are included in what is now commonly known as the Great American Song Book (songs from Broadway and Hollywood musicals, for example, aka “standards”), tend to stay with you (even when nothing else does) while fully embracing the polyglot popularity of 50s and 60s rock ‘n roll, rhythm and blues, folk, calypso, country and pop in our teen years and beyond.
So…what am I prattling on about? Well, in the early days of popular music, we’re talking about songs like “Happy Birthday”, “Polly Wolly Doodle”, “Darling Nelly Gray”, “Frankie and Johnny”, “I’ve Been Working On The Railroad”, “Yankee Doodle”, “Jingle Bells”, “Old MacDonald Had A Farm”, “Buffalo Gals” and hundreds of other similar crowd pleasing, folky, sing-a-long type songs….all written during the 1800s, and which are still sung today in our schools, at summer camps and concerts-in-the- park and wherever else people congregate to have a good time (due to a shortage of available space in this article , I didn’t mention the less family-friendly , more bawdy type of musical fare that magically appears at rowdy frat parties, in the barracks recreation room or at our engaged pal’s stag night affair at the local brew pub).
Yes, those were the types of popular songs that appeared on the early American hit parade throughout the 1800s and early 1900s, laying the foundation for the musical transformation that was yet to come. But as you can see, there’s nary a love song in the bunch. My guess is that writing songs about love was too close to being (tongue firmly in cheek) revolutionary back in those days. Dig deep enough though and you will find a few romantic-leaning songs from that period such as “The Gypsy Love Song” (from the musical play “The Fortune Teller”, “I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen”, Stephen Foster’s “Beautiful Dreamer” and “Daisy Bell (Bicycle Built for Two)”. “Aura Lee”, sung by the Confederate soldiers during the Civil War would become Elvis Presley’s mega hit, “Love Me Tender”.
We know that the subject of love was not a big priority to songwriters back in the 1800s, that scant attention was paid to songs about affairs of the heart. But then, out of the blue, like the kick-of-a-mule-up-side your-head, enlightenment struck. Shortly after the dawn of the 20th Century songwriters got bitten by the love bug and popular songs about love and romance gained favor with the public (albeit at a snail’s pace, at first)…as the sentiments expressed in a love song (whether you are doing the wooing, the one being wooed or, oh oh, the one getting the boot) could, perchance, mirror the true-to-life situation a person is living.
Indeed, from the heights of heaven-on-high euphoria to the lows of a hell-hath-no-fury break-up, oh yeah, when it comes to love …there are all kinds of love songs to be sung. So let’s have a little fun…as we go tripping down memory lane…harkening back to a time when love songs were sung by crooners like Bing Crosby, Al Jolson, Eddy Howard, Rudy Vallee and Frank Sinatra.
And let’s not forget the distaff side, when female singers (sometimes known as a “canaries”) like Bessie Smith, Dinah Shore, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Kate Smith were just as popular as the boys. Along with love comes harmony…and groups like the Ink Spots, the Boswell Sisters, the Mills Brothers, and the Andrews Sisters were some of the best.
After the turn of the century, the period between 1900 and 1910 saw several great tunes like “I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now”, “Cuddle Up a Little Closer”, “Shine On Harvest Moon” and “When You Were Sweet Sixteen”. The WW1 period gave us “For Me and My Gal”, “Till We Meet Again”, “Put Your Arms Around Me Honey” and “I’m Falling in Love with Someone”. Songs like “Ain’t Misbehavin”, “It Had to Be You”, “Somebody Stole My Gal”, “Tea for Two”, “Love Me or Leave Me” and “I’ll See You in My Dreams “rolled onto the scene during The Roaring Twenties”.
During The Depression Era of the 1930s the nation was far from being down-hearted and blue when it came to such songs as “I’m In the Mood for Love”, “You’re Driving Me Crazy”, “Goodnight My Love”, “Heart and Soul” and “Stardust”. The War Years of the 40s was noted for such chestnuts as “In the Mood”, “You’re Breaking My Heart”, “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby”, “Slippin’ Around”, “All or Nothing at All” and “People Will Say We’re in Love”. Before Rock ‘n Roll exploded in the mid-to-late 1950s, popular love songs included “Secret Love”, “You Belong to Me”, “Unforgettable”, “That’s Amore”, “Let Me Go Lover” and “If I Give My Heart to You”.
It’s been said that love is the universal language. Composer Bob Merrill sums that sentiment up nicely with “Love Makes the World Go Round” (shown above), a song he wrote for the 1961 Broadway musical “Carnival”. But as you can see, when it comes to love, there are happy songs, sad songs, cheating songs, songs about heart break, one-sided love, jealous love, sweet and sentimental love, ever-lasting love, foolish, crazy, secret love. No matter how many different ways there are of defining love, there are some we probably haven’t even thought of. But one thing is for certain, someone is going to write a song about it!