Noho Banjo and Ukulele Musing–“It’s Only a Paper Moon.”


This week’s musing lets me drift off in one of my favorite directions.  “It’s Only a Paper Moon” is one of those befuddled-lover songs of the jazz age when moon- and star-light set the scene for what, I am sure, was innocent romance.  This song from our Yellow Book plays on this as the singer begs his or her sweetie to “believe.”  Also, for some unknown (to me) reason, in those days a seat in the form of an artificial moon (probably plywood rather than paper) was often used as a prop on stage and in photo studios. 

Whether or not this had anything to do with our song or just the dozens of moon songs that were hits of the day, who knows.  

 Anyway, sometimes these were fixed in place; at other times they, and their occupants, were raised on high.  What fun in the days before we were possessed by screens and selfies and a “moon shot” could be had in your local dime-store photo booth!

Our song—which we don’t seem to play that often, probably because we are hesitant about a couple of diminished chords (or we are not befuddled romantics)—was published in 1933 with music by Harold Arlen (1905-1986) and lyrics by Yip Harburg (1896-1981) and Billy Rose (1899-1966). 

Originally titled “If You Believed in Me,” it was written for short-lived Broadway musical called “The Great Magoo” that was set in Coney Island.

The song was resurrected for the movie “Take a Chance” in 1934 and finally achieved popularity as a jazz standard when recorded by the Paul Whiteman Orchestra that same year.

Paul Whiteman:

Arlen was a prolific songwriter of the day and is best known for writing the music for all of the songs for the movie “The Wizard of Oz,” including one of our favorites “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”   

The recording that, to me, should be most interesting to we ukers is by our old friend Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards.  He usually accompanied himself on a Martin tenor and he, with his uke, was a big star of films and vaudeville in the ‘30s and 40s. 

He is probably remembered best, however, for being the singing voice of Jiminy Cricket in the Disney film “Pinocchio.”    

Ukulele Ike:

Needless to say, more enduring recordings that assured the song’s place in the American Songbook were made in the 1940s by the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Benny Goodman, and a slew of others.  Here’s a big band version:

Bennie Goodman:

Or, how about Gypsy Jazz?

Django Reinhardt:

In relatively recent years, the melody of the song was used as a haunting musical theme throughout the Ryan/Tatum O’Neal, father/daughter film “Paper Moon.”   

Paper Moon:

Sticking with musical movies, a great “moon prop” scene was an inebriated Sean Penn, guitar in hand, attempting to mount a swinging moon in the film “Sweet and Lowdown.” 

Sorry, no YouTube of this, but a fun movie to check out—great jazz guitar!

So, here’s to the many folks who took a ride on a paper moon, under a cardboard sky and left us wondering.  Are we missing something today? Do we need to believe?

And now, how about some moon ukuleles?

And, of course, my favorite!

Stay Tuned!

Author: NohoBanjo of Northampton and, now, Easthampton, Mass.

Hi friends, neighbors, and fellow strummers. These “musings” are based on my interest and study of Banjo and Ukulele history, lore, and music. My goal is to both educate and enlighten by sharing what I have learned within a broad musical and historical context—with honesty and, at times, a bit of humor. Needless to say, your thoughts and comments are, as always, welcome.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: