ANOTHER MUSICAL MUSING, 31 March 2023: A Counterpoint To Waaaay Too Much News!

For those of you who—like Alison and me—are glued to (stuck with?) the news these days, it seems that everything is being split into EXTREMES!  There is right/left, red/blue, old/new, whew/whew . . .

To clear my head a bit, I keep returning to another musical earworm of mine that pulls extremes together but into a harmonious whole.  The song that keeps sticking in my mind is simplicity itself but, nonetheless, complex—“Won’t You Play a Simple Melody” by the great Tin Pan Alley and Broadway songwriter Irving Berlin.   What could be simpler than that?  Old Time/Ragtime? Hmmm  . . .

Won’t You Play a Simple Melody” is a song from the 1914 Broadway musical “Watch Your Step,” with all the songs and music written by Berlin himself. 

The show was the first stage musical he wrote and the production was conceived primarily to show off the fancy footwork of the famed ballroom dancers Irene and Vernon Castle, as well as Berlin’s songs. 

As a bit of background fun, click or tap on the triangle in the next image to take a look at this once most popular dancing duo in action in a 1915 silent movie. Dubbed in music, of course!

That YouTube was a bit fuzzy, so here are Fred and Ginger doing their interpretation of Vernon and Irene in the 1939 bio-pic about the Castles. Click or tap on the triangle in the next image for a clearer view!

But, I digress. So, now back to our song. Not surprisingly, the most well-remembered and still performed song of the show “Watch Your Step” was a non-dancing number.

This song is one of musical extremes—called “contrapuntal” by musicians or, more commonly, “counterpoint.”  While often used in opera, our song was one of the earliest examples found in American popular music.  Unlike in a “round” that uses the same lyrics and melody offset and overlapping, counterpoint uses a first melody played against a different melody, each with independent lyrics but with the same key and chord progression.  Berlin was a master of these so-called “double songs” and several of his are written this way. For those of you who are musically curious, here’s a look at the original sheet music.

After an intro “verse” to set the scene, the “simple melody” plays alone. Then comes the contrasting melody and lyrics.

Finally, the two play together, both within the same key and chord progression!

The lyrics of “Won’t You Play a Simple Melody” also track  a counterpoint duet as one singer yearns for the music which “mother” sang (the style of a bygone generation), while the other singer disdains such classic fare as lacking interest and rhythm.  That is to say, “It ain’t ragtime!”

The score’s roadmap is a bit tricky to follow, but you’ll catch on once you listen to the YouTube. 

Here’s a recording of our song made way back in 1916.  Most subsequent recordings skip the intro verses but it’s worth a listen.  Tap or click on the triangle in the next image to tune in to this scratchy but original recording.

Moving on, here are a few more “counterpoint songs” just for fun—a couple more by Berlin and then one by Meredith Willson from “The Music Man.” 

Click or tap on the triangle in the next image for a tune from the 1950 Broadway musical and subsequent film “Call Me Madam” that has become a popular “dueling duet” over the years–“You’re Just in Love.” Here’s a lovely country/jazz, father/daughter take on this classic.

And, yet another one by Berlin.

Tap or click on the next image or link for a 21st Century, Washington, DC, take on Berlin’s song “Old Fashioned Wedding” from his 1946 musical “Annie Get Your Gun.” As an aside, I remember hearing these guys performing at the Obama (not the Trump . . .) inaugural festivities! Counterpoint? You betcha!

And here’s what has evolved into a barbershop standard, “Lida Rose” from Meredith Willson’s 1956 musical “The Music Man.”

Click or tap on the triangle in the next image to take a peek at how folks can come together in counterpoint. Could but we all!

So, in these too-hectic and too-newsy days, let’s think “counterpoint” rather than “conflict.”  Needless to say, gentle readers, it’s much prettier that way!

Now, to wind (tune?) things up this week, let’s go back to our original song and listen to a 1990s recording of “Won’t You Play a Simple Melody” sung by Jean Stapleton, with the Muppets, and—oh, yes—a ukulele (sorta) accompaniment.  Click or tap on the next image or link to chuckle along with this one!

So, as we all move along to the next week of “news to be glued to,” let’s all keep an eye on the capitol . .

. . . Don’t get lost and confused!

.  .  .  and remember the musical gifts of a Jewish immigrant from Russia who gave us those other simple earworm melodies of “Easter Parade,” “White Christmas,” and “God Bless America.


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.

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