For those of you who—like Alison and me—are glued to the news these days, it seems that everything is being split into EXTREMES! There is right/left, red/blue, old/new, whew/whew . . .
An upshot of all this is that I keep returning to another musical earworm of mine, one that pulls extremes together but into a harmonious whole. The song that keeps sticking in my mind is simplicity itself but, nonetheless, complex—“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 . . .
“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.
The one non-dancing number from “Watch Your Step” that is well-remembered today is our song, “Play a Simple Melody.
This song is one of musical extremes—called by musicians “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. 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 “Play a Simple Melody” also track a counterpoint duet in that one singer yearns for the music which “mother” sang (the style of a bygone generation), but 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 verse but it’s worth a listen. Tap or click on the next image or link to listen to this scratchy but original one.
And, of course, here is one out of a couple of dozen offerings on YouTube with a ukulele accompaniment, and some tricky computer imagery. Click or tap on the next image or link for this one—not in either our Blue or Yellow books, however, but often a “show stopper” when performed.
Moving on, here are a couple of other “counterpoint songs” just for fun—another by Berlin and then one by Meredith Willson from “The Music Man.”
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, inauguration festivities! Counterpoint? You betcha!)
And here’s what has evolved into a barbershop standard, “Lida Rose” from the 1956 musical “The Music Man.”
Click or tap on the next image or link to peek at a computer enhanced “quartet” with soprano version of this one.
So, in these hectic and 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 “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 stay safely away from capitol buildings (not ukulele stuff) . . .
. . . stay sequestered (away from Washington, DC) . . .
. . . stay masked . . .
. . . and STAY TUNED!