Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Johnny Mercer: Still Too Marvelous For Words

Johnny Mercer Statue, Ellis Square, Savannah, Georgia                        

November 18, marks the 106th anniversary of the birth of John Herndon Mercer (1909-1976). For fans of the Great American Songbook, this is a significant event. Mercer won four Academy Awards for Best Original Song and had another twelve nominations.

Born into wealth in Savannah, Mercer often recounted how his Aunt Hattie hummed to him in his crib and "he hummed right back at her." It was the beginning of a musical career that would produce more than 1500 published songs, a few thousand more unpublished songs and song fragments, scores of poems and prose pieces, an unfinished autobiography, and a major chapter in the history of American music in the twentieth century.

In Mercer's Savannah, a rich Southern culture blended with a diverse and exciting port city. He spent his childhood fascinated by train and ship whistles, and the sounds and rhythms drifting from the black churches around town. He was thrilled by the chance to slip away from his mother's watchful eye and visit the black business district on West Broad Street - now MLK Boulevard - where he listened to race records. The family's summer home on the Vernon River, about ten miles south of town, immersed him in the natural world of Georgia's tidal creeks and salt marshes. By his teen years, he loved hearing the dance and jazz bands every summer at the famous Tybrisa Pavilion on nearby Tybee Island. He also began writing songs and skits for his student productions at Woodberry Forest School in Virginia.

When the family business failed in the late '20s, any hope of returning to Woodberry or attending college dimmed. He grew bored at home and shipped off to New York to become a Broadway performer. The demand for singers was weak, but he began tinkering with lyric writing when he wasn't singing or working odd jobs. Here is his first published song lyric:

Lyrics are meant to be heard, but it's not always easy to appreciate them without the poetry on the page, so here is a sample of that early genius as work:

Out of Breath (1930)

lyrics by Johnny Mercer
music by Everette Miller

Mine's a hopeless case,
But there's one saving grace,
Anyone would feel as I do;
Out of breath and scared to death of you.
Love was first divined,
Then explored and defined,
Still the old sensation is new;
Out of breath and scared to death of you.
It takes all the strength that I can call to my command,
To hold your hand.
I would speak at length
About the love that should be made,
But I'm afraid.
Hercules and such
Never bothered me much,
All you have to do is say "Boo!"
Out of breath and scared to death of you.

Yes, it's pretty simple, comic stuff, but it had flashes of wordplay and bouncy rhythm. It was perfect for the Garrick Gaieties revue of 1930.

One of the chorus girls left Johnny out of breath as well. Her name was Ginger Meehan and she was Bing Crosby's squeeze at the time. Eventually, Mercer won her over and they married in 1931 after Johnny secured a staff job writing lyrics. The following year, his persistent work paid off when he partnered with Hoagy Carmichael, already well-known for his sensational song, Stardust. After several months, the collaboration produced Lazybones, Mercer's first hit song. It was full of black dialect and all the stereotypical perceptions of the day.

By the time Lazybones became popular, the New York music industry was in full transition thanks, in part, to the rapidly growing film industry in California. Films needed songs and with his prospects cooling in New York, Mercer traveled to Hollywood where he met his old friend, Bing Crosby, who had already made the transition to the West. The early years were a challenge for Mercer, but that changed in 1936. That year, Crosby offered to sing one of Mercer's songs in the film, Rhythm on the Range. The film wasn't much. The song was a
runaway hit:

I'm An Old Cowhand

words and music by Johnny Mercer

I'm and old cowhand
From the Rio Grande,
But my legs ain't bowed
And my cheeks ain't tanned.
I'm a cowboy who never saw a cow,
Never roped a steer 'cause I don't know how,
And I sure ain't fixin' to start in now.
Yippy I O Ki Ay,
Yippy I O Ki Ay.

. . .

And I learned to ride
'Fore I learned to stand,
I'm a ridin' fool who is up to date,
I know ev'ry trail in the Lone Star State,
'Cause I ride the range in a Ford V-Eight

. . .

And I come to town
Just to hear the band,
I know all the songs that the cowboys know,
'Bout the big corral where the doagies go,
'Cause I learned them all on the radio.

. . .

Where the West is wild
'Round the borderland,
Where the buffalo roam around the Zoo,
And the Indians make you a rug or two,
And the old Bar X is a Bar B Q.
Yippy I O Ki Ay,
Yippy I O Ki Ay.

I think Mercer came into perfect form with this one. With a little help from his pal, Crosby, his name became associated with songwriting among Hollywood's shakers and makers. In these early years, he struggled through a few flop movies, but he learned the ins and outs of Hollywood, and continued writing poetry to music.

Mercer went on to great fame after  I'm An Old Cowhand. Movies, records, and radio brought his folksy, common sense, "free and easy, that's my style" personality into homes across America and made him a beloved next door neighbor. Mercer could be serious with a lyric, but he was equally capable of making us laugh at ourselves and our circumstances. Here are two outstanding examples:

I'd say almost every American can hum the title line of Hooray for Hollywood, but it's the rest of lyric that really sparkles. Here's the song as it appeared in Busby Berkeley's 1937 blockbuster , Hollywood Hotel. If you don't want to miss any words, the lyric is below

Hooray For Hollywood

words by Johnny Mercer
music by Richard A. Whiting

Hooray for Hollywood!
That screwy bally hooey Hollywood,
Where any office boy or young mechanic
Can be a panic,
With just a good looking pan,
And any bar maid
Can be a star maid,
If she dances with or without a fan,

Hooray for Hollywood!
Where you're terrific if you are even good,
Where anyone at all from Shirley Temple
To Aimee Semple
Is equally understood,
Go out and try your luck,
You might be Donald Duck!
Hooray for Hollywood!

Hooray for Hollywood!
That phoney super Coney Hollywood,
They come from Chilicothes and Paducahs
With their bazookas
To get their names up in lights,
All armed with photos from local rotos,
With their hair in ribbons and legs in tights,

Hooray for Hollywood!
You may be homely in your neighborhood,
But if you think that you can be an actor,
See Mister Factor,
He'd make a monkey look good.
Within a half an hour,
You'll look like Tyrone Power!
Hooray for Hollywood!

Over three decades Mercer wrote the lyrics to hundreds of songs, collaborating with the country's top music writers, including Harold Arlen, Bernie Hannigan, Hoagy Carmichael, Harry Warren, Gene DePaul, Henry Mancini, Jerome Kern, Rube Bloom, and Matty Malneck. In 1971, Mercer appeared in what he called a "parlor evening" performance as part of the 92nd Street Y's Lyrics and Lyricists Series. At the end of the program, Mercer delivered an unforgettable medley of his "bread and butter" songs. I'd say most songwriters and performers would be pleased to have five songs in such a list. Mercer had twenty-nine. Regardless of your age and interest in popular music, you may be surprised at how many of these songs you recognize:

Lazybones (1933), music by Hoagy Carmichael

Goody, Goody (1936), music by Marty Malneck

Too Marvelous For Words (1937), music by Richard A. Whiting

Jeepers Creepers (1938), music by Harry Warren

Satin Doll (1958), written with Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn

You Must Have Been A Beautiful Baby (1938), music by Harry Warren

That Old Black Magic (1943), music by Harold Arlen

Accentuate the Positive (1944) music by Harold Arlen

Fools Rush In (1940), music by Rube Bloom

I Remember You (1942), music by Victor Schertzinger

Day In - Day Out (1939), music by Rube Bloom

Dearly Beloved (1942), music by Jerome Kern

Come Rain or Come Shine (1946), music by Harold Arlen

Tangerine (1942), music by Victor Schertzinger

Hooray For Hollywood (1938), music by Richard A. Whiting

Laura (1945), music by David Raksin

Dream (1944), words and music by Johnny Mercer

On the Atcheson, Topeka and the Santa Fe (1946, Academy Award for Best Music, Original Song), music by Harry Warren

Something's Gotta Give (1954), words and music by Johnny Mercer

One For My Baby (1943), music by Harold Arlen

In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening (1951, Academy Award for Best Music, Oroginal Song), music by Hoagy Carmichael

Skylark (1941), music by Hoagy Carmichael

Autumn Leaves (1950), music by Joseph Kosma

I Wanna Be Around (1962), words and music by Johnny Mercer and Sadie Vimmerstedt

Blues in the Night (1941), music by Harold Arlen

Charade (1963), music by Henry Mancini

Summer Wind (1965), music by Henry Mayer

Moon River (1961, Academy Award for Best Music, Original Song), music by Henry Mancini

Days of Wine and Roses (1962, Academy Award for Best Music, Original Song), music by Henry Mancini

That's plenty of "bread and butter" on one man's plate, but we need to keep in mind that he had seven more songs nominated for an Academy Award that never made it into the medley. What a talent. 

Mercer continued songwriting primarily for films and the stage into the 1970's.  He died in Bel Air, California, in 1976 several months after surgery for a brain tumor.  He was buried in Bonaventure Cemetery In Savannah.  With his passing, the state lost a favorite son and sentimental gentleman and everyone lost one of the nation's most important figures in entertainment in the last century. His impact was universal. He composed melodies, wrote lyrics, sang a wide range of songs, performed in films, kept the nation laughing with his comedy, and co-founded Capitol Records and the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

We have come a long way from the advent of rock and roll in the mid-1950's and its dominance in the family tree of popular music. Still, the Great American Songbook, that generation of music beginning around 1930 and continuing into the early 1960's, has found a comfortable niche among music lovers around the world. Many songs in that now-tattered "book" belong to Mercer and stand in tribute to a man described as America's folk-poet and the finest lyricist in our history.

To learn more about Johnny Mercer see several Old Tybee Ranger posts that appeared in November 1999 commemorating the centennial of Mercer's birth.


Johnny Mercer: The Life, Times, and Song Lyrics of Our Huckleberry Friend, Bob Bach and Ginger Mercer, The American Poet and Lyricists Series, Lyle Stuart, October 1982.

Skylark: The Life and Times of Johnny Mercer, Philip Furia, St. Martin's Press, December 2004.

Portrait of Johnny: The Life and Times of John Herndon Mercer, Gene Lees, Hal Leonard, February 2006.

The Complete Lyrics of Johnny Mercer, Johnny Mercer, edited by Kimball, Day, Kreuger, and Davis; Knopf 2009

Johnny Mercer Foundation

Johnny Mercer Archive, Georgia State University 

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Veterans Day 2015

My Great Uncle George - standing on the left with his fire brigade in Jacksonville, Florid - served as a lieutenant in the U.S. Army in World War I, the Great War. To him, this day was Armistice Day, the day marking the end of that war at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918. I was ten when he died and didn't know him well, but much of what he was as a veteran is present in my house. His portrait hangs just off our foyer. The pocket Bible he carried is in a keepsake cabinet nearby along with his military issue binoculars and a gift from his unit, a silver-plated swagger stick made from machine gun shells casings and topped with the Seal of the U.S. Army. The last item is the flag that covered his coffin. To my knowledge, it's still in the original triangle fold made the day he was buried nearly sixty years ago.

As much as I value these mementos of George's life, they cannot surpass the value of his service in defense of family, nation, and faith. Today, all of the veterans of World War I are gone and the 1.5 million veterans of World War II are passing on at an accelerating rate. Still, we are left with millions of servicemen and women from the Korean conflict through Vietnam, the Middle East actions in Iraq and Afghanistan, and full circle to those still standing in the trenches in Korea. They are all reminders that freedom is not free.

From the time I could hold a paint brush with serious determination - probably 1951 - I did my part to honor veterans. A week before the holiday, Dad and I went to the local cemetery to paint flag holders and install Old Glory on the graves of veterans of the Great War who had been member of my dad's lodge. The lodge had a seventy year history in my small town and scores of holders were scattered at random on the landscape. My instructions were simple: armed with primary yellow, blue and red paint, paint carefully, leave no spatters, paint EVERY marker. The worst offense, by far, was missing a marker, but Dad made sure that never happened.

On Veterans Day proper, there was a brief service from atop a small memorial building. At its conclusion, the crowds descended from the hilltop cemetery to either watch or march in what seemed like an endless parade down Main Street. It was straight out of a Norman Rockwell illustration: flags, bands, fire trucks, politicians, the ladies' auxiliary, the soldiers. It was a most impressive event.

Ninety-seven years ago  the Great War came to an end with the signing of the Armistice Treaty by the Allied forces and Germany. For the next 34 years Armistice Day honored the service of veterans of that war. In 1954, Armistice Day became Veterans Day and its scope was expanded to honor all American veterans.

I am not a veteran. I'll never experience how military service shapes a person inside, but I do know that every veteran has paid a price that enables us to enjoy life in this bountiful nation. On November 11 - Armistice Day or Veterans Day - we should take some time to remember those who have served their country and its people. To all of them I offer my sincerest admiration and thanks on this day and every day.

Monday, November 9, 2015

It's Time To Make Your Christmas Punch


One thing you won't find in this recipe is the lady's stocking, soldier's sock, and a bit of soil returned from the unit's latest combat deployment. So much for authenticity.

Yes friends, the introduction means only one thing: it's that time of year to assemble and ferment your Chatham Artillery Punch, a great American holiday beverage best described as a nuclear rumtopf. You can find the traditional recipe for fifty servings here at one of my 2008 posts. 
Fermenting a batch for eight weeks will yield you a wonderfully smooth and deceptively powerful treat. A small serving, including some fruit, will go a long way whether you serve it in cups or pour it over ice cream. Either way it's delicious, but my native Savannahian friends would shun me for suggesting it with ice cream. 

I hope you enjoy making this historic refreshment and sampling it in moderation over the coming weeks as nature performs its magic.

N.B.  The Chatham Artillery survives today as the 1st Battalion of the 118th Field Artillery Regiment of the Georgia National Guard. Their latest service was in Iraq. Their annual banquet is moving into its third century.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

All Saints Day 2015

Christ Glorified in the Court of Heaven         Fra Angelico, 15th Century, Italy

On All Saints Day, Christians remember the faithful who have passed on to the glorious company of the saints in light. It has been observed since the 4th century after Christ and remains a Holy Day of Obligation in the Catholic Church. Over time, the original purpose of All Saints Day changed and, by the Middle Ages, "saints became the objects of prayers and petitions for merit before God." Seeing Christ "as the only source of forgiveness, [Martin Luther] cleansed the church of this abuse of the saints" but retained the holy day in the church calendar. He made his statement by nailing his 95 theses on the door of All Saints Church in Wittenberg, Germany, on October 31, 1517, ensuring that they would be seen by crowds of worshipers the following day. Today, the celebration of the beginning of the Reformation on October 31 often overshadows All Saints Day in the Lutheran Church, but the days are often celebrated concurrently during Sunday worship.

Our music for this day is Ralph Vaughan Williams's setting - Sine Nomine - for the processional hymn, For All the Saints, written by William Walsham How.

Most versions omit several verses that I believe are most relevant to our time. They are:
For the Apostles’ glorious company,
Who bearing forth the Cross o’er land and sea,
Shook all the mighty world, we sing to Thee:
Alleluia, Alleluia!

For the Evangelists, by whose blest word,
Like fourfold streams, the garden of the Lord,
Is fair and fruitful, be Thy Name adored.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

For Martyrs, who with rapture kindled eye,
Saw the bright crown descending from the sky,
And seeing, grasped it, Thee we glorify.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

O may Thy soldiers, faithful, true and bold,
Fight as the saints who nobly fought of old,
And win with them the victor’s crown of gold.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long,
Steals on the ear the distant triumph song,
And hearts are brave, again, and arms are strong.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

Here is a prayer for today:

Almighty God, you have knit your people together in one Holy church, the body of Christ our Lord. Grant us grace to follow the example of your blessed saints in lives of faith and willing service and with them at last inherit the inexpressible joys that you have prepared for those who love you, through Jesus Christ our Lord....



Saturday, October 31, 2015

Reformation Day 2015

Today, Protestants around the world celebrate Reformation Day, a holy day commemorating the beginning of a great revelation - some would say revolution - in the Christian church.

Luther as an Augustinian Monk                         Lucas Cranach the Elder, 18th century

On this day in 1517, Martin Luther posted ninety-five theses on the door of All Saints Church in Wittenburg, Germany. He could no longer tolerate the Catholic practice of collecting indulgences from sinners, a practice that supported the buying salvation. 

Johann Sebastian Bach, the musical voice of the Reformation in the Baroque period, wrote the following cantata for Reformation Day 1725:

1. Chorus

God the Lord is sun and shield. 

The Lord gives grace and honor, 
He will allow no good to be lacking from the righteous.

2. Aria A

God is our sun and shield!
Therefore this goodness
shall be praised by our grateful heart,
which He protects like His little flock.
For He will protect us from now on,
although the enemy sharpens his arrows
and a vicious hound already barks.

3. Chorale

Now let everyone thank God
with hearts, mouths, and hands,
Who does great things
for us and to all ends,
Who has done for us from our mother's wombs
and childhood on
many uncountable good things
and does so still today.

4. Recitative B

Praise God, we know
the right way to blessedness;
for, Jesus, You have revealed it to us through Your word,
therefore Your name shall be praised for all time.
Since, however, many yet
at this time
must labor under a foreign yoke
out of blindness,
ah! then have mercy
also on them graciously,
so that they recognize the right way
and simply call You their Intercessor.

5. Aria (Duet) S B

God, ah God, abandon Your own ones
never again!
Let Your word shine brightly for us;
although harshly
against us the enemy rages,
yet our mouths shall praise You.

6. Chorale

Uphold us in the truth,
grant eternal freedom,
to praise Your name
through Jesus Christ. Amen.


Text:, cantata translation

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Pat Conroy: Interpreting Life Through A Coastal Lens

If I could immerse myself in one landscape it would be the Lowcountry, that region of coastal South Carolina and Georgia dominated by vast marshes and barrier islands. The landscape speaks a language I have heard nowhere else and remains a subject for artists and writers as it has been for centuries. Yesterday marked the seventieth birthday of Pat Conroy, arguably the finest living interpreter of that coastal magic and its vivid use in fiction.

Pat Conroy at Chapel Hill, North Carolina in 2014
As usual  there was nothing to find in the media other than the obligatory and brief single liner; therefore, I am left to bring readers more than a name and a date about the writer I consider to be a treasure for his rich descriptive writing and intense webs of characters forged out of family and place.  To begin, he has extraordinary skill in probing the long childhoods many of us faced as we grew and changed. For him personally, the earlier years were an arduous journey, carried out with the same reality that comes with recognizing nature as a cruel mother. There was beauty and light along the way, but the mountains didn't stand without the valleys, and Conroy's reality had its share of both. Some may not enjoy reading of such journeys and the fiction they inspire but his interpretation of the dance of life touched millions by the time he was 35. Now in the twilight of career, Conroy has immersed himself in the Lowcountry setting of Beaufort, South Carolina. a few miles from the setting of his memoir, The River is Wide (1972). Readers may recall that the book was the basis for the 1974 film, Conrack

As it has been with virtually all of his fiction - and not likely to change - the author finds himself where much of his intellectual life as a writer began.  For this reader, it's been a memorable journey with an author who has taken the everyday and unique events in a life's journey and turned them into some of the most lyrical writing of our time.

Moon River view from the Diamond Causeway, Savannah, Georgia

N.B. The image of Conroy at Chapel Hill comes from a screen capture of a UNCTV interview conducted in February 2014. Interested readers may view this 27 minute program here. Well worth your time.



Moon River photo credit: Emily E. Beck

Dylan Thomas: I Rose In The Rainy Autumn And Walked Abroad In Shower Of All My Days

Dylan Thomas in a London Park

Today marks the birthday of a writer immersed in nature and more specifically the themes and images of coastal living. His name is Dylan Thomas, the Welsh writer whose poetry and unforgettable voice brought him great fame in the United States in the decade prior to his early death in New York in 1953.

Thomas and his native land have special meaning to me. My great grandparents from my mother's side immigrated from Cardiff, Wales, to the United States in the 1870's. Though I never knew my grandmother - she died before my second year - my father often recalled how she took pride in her Celtic roots and the Welsh love for song and singing.

It is interesting that he should remember the talk of song and singing. Many critics and authorities write that Thomas's recitations are spoken words that approach song. Readers can reach their own conclusion by listening to the poet reading Poem in October, his recollections of his thirtieth birthday. Audio quality isn't the best. I suggest earphones and closed eyes for this sound journey if you choose not to read along.

What an unforgettable voice. I first heard Thomas reading his work during an elementary school English class. I doubt few students in any grade have that opportunity today. How unfortunate that education has come a long way since then but so much beauty in language has been lost along the way.

Undoubtedly we have lost some very precious cultural experiences. If we could hear Thomas's truth singing every year we would know so much better who we are as individuals and as a people.


Photo: Getty Images