Saturday, March 13, 2010


I am sometimes surprised when what seems new is but a new version of the old.  In January of 1960, when I was 13, Dion & The Belmonts had a hit with "Where or When."  Years later I learned that "Where Or When" had been a 1937 Rodgers and Hart show tune sung by Ray Heatherton.

A number of popular versions of "Where Or When" have existed over the years, and its original 1937 birth-show, Babes in Arms, stands out for having produced two equally durable standards of American popular song, "My Funny Valentine" and "The Lady Is A Tramp."

I imagine a 13 year old can be forgiven his not knowing a song's lineage.  Even so, upon learning that lineage I felt a bit humbled, as if my music had not been as generationally specific as I'd thought, that in fact it belonged to my parents' generation.

When I was young, this happened a lot.  Fats Domino's "Blueberry Hill" (1956) turned out to have begun life in 1940 with Sammy Kaye & His Orchestra, sung by Tommy Ryan.

Nino Tempo and April Stevens' "Deep Purple" (1963) first appeared in 1933 as a piano piece.  It later acquired lyrics and was recorded in 1938 by Larry Clinton & His Orchestra, with vocal by Bea Wain.  And "Button Up Your Overcoat," which just seemed to be in the air in the 1950s, was first recorded by Ruth Etting in 1928.  Etting's recording really is first for me –– jaunty and sly, with a 1920s flapper-like bounce.

Finally, I'll mention Bob Keeshan, TV's Captain Kangaroo (1955-1984). Keeshan did a version of “Button Up Your Overcoat" in 1958, backed by The Sandpipers and the Mitch Miller Orchestra.  Prior to becoming Captain Kangaroo, Keeshan was the original Clarabell the Clown on the Howdy Doody show (1948-1952).  Keeshan's version of "Button Up Your Overcoat" is plain, happy, avuncular not sly, and understandably geared to children.

I no longer think of songs as necessarily signaling a generational identity.  In fact, it's satisfying to listen to songs with broad histories and numerous incarnations.  They seem bigger than any one time or place. And they don't die: they're here, they're gone, they're here again.

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