Saturday, February 14, 2015

Silly Love Songs—A Murfin Top Ten List

Alright, I am not the most romantic guy in the universe.  Ask my wife.  No, don’t.  It would be too embarrassing.  It’s not so much that I am some kind of completely crude jerk or that I am one of those stereotypical emotionally shut down American men (well maybe a little bit.)   It’s more that I am completely inept and lack confidence.  I never got over that awkwardness and fear that I would be shot down from my teen years.  Thus I kept ending up best pals to gals I pined for.  I was one of the few card carrying hippies who missed the VW Love Bus to the sexual revolution. 
Despite this, I have always been a sucker for a love song.  I guess I wished they could speak for me when I couldn’t stammer out something I felt roiling inside me.  So for Valentine’s Day this year, I thought I would assemble my completely un-objective, high idiosyncratic and personal, list of the greatest love songs.  You will note that my tastes are arcane and dated.  I’m sure that your list would be very different.  None the less here are my picks, listed 1-10 but not really in any hierarchical order.
1)      Wild Mountain Thyme, also known as Purple Heather and Will Ye Go, Lassie, Go? easily makes the list because the woman who would finally have me—my wife Kathy—used to play and sing it.  I already knew the song and loved it and would chime in.  We picked it to be our wedding song.  Based on an old Scottish ballad, The Braes of Balquhither, it was adapted and set to a different tune by Belfast singer Francis McPeake in the mid 1950’s.  I first heard it from Judy Collins.  The Clancy Brothers and Joan Baez were among many others who recorded it.  In my circle of Chicago Wobbly friends, Kathleen Taylor—another former partner—played and sang it with Dehorn Crew.

2)    From the moment I first watched Alice Faye sing You’ll Never Know (Just How Much I Love You) on the afternoon movie one day after school back in Cheyenne I was smitten by the song and the singer.  The movie was Hello, Frisco, Hello.  Not long after I saw her do it again in modern dress in the World War II morale booster Four Jills in a Jeep.  Dick Haymes, Frank Sinatra, Vera Lynn, and Rosemary Clooney all had hits with it.  But when I close my eyes and imagine it, I hear Alice Faye’s voice. Written by Harry Warren with lyrics by Mack Gordon adapted from a poem written by a young Oklahoma war bride named Dorothy Fern Norris.

3In the late ‘50’s and early ‘60’s Johnny Mathis cornered the market on romantic ballads.  Chances Are  music by Robert Allen and lyrics by Al Stillman topped the charts in 1957.  Mathis’s version of the lovely song was so definitive that it was seldom covered by other artists.

4)    I was just twenty years old in 1969 when Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline came out and I damned near wore that album out.  I liked the country Dylan.  I think I loved Lay Lady, Lay so much because he was so frank in his appeal and at the time I was gob smacked in love with a girl I dared not approach—instead, in the words of a poem I wrote latter about someone else, “I was only the eunuch she could fly to…”

5)      I was probably 11 or 12 years old when I heard Dorothy Provine sing Someone to Watch Over Me in the long forgotten TV series The Roaring Twenties.  Surely not the best version, but it hooked me.  I scrounged around until I found the lyrics and learned them.  I sang the song to myself for many years changing Ira Gershwin’s lyric to be sung by a male:

There’s a somebody I’m longing to see
I hope that she turns out to be
Someone to watch over me

I’m a little lamb who’s lost in a wood
I know I could always be good
To one who’ll watch over me

Although I may not be the man some girls think of
As handsome to my heart
She carries the key

The song did indeed originate in the Twenties in the Gershwin boy’s musical Oh, Kay! In 1926 and introduced by Gertrude Lawrence.  Now considered one of the great jazz song standards it has been covered countless times, notably by Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra.  All of them spoke my ardent wish to be found and loved despite my manifest deficiencies.
6)      I wonder if this one is cheating.  Is Both Sides Now a love song or a song about love and life.  After all, it lacks the usual object or wished for object of affection and seems to be an ambivalent look back at the condition.  But, what the hell, this is my list, and I can include it if I want.  I first heard it on Judy Collins’s 1967 Wildflowers album about the time when my first great love at college was shifting gears from sort-of on to unrequited—a relationship I obsessed over for years.  I think I liked it because it tried hard to make me philosophical about my loss.  Don’t know if it worked.  A couple of years later I was still stewing when Joni Mitchell’s own version came out.

7)      I always had a kind of obsession with those World War II love songs of separation and yearning.  Not that I was ever separated from any love of mine who loved me back, but perhaps I yearned to be called away to do something heroic and important and to adored and missed by someone left behind.  The fantasies we weave playing out a cheesy script for the movie of our lives in our heads.  I’ll Be Seeing You was actually written in 1938, before the War by, music by Sammy Fain and lyrics by Irving Kahal, but it turned out to be the perfect song for separated lovers.  Ginger Rogers sang it in the 1944 film I’ll Be Seeing You.  Bing Crosby made it a hit in the U.S. and Vera Lynn had them sobbing in England.

8)      If war time separation was a fantasy—the best I could do was a stretch in prison for Draft resistance and it turned out the girl I was living with at the time didn’t really miss me at all, just politely waited for me to get out of the joint to end it—then how much more of a fantasy was it to identify with a song about a ramblin’ man leaving the good love of his woman behind just because.  I would never have abandoned anyone who showed me a shred of affection.  But I didn’t want to be that needy.  So I sang John Hartford’s Gentle on My Mind which was made a huge crossover country/pop hit by Glenn Campbell.  I may have actually hitch hiked to the Coast and hopped freights but I never once left a woman behind cryin’ to her mother.

9)      Ah, love, regret, and longing.  A powerful trio.  I have had just three relationships in my life where we lived together.  My marriage has lasted, to everyone concerned’s amazement, more than thirty years.  The girl who left me after prison was not deeply mourned.  The next relationship was to a close friend which blossomed into romance.  It was close and comfortable.  And for reasons of personal inadequacy, mostly abetted by the bottle, I let it slip away.  You Were Always on My Mind was for her and told our story.  It was written by Nashville country music pros Wayne Carson, Johnny Christopher, and Mark James in 1972 and first recorded with middling success by Brenda Lee.  Elvis Presley made it into one of the biggest ballad hits of his later career. But when I hear it in my mind, I hear Willy Nelson 1982 version, one of the single most brilliant performances of a song ever laid down.

10)  So many of the songs on this list are really about me, me, me—my feelings, what the girl thinks of me, how I can impress her, or how I can live out a fantasy.  And that, my friends, is very shallow love indeed.  The last song on this list is a slap in the face and a reminder that love has to be about placing the other person first, about giving, about abandoning yourself for once in your life to selflessness.  Make Someone Happy started life as a number in the 1960 Broadway musical Do Re Mi with music by Jule Styne and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green.  The song was recognized as an instant classic and was often recorded, mostly as an album cut by the likes of Perry Como, Doris Day, Judy Garland, and the duo of Steve Lawrence and Edie Gorme.  Yet despite its popularity, it never became a major, chartbusting single.  Then it appeared on the 1963 album of standards Jimmy Durante’s Way of Life.  The old vaudevillian’s raspy, heartfelt rendition became sort of a national ear worm popping up decades later on the sound track to Sleepless in Seattle and other applications.  Now it is the definitive version—an instruction in love:

It’s so important to make someone happy.
Make just one someone happy.
Make just one heart to heart you, you sing to

One smile that cheers you.
One face that lights when it nears you.
One girl you’re—you’re everything to

Fame, if you win it,
Comes and goes in a minutes
Where's the real stuff in life, to cling to?

Love is the answer.
Someone to love is the answer.
Once you’ve found her,
Build your world around her.

Make someone happy.
Make just one someone happy.
And you will be happy too.

Good advice, folks.  Take it and run with it.  Happy Valentine’s Day.

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