Tuesday, 21 February 2012


Let's imagine it's many years ago and Irving Berlin is not a songwriting and music publishing colossus. Instead he's Irving Nobody, aspiring composer-lyricist, peddling his wares on Tin Pan Alley. With hope in his heart and songs in his portfolio, he enters the office of Pippik Publishing. Sid Pippik, who likes to boast that he's produced more hits than Ty Cobb, is feeling magnanimous; he'll give this unimpressive-looking young man ten minutes.

"Whatcha got, kid?"

Irving hands his first song to Pippik's piano player, who accompanies Irving as he sings. After four bars Pippik stops the music. "Can't use it," he says. Sid Pippik is no musician but he's savvy enough to spot a beginner's mistake. "You take the words 'Blue skies smiling at me' and put 'em in a minor key? That's wrong. What else you got?" Under his breath the publisher mumbles something about amateurs.

"Here's a peppy one," says Irving.

"Good," says Pippik. "I like peppy."

The piano player looks at the music and does a double-take at the complexity of the chorus’ opening bars; but no problem, he's an ace sight-reader. Irving starts singing and Pippik is pleased with the verse. Then the chorus begins: "If you're blue and you don't know where to go to, why don't you go where Harlem sits, puttin' on the ritz...  "

"Hold it!" cries Pippik. "What the hell is the rhythm there? You know, the..."

"Time signature?" volunteers the piano player. "I  think the beginning of the chorus breaks down to 3/4. 3/4, 4/4, and 6/4."

Pippik glares at the young songwriter. "Look, Stravinsky," he says, trying to keep his temper in check. "We do 4/4 here, we do 3/4, but we don't mix 4/4 and 3/4, and we certainly don't do 6/4 or 8/5 or 13/6 or whatever else you got. Nobody'll be able to sing the damn thing. Next?"

Undeterred, Irving pulls out another song. "You're gonna love this one. It's a Christmas song. Can't miss."

Pippik likes the idea of a Christmas song; he can hear the chimes of a cash register jingling merrily every December for the rest of his life. Alas, the publisher's dreams are dashed by the song's first eight notes, something about a white Christmas. "Whoa there!" he cries, obviously in great distress. "Are you kidding me? That opening line, it's all whaddyacallem...?"

"Half-tones," says the piano player, helping out his boss. "It's chromatic."

"You can't do that in a Christmas song," declares Pippik, who's had enough mishegas for one day. "Look, kid, you're an eager beaver but you don't know the basics of pop songwriting. Now take your Chromatic Christmas and get outa here."

"Wait, wait!" cries Irving, "I've got one more. It's called Lazy."

Pippik relents. This time he likes what he hears in the verse, especially the part about the puppydog. He likes the opening bars of the chorus - a nice, placid phrase befitting the words "Lazy, I want to be lazy." Within sixteen bars, however, the publisher has heard enough. "Where's this damn thing going?” he snarls. “It's too complicated. You call the song Lazy but it's all over the place!"

We'll end the thought-experiment here, just before the young songwriter gets the heave-ho from Pippik’s office. But we shouldn't judge the publisher too harshly; he was just thinking conventionally. He would have snatched up any of Irving’s simple, straightforward songs in a heartbeat - Always, All Alone, What’ll I Do, or Mandy, for example. Irving Berlin was a master of “simple” - not as easy as it sounds; in fact, a high artistic achievement. About one of Berlin’s "simple" songs (I think it was Always) a fellow-songwriter once complained, "Irving, anybody could have written that song!" -- to which Berlin replied, "Yes, but I did."

As Sid Pippik learned that imaginary day, Irving Berlin did a lot more than simple. He had the uncanny ability to break the rules, take the daring, improbable, unorthodox route, and make it work. And make all of America sing along. Berlin’s genius is so great that you hardly notice it at all.

Lazy, a huge hit in 1924, is a highly unconventional pop song. Here's the chorus:

Lazy, I want to be lazy.
I long to be out in the sun
With no work to be done,
Under that awning
They call the sky,
Stretching and yawning,
And let the world go drifting by.
I want to peep
Through the deep tangled wildwood,
Counting sheep
'Til I sleep like a child would;
With a great big valise full
Of books to read where it's peaceful,
While I'm killing time
Being lazy.

Berlin would have scoffed at the term "art song." He saw himself as a toiler in the pop-music business, a superior one but a toiler nonetheless. To him a hit song was a good song and vice-versa. I have no problem applying the term “art song’ to Lazy; it deserves the appellation as much as any lied by Schubert or Schumann - which is why the nuanced, "classical" approach taken here by Joan Morris and William Bolcom works for me:

Sid Pippik had a point: for a song called Lazy, this is not a song at peace. The chorus adheres to none of the comfortable, standard, pop-music forms. Phrases echo previous phrases in shape, but there are no repeated sections. Harmonies darken unexpectedly. The descending two-note figure on the word "lazy," uttered twice in the opening line, is echoed six times thereafter but (until the ending) never in the same place on the scale. The restlessness of this two-note figure is the key to the song's poignant appeal. In 1924 Lazy expressed a yearning that resonated powerfully with an audience comprised largely of immigrants who worked long hours at soul-draining jobs, very few of whom ever got within peeping distance of deep tangled wildwood.
The song still appeals today because that yearning is universal, and because it's simply a beautiful song. The only thing that's changed is that for most people, a vision of heaven on earth no longer features a valise full of books.

The phrase "deep tangled wildwood" was not Berlin's invention; he appropriated it. Marc Connelly and George S. Kaufman wrote a play called The Deep Tangled Wildwood which opened on Broadway a year earlier, in 1923, and ran for less than a week. Later Connelly recalled: "Our play quickly faded from the public memory, but the title stayed alive in the words of Irving Berlin's popular Lazy. If you ever sang: 'I want to peep through the deep tangled wildwood, counting sheep 'til I sleep like a child would,' you may have thought Berlin had Samuel Woodworth in mind." (Woodworth wrote the popular poem The Old Oaken Bucket which begins: "How dear to this heart are the scenes of my childhood, / When fond recollection presents them to view! / The orchard, the meadow, the deep-tangled wild-wood, / And every loved spot which my infancy knew.")

Finally, here’s Lazy the way most of Irving Berlin’s audience first heard it - on Al Jolson’s 1924 hit record:

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