MUSIC CLIP - OSCAR PETERSON, “MOONGLOW”
Welcome to Afterglow, [a show of vocal jazz and popular song from the Great American Songbook], I’m your host, Mark Chilla.
On this show, we’re exploring a single topic in the American Songbook. And the topic this week is writing. Whether it’s a song about books or writing letters… literary themes have shown up time and again in American Popular song. This hour, we’ll sample some of these “book songs” from the “song book,” including “I Could Write A Book,” “Too Marvelous For Words” and “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself A Letter.”
It’s The Great American Book Songs, coming up next on Afterglow
MUSIC - DIANA KRALL, "LOVE LETTERS"
Diana Krall from her 2001 album The Look of Love with the 1945 Victor Young and Edward Heyman song “Love Letters.”
MUSIC CLIP - THE MILES DAVIS QUINTET, "I COULD WRITE A BOOK"
Mark Chilla here on Afterglow. On this show, we’re exploring songs about books, writing, and letters from the Great American Songbook.
I’ll admit that the genesis of this show came primarily from a play on words. One of my colleagues here at WFIU, our classical music director and resident pun master Aaron Cain, suggested to me “Why don’t you do a show about ‘book songs’ from the ‘song book’? You can call it “The Great American Book Songs!”
I’m still not sure if he was serious or just making a pun… but it did get me thinking. Turns out, there are a great number of book songs out there, or songs more generally about writing, letters, or using these concepts as a metaphor for something else… usually love.
So, this hour, we’ll hear my list of songs about writing, although I’m sure I’ve forgotten some… so please let me know.
We’ll start with a few true book songs: songs that deal directly with books. To begin, here’s a classic song from the 1940 Rodgers and Hart musical Pal Joey, originally sung as a duet by Gene Kelly and Leila Ernst in the stage production.
This is Dinah Washington in 1955 with “I Could Write A Book,” on Afterglow
MUSIC - DINAH WASHINGTON, "I COULD WRITE A BOOK"
MUSIC - VIC DAMONE, "CLOSE AS PAGES IN A BOOK"
MUSIC - NAT KING COLE, "DEDICATED TO YOU"
Three “book songs” from the Great American song book. Just now, we heard the 1936 Sammy Cahn, Saul Chaplin, and Hy Zaret “Dedicated To You,” performed by Nat King Cole in 1960. We’ll hear a few more recordings from Cole later this hour. Before that, the 1945 Sigmund Romburg and Dorothy Fields song “Close As Pages In A Book,” performed there by Jeri Southern in 1958. And starting that set, the Rodgers and Hart song “I Could Write A Book,” performed by Dinah Washington.
There are few “book songs” from the songbook about specific books. There’s the 1962 Kander and Ebb song “My Coloring Book,” a song not necessarily about writing, per se, so I’ll ignore that one for now. But there are two other songs that I will play about specific colors of books: “My Little Brown Book,” written by Billy Strayhorn in 1944, and “My Little Red Book,” written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David in 1965. One song is definitely jazz, and the other leans much more towards pop, but they both explore the same theme: losing a loved one, thumbing through the pages of a little book, and missing them.
We’ll begin with the jazz one now. This is Johnny Hartman in 1976 with Billy Strayhorn’s “My Little Brown Book,” on Afterglow.
MUSIC - JOHNNY HARTMAN, "MY LITTLE BROWN BOOK"
MUSIC - MEL TORMÉ, "MY LITTLE RED BOOK"
Mel Tormé in 1966 with Burt Bacharach and Hal David song “My Little Red Book.” Before that, Johnny Hartman in 1976 with Billy Strayhorn’s “My Little Brown Book.”
We’re exploring songs about books and writing this hour on the program. And let’s turn now to some songs about writing letters. In the early 20th century, long before email and text messaging, letter writing was still a primary form of communication. Songs about writing epistles to past or current loves abound in the songbook. In fact, there may be more songs about letters than there are about books. Perhaps not entirely surprising, given the frequency people wrote letters (at least compared to writing entire novels!)
Let’s hear a few songs about writing letters now. We’ll begin with a song from 1934 by Gordon Jenkins and Johnny Mercer called “P.S. I Love You.” Now, this is not to be confused with the Beatles song of the same name from 1962. And like that later Beatles song, the 1934 “P.S. I Love You” is a sung from the perspective of someone writing a love letter to a partner far away. Here they are rattling off the mundane things that happened throughout the day, capping off each stanza with the most important message of love.
Here is Billie Holiday in 1954 with Gordon Jenkins and Johnny Mercer’s “P.S. I Love You,” on Afterglow.
MUSIC - BILLIE HOLIDAY, "P.S. I LOVE YOU"
MUSIC - FRANK SINATRA, FEAT. COUNT BASIE & HIS ORCHESTRA, "I'M GONNA SIT RIGHT DOWN AND WRITE MYSELF A LETTER"
Frank Sinatra and Count Basie in 1962 with “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down And Write Myself A Letter,” a song written in 1935 by Fred Ahlert and Joe Young, and made famous by Fats Waller that year. Before that, another letter-writing song, “P.S. I Love You,” written by Gordon Jenkins and Johnny Mercer in 1934, and performed there by Billie Holiday late in her career in 1954
MUSIC CLIP - RAY BROWN AND JIMMY ROWLES, "I'M GONNA SIT RIGHT DOWN AND WRITE MYSELF A LETTER"
We’ll have more songs about letters, writing and books in just a bit, stay with us.
I’m Mark Chilla, and you’re listening to The Great American Book Songs, on Afterglow
MUSIC CLIP - J.J. JOHNSON AND KAI WINDING, "CLOSE AS PAGES IN A BOOK [EXCERPT"
MUSIC CLIP - OSCAR PETERSON, "TOO MARVELOUS FOR WORDS"
Welcome back to Afterglow, I’m Mark Chilla. We’ve been exploring songs about books, writing, and other literary matters this hour. And where we left off, we were listening to some songs about the lost art of letter writing
The act of pouring one's heart out into a letter is perhaps a relic of a bygone era. But it was certainly common enough in the early-to-mid 20th century that it shows up in various songs from the American songbook.
This next letter-writing song I want to feature comes from 1958, co-written by the great Nat King Cole and his sister-in-law Charlotte Hawkins. It’s the title track off of his quasi-concept album To Whom It May Concern, and the song takes the form of a love letter, although written as if it were a professional correspondence.
Let’s hear that now. This is Nat King Cole in 1958 with “To Whom It May Concern,” on Afterglow.
MUSIC - NAT KING COLE, "TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN"
MUSIC - TONY BENNETT, "IT WAS WRITTEN IN THE STARS"
Tony Bennett in 1961 with the Harold Arlen and Leo Robin song “It Was Written In The Stars.” Before that, Nat King Cole in 1958 with his own original letter-writing song “To Whom It May Concern.”
Songs about writing letters are typically not happy ones. Letter songs are often filled with longing, unrequited desire, or even regret. Sure, there is a certain thrill you get reading a letter from a loved one. But reading a letter is never as thrilling as being actually close to the one you love. So even those songs about love letters are still tinged with a bit of melancholy.
Here are a few more letter songs now, although ones that are slightly more obscure. We’ll start with a song from 1942 about a love letter, and one that probably resonated with listeners at the time separated by war.
This is Connee Boswell with “Just A Letter from Home,” on Afterglow.
MUSIC - CONNEE BOSWELL, "JUST A LETTER FROM HOME"
MUSIC - JERI SOUTHERN, "MY LETTERS"
MUSIC - RAY CHARLES, "NO LETTER TODAY"
Ray Charles in 1962 with “No Letter Today,” a country standard from his album Modern Sounds In Country and Western Music, Volume Two. Before that, a very obscure song called “My Letters,” written and performed by jazz singer Jeri Southern in 1955. And starting that set, Connee Boswell in 1942 with “Just A Letter From Home.”
We’ve been exploring songs about letters, writing, books and other literary matters this hour. And let’s close with two more songs. Each of these songs explores the same concept: the difficulty in finding precisely the right words to tell someone that you love them.
First, let’s hear a famous song on this subject, written by songwriter Bart Howard in 1954. This is Nat King Cole and George Shearing in 1962 with “Fly Me To The Moon” aka “In Other Words,” on Afterglow
MUSIC - NAT KING COLE, "FLY ME TO THE MOON (IN OTHER WORDS)"
MUSIC - ELLA FITZGERALD, "TOO MARVELOUS FOR WORDS"
Two songs about not being able to find the right words. That was Ella Fitzgerald in 1964 from her Johnny Mercer songbook album with Johnny Mercer and Richard Whiting’s “Too Marvelous For Words.” Before that, Nat King Cole and George Shearing in 1962 with Bart Howard’s “Fly Me To The Moon (In Other Words).”
Thanks for tuning in to this “book songs” edition of Afterglow.
MUSIC CLIP - MONTY ALEXANDER TRIO, "FLY ME TO THE MOON (IN OTHER WORDS)"
Afterglow is part of the educational mission of Indiana University and produced by WFIU Public Radio in beautiful Bloomington, Indiana. The executive producer is John Bailey.
Playlists for this and other Afterglow programs are available on our website. That’s at indianapublicmedia.org/afterglow.
I’m Mark Chilla, and join me next week for our mix of Vocal Jazz and popular song from the Great American Songbook, here on Afterglow