Monday, 20 February 2012

A sixth helping?

6 Merry Christmas Polka The Andrews Sisters

The Andrews Sisters are another constant of seasonal music compilations. I’ve seen them described as The Queens of Christmas Music, with Bing Crosby as its King. He did half a dozen duets with them.

Real sisters, they were also real Americans — daughters of a Greek father and a mother from a Norwegian family. Their first hit was archetypally American, too — Bei Mir Bist Du Schon, an old-sounding (but really only a few years old) Yiddish tune updated and Anglicised by a Jewish Tin Pan Alleyist Sammy Cahn who acquired the publishing for thirty dollars. Ah, the music business . . .

The music of Merry Christmas Polka is by Sonny Burke, a big band leader who later became music director at Sinatra’s label Reprise. He wrote the music to Peggy Lee’s words for the Disney cartoon, Lady And The Tramp. (Nothing to do, of course, with the Sinatra standard, The Lady Is A Tramp. That was a Rodgers-Hart song written for 1937’s Babes In Arms — which also introduced My Funny Valentine. Both were sung by a 16-year-old, Mitzi Green. The second was about herself — well, her character anyway. The first was was about — and sung to — a man named Val. Some Broadway night out that must have been.)

The lyrics are by Paul Francis Webster (1907-1984), a New Yorker who dropped out of college, ran away to sea and ended up in Hollywood writing songs for Shirley Temple. He wrote the words to Duke Ellington’s I Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good) and worked on the all-black show, Jump For Joy.

He won three Oscars, for Secret Love (Doris Day, in Calamity Jane, 1953), Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing (1955), The Shadow Of Your Smile (The Sandpiper, 1965). He wrote the theme for the Spider-Man cartoon series: ‘Spider-Man can, Spider-Man can, Spider-Man can do what a spider can.’

That idiocy aside (deliberate, I assume), he had a real hand for rhymes. Merry Christmas Polka has barrels with carols and a top quality triple rhyme: tingle/jingle/Kringle. Good as that is, though, his one for Memphis In June, is even better. To my mind, it’s popular song’s greatest triple internal shwa rhyme: oleander/veranda/Miranda.

Because of its southern setting and atmosphere, I’d always thought Memphis was a Johnny Mercer lyric, even probably wrote as much. Not that anyone corrected me. It seems most people are as unknowledgable about Paul Francis Webster as I was till I looked him up.

There is a mystery about him, too. What colour was he? If he worked on all-black musical, you assume he was black. But there is no reference to that so maybe he was white. Even looking at pictures, I can’t work out whether he was black or white. In younger pictures, he looks black. In ones from old age, white. See  for yourself.

So, the polka?
Despite its name, it’s not a Polish dance but Czech. Well, Bohemian — as that bit of the Austrian Empire was known till it was killed off in 1918. The Andrews Sisters did well with polkas. They had the first hit with Beer Barrel Polka — which, until I looked it up, I believed was an old English music hall knees-upper. ‘Roll out the barrel, roll out the barrel . . ’ etc etc, with upright, jangly piano (or rather, pianner) accompaniment. In fact, it’s a Czech tune which was probably pushed into the wider world by the impact of the German invasion of the Sudetenland.

PS1 Polka dots? Why? Because when big round spots on clothes became fashionable, around 1850, the polka itself was the latest thing on western European dance-floors. If came into fashion  now, I’d guess they might be called dubstep spots.

PS2 My shoemaker friend Marcus reminded me about polka Grammys. For twenty-three years, they had a polka section, from 1986 till 2009, when it was dropped and polkaristas were encouraged to enter the folk or world music categories. Too late for either the Andrews Sisters or Paul Francis Webster. But not for Brave Combo (see above) who won twice, in 2000, with Polkasonic! and in 2005 with Let's Kiss: 25th Anniversary Album. Out of the remaining twenty-one years, Jimmy Sturr won eighteen times. Which is maybe why the category was, in Grammy publicity’s word, ‘retired’.

Next up Boogie-woogie and spousal abuse


M. K. Hajdin said...

I was actually forced to polka when I did a course on ballroom dancing. It was painful. Literally. To a rather well-endowed female, bouncing up and down like that causes serious strain to the over-the-shoulder boulder holding apparatus, not to mention the boulders themselves.
Ouch. I HATED polka. I shudder at the memory.

Lo Jardinier said...

Lots of fascinating stuff in this full post. One thing that struck me was the uncertainty over whether Paul Webster was black. I know it shouldn't matter of course, but I too find the uncertainty a bit odd, and feel I shouldn't. Same as recently reading up on the saxophonist Charles Lloyd, now looking like any tanned Californian 70-something musician - but hang on, isn't that picture of him with his famous 60's quartet (Keith Jarrett, Jack DeJohnette) showing him in full afro? And his grandfather was the first black man to be aquitted of murder in Mississippi. He had native American and Irish blood too - made me realise how complex, painful and ridiculous are the effects of skin colour on a life, Webster's or Lloyd's. And how we have this need to pigeonhole - of course it's a shortcut to all kinds of further cultural assumptions.

Peter Silverton said...

or a key/keys to unlock some of the complexities . . .