Wednesday, April 1, 2015

#75: A train song

This is kind of a humble little song written by Johnny Mercer and Jimmy Van Heusen in 1939 about a guy on a train thinking about the girl he's left behind. In 1956 Frank and Nelson applied their talents to it and created this jewel:



Go ahead and listen again. It grows on you.

When I started listening to Sinatra about 10 years ago most of the music was new to me, and all of it was new to my children. It was playing more or less non-stop in the kitchen and they responded by making wisecracks about the lyrics. After Franks asks, "And what did I do?"  they said things like, "I'm sure he's going to tell us," or "Probably the same thing he did the first fifty times we heard this." Ah, well. Youth is wasted on the the young and all that.

This is my third Johnny Mercer entry, fifth from Jimmy Van Heusen, and fourth track from SFSL. There will be many more to come from all three.

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Update: Mark Steyn picks this as his #73:
That "crack"/"track"/"back" is very onomatopoeic: it's the sound a train makes crossing the tracks. Did Mercer write it that way consciously? Or because he was on a train when he was scribbling it down? Or was he just such a good lyricist that by that point such sensitivity to subject matter was instinctive to him? Who knows? I do notice, though, that a lot of singers and arrangers seem to be unaware of those cracking consonants and glide across them very legato. But not Riddle and Sinatra. With his new arranger, Frank learned to bounce those consonants off the band:

I peeped through the crackkk
And looked at that trackkk
The one going back to you
And what did I do?


It's a rhetorical question, but Frank pauses and lets the band ponder it for a moment. A few months back, the Pundette picked this song as her Number 75 Sinatra hit, and I was tickled by this comment:
When I started listening to Sinatra about ten years ago most of the music was new to me, and all of it was new to my children. It was playing more or less non-stop in the kitchen and they responded by making wisecracks about the lyrics. After Frank asks, 'And what did I do?' they said things like, 'I'm sure he's going to tell us,' or 'Probably the same thing he did the first fifty times we heard this.' Ah, well. Youth is wasted on the the young and all that.
The cynical Pundettettes are only able to do that because of that big dramatic gap Sinatra and Riddle leave after the question, which accomplishes the neat trick of putting enough distance between "the one going back to you" and "I thought about you" that you no longer notice Mercer's "flawed" lack of rhyme. And after the final title line the band wraps things up with a tag that surely reminded Edison of his days with the Basie band.

At which point you realize that Frank et al have done something rather remarkable: A song that starts out as a dreamy laconic ballad has wound up a swingin' blast. This was something Sinatra and Riddle seemed to grasp in a way that few others at the time did - that, like a Streamliner headed to Chicago, a recording of a song has to go somewhere. And, with Harry "Sweets" Edison on board, this track is a most satisfying journey.
:)

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