What’s In a Song: Smoke Gets in Your Eyes (1)

[One of a continuing series of posts on American popular songs with long histories. As is usually the case, this one on the history of “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” will be was followed in a couple days by Part 2, about some of the cover versions.]

Where Were You in ’62?

So asked one of the taglines to George Lucas’s 1973 film, American Graffiti. The question both pinpointed the time of the film’s action and suggested that the film would be even better if the audience brought their own memories along to the theater.

Yet the hit soundtrack which followed wasn’t so neatly nailed down: it mashed together hits released between 1953 to 1964 (!). Hence — given the way that blocks of AM Top 40 radio playlists were constructed back then — these songs were unlikely to have been broadcast exactly that way during the single day of the characters’ lives which the film depicts.

The Graffiti soundtrack also failed to include many artists who would have been on the air over that twelve-year period — notably Elvis Presley. The idea of releasing a soundtrack album of original hits tied to the release of a film wasn’t new, but music producers and rights holders were suspicious of the payment plan proposed by studio lawyers: each song’s owner(s) would get a flat, and equal, amount. (Indeed, Fats Domino’s “Ain’t That a Shame” was included, despite the rights issues, by the expedient of re-recording it just for the album.)

In any case, chronologically midway through that block of years, along came “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” recorded by The Platters in 1958 and topping the charts a year later:

[Below, click Play button to begin Smoke Gets in Your Eyes. While audio is playing, volume control appears at left — a row of little vertical bars. This clip is 2:39 long.

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Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

They asked me how I knew
My true love was true
I, of course, replied,
Something here inside
Cannot be denied.

They said someday you’ll find
All who love are blind
When your heart’s on fire
You must realize
Smoke gets in your eyes.

So I chaffed them and I gayly laughed
To think that they could doubt my love,
Yet today my love has flown away
I am without my love

Now laughing friends deride
Tears I cannot hide
So I smile and say,
“When a lovely flame dies,
Smoke gets in your eyes.”

(Above lyrics transcription per songwriter Jimmy Webb’s study of pop music composition, Tunesmith, probably using The Platters’ cover as a guide. Slight variations do crop up in others, though.)

Like many people who lived through the ’50s and ’60s, I imagine, I’d always thought that to be the version of the song. It was certainly the only one I’d ever heard. And could any performer possibly have handled such lyrics and music with more authority than The Platters’ lead singer, Tony Williams?

Little did “My Generation”-centric I realize that the movie tagline might just as well have read: Where Were You in ‘32?

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What’s in a Song: Simple Gifts (1)

The great tangled rope of popular music (American and otherwise) includes so many disparate strands that to speak of it as a single “thing” invites ridicule: show tunes and jazz, bluegrass and ragtime, country, folk, rock, metal, rap, and hip-hop… And then what about “easy listening”? and popular classical music, like Gershwin’s and Copland’s? New Age? Heck, what about Christmas music?

So in declaring (as I did) that this What’s in a Song series would explore “American popular songs with long histories,” well, I might as well have announced upfront that anything listenable was fair game.

Under the circumstances, inevitably, I’d find myself bumping into the category known loosely as “sacred music” — at least, those bits of it which have percolated out into pop culture. Off the top of my head, only two songs in this category appealed to me as subjects. The first, “Amazing Grace” — okay, that’s been tackled by an impressive roster of pop artists. But I have one problem with celebrating “Amazing Grace,” beautiful though it is: few performers seem able to resist milking its very “sacredness.” What emerges from the throats of such performers isn’t a song about grace, even about the special grace of music: it’s a song about the singer.

But almost by definition, the other song has resisted manipulation at the hands of the lugubriously self-righteous. That song is the subject of this two-part post.

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What’s in a Song: I Get Along Without You Very Well
(Part 2)

Excerpt from Hoagy Carmichael's 1st draft of 'I Get Along Without You Very Well'[This is another in an occasional series on popular songs with long histories. Part 1 — on the song itself as finally recorded by numerous artists — appeared on Tuesday.]

Hoagy Carmichael published “I Get Along Without You Very Well” in 1938. (The copyright date was November 18.) But the song’s history stretched back over 15 years earlier, and the sheet music as published bore two signs of this past:

  1. The full title of the song included, at the end, “(Except Sometimes)” — a phrase which appears nowhere in the lyrics.
  2. Following Carmichael’s name as the songwriter appeared the note, “Words inspired by a poem by J.B. (?)”

Why “Except Sometimes”? Who was J.B.? And why that trailing question mark?

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What’s in a Song: I Get Along Without You Very Well
(Part 1)

[Another in an occasional series on popular songs with appeal across the generations. This post will be broken into two parts; Part 2, about this song’s composition, appears tomorrow [edit to add:] or the next day Thursday.]

There’s a trick performed by some songwriters — I don’t know the term for it, if there is one — in which they “overstuff” their lyrics’ lines with extra syllables.

This is similar to what, in poetry, is called sprung rhythm: “verse” which mimics the rhythm of natural speech.

It also calls to mind a sly little bit of business by Alexander Pope. In demonstrating the awkwardness of so-called alexandrine meter — twelve syllables per line — Pope once, as Wikipedia says, “famously characterized the alexandrine’s potential to slow or speed the flow of a poem in two rhyming couplets consisting of an iambic pentameter followed by an alexandrine.” One of these two couplets goes:

A needless alexandrine ends the song
that like a wounded snake, drags its slow length along.

See the way that second line seems overloaded with syllables? That’s pretty much the idea I’m getting at here.

In a song, though, the effect can be either subtler or more ponderous, as the words follow the underlying instrumentation — and depending on the singer’s skill. It’s not like we’re just reading the words on a page, free to imagine, if we want, that the line breaks and meter don’t count at all: it has to “sound right.”

So let’s start out with the lyrics, then, to “I Get Along Without You Very Well” (Hoagy Carmichael*, 1939):

I get along without you very well,
Of course I do,
Except when soft rains fall
And drip from leaves, then I recall
The thrill of being sheltered in your arms.
Of course, I do.
But I get along without you very well.

I’ve forgotten you just like I should,
Of course I have,
Except to hear your name,
Or someone’s laugh that is the same,
But I’ve forgotten you just like I should.

What a guy, what a fool am I.
To think my breaking heart could kid the moon.
What’s in store? Should I phone once more?
No, it’s best that I stick to my tune.

I get along without you very well,
Of course I do.
Except perhaps in spring.
But I should never think of spring,
For that would surely break my heart in two.

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What’s in a Song: Blue Moon

[This is the first in a series of every-now-and-then posts about popular songs with long lives.]

Some great songs go through subtle changes over time: the original lyrics are updated to correspond to more modern diction and taste; rhymes get improved or dropped altogether; refrains are added and subtracted; and of course new arrangements can, with the slightest addition of an instrumental passage, change our very understanding of what a song means.

“Blue Moon” didn’t begin as a classic — not in the form it eventually acquired. While the music remained unchanged, its lyrics didn’t simply evolve: they mutated almost overnight, going through three versions before finally settling down into their fourth and (more or less) final variation.

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