We got sad last time. Now, let’s get happy!
Louis Armstrong was the happiest performer in all of American pop music. (On stage and on record, anyway.) In 1929, his version of “When You’re Smiling” helped cheer the country through the Great Depression. If Satchmo couldn’t do it, then who could? In 1930, “Get Happy,” “Happy Days Are Here Again,” and “On the Sunny Side of the Street” were all big hits. Music was put to use to make life tolerable, to give people a little optimism. It’s hard to imagine living through the Great Depression. My parents both did, in Oklahoma, no less. They never talked about it.
Music has always served the function of bringing a little happiness to all the poor saps trying to make it through each day, whether in the Great Depression, in a not-so-great-depression, or just in a yen to shake a tailfeather.
It’s unfortunate that Bobby McFerrin is always remembered as the guy who did “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” It’s great that he had a big hit, and the song is a nice bit of fluff (and made Mr. McFerrin quite happy, monetarily). Bobby McFerrin, though, has written and performed some other works that are very impressive, very ambitious—magnum opuses compared to the “Don’t Worry” trifle. Vocabularies is probably his most ambitious work so far, but my personal favorite is the album CircleSongs, in which Mr. McF assembles eight great vocalists, male and female, for some hypnotic vocalized-but-wordless musical adventures. Each one is a different style of music but they all fit together as a package. It’s what Bobby McFerrin should be remembered for. And as works involving the community, cooperation, and dependence of a choral group, the songs are pure happiness.
Nancy Wilson was at her most adventurous on the 1962 album Nancy Wilson/ Cannonball Adderley. Cannon and company propelled Ms. Wilson into some new, jazzier territory, bringing out (but never crowding out) her fine, flexible voice. An unlikely choice to cover was “Happy Talk,” the ditty from the 1949 musical South Pacific. Ella Fitzgerald and Doris Day also covered the song, but played it pretty straight. Nancy Wilson, with the help of Cannonball and Nat Adderley, Joe Zawinul, and the band, transformed the trifle into something swingin’ and engaging. Happy music! For balance, they also include “Little Unhappy Boy” in the album’s line-up.
The last five of the twelve songs on the Nancy Wilson/Cannonball Adderley CD (or side two of the LP) are instrumentals—no Nancy. I’m not sure why she took a rest. As much as I enjoy listening to the Adderley bands in all their instrumental incarnations, I could’ve used a little more of this pairing with Nancy Wilson.
Ms. Wilson recorded another great song of happiness, “How Glad I Am,” the following year and won a Grammy for it.
I will never stop pushing Paolo Conte on my friends, even though he sings in Italian 90% of the time (and most of the rest is in French). It doesn’t matter that we don’t understand what he’s saying; it’s the music, the feel of the rhythms and the musicians that’s the draw. Pretend it’s instrumental. Conte’s lyrics are pretty impressionistic anyway—he’s going for a feeling.
His song “Happy Feet” does have an English title and chorus: “Happy feet, ta-dah-tah / Happy feet, ta-dah-tah / Happy feet, oh, oh, I love it.” (See, you wouldn’t be missing much if it was in Italian.) The song’s sub-title is “musica per i vostri piedi, madame” (“Music for Your Feet, Madame”). It is a very happy song, as many of Paolo’s up-tempo numbers are. It first appeared on an album from 1990 called Parole d’amore scritte a machina. It means Words of love written by a machine.
The Dave Clark Five’s “Glad All Over” got me in a bit of trouble in elementary school. A couple of friends and I, during an indoor recess period, got a little too happy. We began singing the then-current DC5 hit and mimicking the essential drum punctuation with our feet: “And I’m feelin’ (stomp-stomp) glad all over / Yes, I’m (stomp-stomp) glad all over…” We were so carried away—so happy—that we were completely surprised by our exasperated teacher, who’d been unsuccessfully trying to get our attention. She made the three of us stand in front of our lockers while our classmates paraded past us for lunch.
Honorable Mention: One could not discuss happy songs without including the ubiquitous Pharrell Williams song “Happy.” It’s a catchy song, but is quickly becoming a “quota song” (heard enough for a lifetime). Many other folks have already reached their quota with it. I saw a sign on a business’s employee bulletin board recently. It read, “No one has played ‘Happy’ in this building for: ____ days. Keep the dream alive!” They were up to 23 days.
An earlier song called “Happy” should also be mentioned. The Stones let Keith sing it, and it became a hit—at #22 pop in 1972.
I also should note two sixties pop-rock songs, The Who’s “Happy Jack” and its frolicking bass-and-guitar riffs (and another Keith having a ball on the tom-toms), and the feel-good “Happy Together” by The Turtles.
Songs I Like to Sing: Whenever I play gigs for seniors, “You Are My Sunshine,” the ‘30s standard credited to Louisiana governor Jimmie Davis (who apparently bought the song rights from true writer Paul Rice), residents always sing along, filled with joyful abandon. It is the oddest of popular songs. Its chorus is so bright and cheerful. And then come the verses, which also sound joyous, musically—but the lyrics are anything but. “The other night, dear, as I lay sleeping, I dreamed I held you in my arms / When I awoke, dear, I was mistaken / So I hung my head and I cried.” They sound like they ought to be matched with mournful, minor-key chords, instead of bouncing along in a C-to-G-to-D frolic. “If you leave me for another, you will always regret that day,” we all sing, with bright expressions on our faces, and then right back into “Oh, you are my sunshine, my only sunshine!” C’mon, everybody!
Great Song Title: There was at least one occasion that a record’s title was the only reason I bought it: “Happy Being Fat.” I had to hear what that 45 sounded like—and it was in a three-for-a-dollar bin at Woolworth’s, so it wasn’t much of a gamble, even for a kid on an allowance. The 1963 record was by Big Dee Irwin. I hadn’t heard of him, but later found out he’d had a minor hit with a cover of “Swingin’ on a Star” with Little “Locomotion” Eva. I also learned that Big Dee had changed his name from DiFosco T. Ervin, which sounds to me like the name of a Li’l Abner character.
What happy songs brighten your day? Any happy songs that make you mad?