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You Can’t Judge a Book by the Cover

You Can’t Judge a Book by the Cover

I’m as big a reader as I am a music-listener. I have worked for a book company for thirty years, and for years before that in libraries, at the same time performing music as often as I could. Downtime has almost always involved reading or listening to music. Quite often, I’m reading about music, despite Martin Mull’s awkward but oft-quoted assertion that “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”

Sure, it helps to have heard the music being referred to in an essay or review or blog post, but it’s nice to think that a reader may be encouraged to explore unfamiliar music further. And sharing thoughts on music with others who’ve reacted to the same music in their own way is one of the best ways I know of to waste time.

But what, then, of songs about books? That would seem to be an even worse idea than books about songs, but there have been some great songs about books, and I would like to do a little architectural dancing about a few of my favorites.

ella 2

“I Could Write a Book” This is one of the many gems in the Richard Rodgers-Lorenz Hart catalogue. The song was written for the 1940 show Pal Joey, and was notably covered by Ella Fitzgerald on her Rodgers & Hart “songbook album.”

Richard Rodgers wrote numerous gorgeous melodies, working under deadlines with a partner who was a drunk, sidestepping the demands of imperious producers and temperamental stars. Beauty produced—voila!—on demand and under pressure, time after time. It truly is incredible that Rodgers (and, yes, his brilliant, besotted lyricist Lorenz Hart) created so many songs that have endured.

The music man and the librarian

The music man and the librarian

“Marian the Librarian”   It took Meredith Willson eight years to finish his magnum opus, The Music Man, which hit Broadway in 1957. Willson, a small-town Iowa guy, wanted to bring small-town Iowa to the stage, and his mentor, Guys and Dolls creator Frank Loesser, urged him on.

Robert Preston, as Music Man (and con man) Harold Hill, falls for the town librarian, played on Broadway in 1957 by Barbara Cook (who won a Tony for her performance) and in the hit ’62 movie by Shirley Jones, later the matriarch of The Partridge Family. Hill pitches woo by singing “Ma-a-a-arian, Madame Libra-a-a-arian,” proving once again that book people have an irresistible allure.

My 45 has a misprinted title

My 45 has a misprinted title

“You Can’t Judge a Book by the Cover” I remember hearing this almost overpowering song on the radio when it came out in 1962. It blew my little nine-year-old mind. I imagine I’d heard other Bo Diddley hits—“”Hey Bo Diddley,” “Who Do You Love?”—by that time, but this one hit me so hard it rattled me. All these decades later, when I spin the 45, I still get a little rattled.

It’s one of the few Bo did that he didn’t write, and one of the few without the trademark Bo Diddley beat, but it sits right up there with his best.

“Don’t Stand So Close to Me”   Sting was reflecting on his pre-rockstar days as a teacher when he wrote “Don’t Stand So Close to Me,” which became a #10 US hit in 1980. He was inspired by Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita, referring specifically to “that book by Nabokov” in the song’s lyrics. Sting insists that, although he was attracted to some of his young students back in the day, this song of a teacher’s affair with a pupil was not autobiographical.

The single’s B-side, “Friends,” written by Police guitarist Andy Summers, was reportedly inspired by another book, Robert H. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land.

“Wuthering Heights” Another English pop singer wrote a song based on Emily Bronte’s only novel. “Wuthering Heights” was Kate Bush’s debut single and went all the way to #1 in England—although it didn’t do so well in the US. I prefer the version by The Puppini Sisters, a three-part close-harmony group. They’re from England, too, but they modeled themselves on The Andrews Sisters and my own favorites, The Boswell Sisters. They give Catherine and Heathcliff’s story a little swingy bounce, which, I think, is what it’s always needed.


“1984” George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four has inspired many songwriters. David Bowie’s “1984” came out a decade before the year in question, while Spirit’s got in fifteen years ahead. Bowie wrote “1984” and other songs, including “Big Brother,” for a never-produced musical based on the book. Stevie Wonder had written and recorded his own “Big Brother” in 1972. Many other pop songs of that era, of course, covered themes of government surveillance and power over the masses. And the hits just keep on comin’.

“Book of Love” Last but not least is this doo-wop ditty by The Monotones. I missed it when it came out in 1957, but it became a favorite when it was included in the movie American Graffiti. Great group name, but The Monotones were not monotonous at all.


Honorable Mentions: Love’s “My Little Red Book” (written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David) and Duke Ellington’s “My Little Brown Book” (written by Billy Strayhorn); “Every Day I Write the Book” by Elvis Costello; Dylan’s original or The Byrds’ cover of “My Back Pages”

Amazing Jimmy (“No such thing as a bad song”) Nominees: There are a couple of diary songs that I got enough of quick. Bread’s “Diary,” with its twist ending, was clever, but in a Hallmark Hall of Fame way. The Moody Blues’ “Dear Diary” is one I skipped back when I was playing the album it’s on. Ray Thomas’s vocals were never up to the standard of Hayward or Lodge, and the Leslie effects are annoying.

I Shot the Sheriff

I Shot the Sheriff

At the Sunday acoustic jam circle I used to frequent, a fellow named Dollar Bill specialized in old folk and bluegrass numbers with novel lyrics. Many of the songs involved death, often murder—so many, in fact, that another jammer used to keep a body count as Dollar Bill sang. He introduced one song to the jam as a song about Greek hillbillies. It was a Mark Graham tune called “Oedipus Rex,” and it had a little down-home spin on the Greek tragedy: “Oedipus Rex, Oedipus Rex / Another sad story of death and sex / You killed your pa and you married your ma / They don’t even do that in Arkansas!” I’ve long been familiar with another popular-song riff on the story, Tom Lehrer’s “Oedipus Rex,” which notes that “he loved his mother like no other / His daughter was his sister and his son was his brother.”

tom lehrer

“Miss Otis Regrets” is a Cole Porter classic, a smooth and sedate ballad that gradually unfolds the tale of a high-society woman who won’t be making a lunch date. Over three verses, the woman’s servant delivers the message that Miss Otis shot her lover dead, was sent to jail, and lynched by a mob. Each verse ends with the line “Miss Otis regrets she’s unable to lunch today.” Brilliant! Porter evidently wrote it as a challenge, a parlor game—but it has become a classic. Many have sung it. Miss Fitzgerald sang it best.


The Bobbettes were a doo-wop group who wrote their own songs, which was pretty uncommon. Even more incredibly, they were a quintet of schoolgirls of the ages of eleven to thirteen when they came up with their biggest hit, “Mr. Lee.” They sound like brats as they sing about a man based on a teacher they didn’t like. But they sound like cute and playful brats. It paid off, going to #6 pop and #1 R&B. After a few other tries at hits, they decided to revisit Mr. Lee and sing about how they really felt, with the song “I Shot Mr. Lee.” Rough stuff for some teeny-bopper doo-woppers! “One, two, three / I shot Mr. Lee.” It was their second-biggest hit, but only made it to #52.

On the haunting side of murder songs (because, really, songs about murder should be haunting), the Skip James song “Crow Jane” is timeless and disturbing. Skip’s eerie falsetto tells the story of a man who shot his woman, Crow Jane, and now regrets it. Her crime? She “holds her head too high.” He had enough and killed her, then wails as they lay her in her grave. A masterpiece in the “Frankie and Johnny,” “Little Delia” mold—but much moodier.


Nehemiah “Skip” James did some recording and performing in the twenties and thirties, and then became a preacher, working mostly outside the music trade. In the early ‘60s, James was one of those blues artists who were rediscovered, introduced to the wider world at a Newport Folk Festival (in his case, in 1964), and made several great late-career recordings. The album Today! is an excellent way to get to know Skip James, and includes the beautiful and unsettling “Crow Jane.”

Blues great Bessie Smith, in 1927, pleads with a judge to “Send Me to the Electric Chair.” She doesn’t want bail or jail. She caught him messin’ around, but she sings that she doesn’t “want no sympathy, ‘cause I done cut my good man’s throat.” It’s a story repeated often in blues, from poor Frankie to the present.

Now, about Frankie. I’ve heard many, many versions of “Frankie and Johnny,” no two just alike. But in 1934, folklorist John A. Lomax and his son Alan collected it, in American Ballads and Folk Songs, as “Frankie and Albert.” A footnote states that there were over 300 variants of the song in the collection of Robert A. Gordon at that time, and that “no one has ever heard precisely the same song sung by two individuals, unless they happen to be roommates.” And that was eighty years ago! The footnote adds, “Frankie, the heroine of this tragedy, yet lives, according to report, somewhat aloof to the curious only, in Seattle, Washington.”


The song’s story is always the same. Frankie gets tired of putting up with Albert—or Johnny—and plugs him. “He was her man, but he done her wrong.”

I can only recall two times that I have heard a song on the radio that made me pull the car over and listen, enraptured. One was a selection sung by The Bulgarian State Television Female Vocal Choir. (Don’t let the name fool you; the a cappella sound these ladies make is ethereal. It ran me off the road. The choir appears on the two volumes of Le Mystere du Voix Bulgares.) The other instance involved my first exposure to Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” The harmonized Freddie Mercury sections just blew me away. “Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?” The music was so astounding that it was only much later that I realized that the song was a killer’s confession. Brian May’s guitar solos are pretty dang nice, too. Still a monument of pop music, the best harmonies outside of The Beach Boys.

bob marley

Eric Clapton’s cover of “I Shot the Sheriff” brought Bob Marley to the attention of the United States. Marley’s song wasn’t changed very much by Clapton in his cover version. But Bob’s vocal quality suits his song, and all of his songs, to such an extent that the original Marley-sung versions are always the best. The song represents injustice of the powers that be, here played by Sheriff John Brown, over those who are not in power.

Honorable Mention: I just watched for the second time a documentary about Jimi Hendrix. It shows parts of several bravura performances of his breakout song, “Hey Joe.” Jimi completely reimagined the Billy Roberts folk song that was a hit for The Leaves in ’66. The Jimi Hendrix Experience hit version is the definitive one.

Dream Jukebox: Although I’d prefer The Bobbettes’ “Mr. Lee,” I would settle for “I Shot Mr. Lee.”


Although many of these murder songs are love songs, this post was not meant to be a Valentine’s Day-themed post. But, now that we’re here, what are your favorite songs of love and murder?

Many Rivers to Cross

Many Rivers to Cross

Top Song God Thelonious Monk had a birthday on October 10. He would’ve been 97. His fellow musicians in the forties scratched their heads over his sui generis music, but he never wavered, and became a revered master among jazz lovers before his death in 1982. (Though the general public still knows very little about him.) Happy birthday, Monk!

monk river

New Yorker Monk’s river was the Hudson. In 1958, in his friend and supporter Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter’s two-story house that overlooked the river, he wrote the beautiful “Coming on the Hudson” at the Steinway she’d bought for him. Robin D.G. Kelly, in his excellent 2009 Monk bio Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original, notes that the song was the first Monk wrote at casa Pannonica. It’s a stately composition, despite Monk’s unusual chord progressions and jagged rhythms.

The Baroness’s steady protection and encouragement inspired Monk to name one of his most lovely songs, “Pannonica,” after her.

I always looked forward to those times when my elementary-school class would assemble to sing patriotic and folk songs. “My Country, ‘tis of Thee,” “Cotton Fields,” “Frankie and Johnny.” OK, maybe we never did “Frankie and Johnny.” The song I enjoyed singing more than any other was “Roll On, Columbia, Roll On.” It always stirred me and even my most resistant classmates into a spirited rendition that gave me goosebumps. Into adulthood, I assumed the song was of Stephen Foster vintage, a public-domain folk song from the 19th Century, unaware that it was written by a much later contributor to the American Songbag, Woody Guthrie. He wrote it in 1941 to celebrate the works projects the government created to pull the country out of the Great Depression. I finally saw the Columbia about forty years later, and the sight of it, along with the memory of our school sing-along, gave me goosebumps.

bozzie river

My all-time favorite vocal group, The Boswell Sisters, sang about another rolling river, in “Roll On, Mississippi, Roll On” (1931). It was their second hit, and was backed by The Dorsey Brothers Orchestra. The Bozzies have several other river songs in their discography, including a song about another Mississippi river, “Old Yazoo,” and “River, Stay Away from My Door.”

I discovered the angelic voice of Maude Maggart (not an angel’s name) on the 2008 album Dreamland, a recording of a radio production. The album’s concept was a story of love found/lost/found again, told through songs from the golden-era songbook. Between each of the familiar songs was brief dialogue that moved the story along. Maude’s singing/speaking partner, the guy who finds and loses and finds her, is Brent Spiner, of Star Trek: The Next Generation. I wanted to like Dreamland but rarely listen to it. The real discovery, for me, was Ms. Maggart.

Maude is the sister of Fiona Apple (McAfee Maggart), a much better-known and much less conventional singer. (Fiona’s one of my oldest daughter’s favorites, and I accompanied her to a Fiona Apple concert last year. I very much enjoyed it, despite being a middle-aged man in a sea of women my daughter’s age, all singing along to every song’s many words.) Maude Maggart’s voice hits that sweet spot, I think: It’s pure and controlled but doesn’t sound contrived or overly proper. I came across it again on a recording of the 2007 show Kurt Weill’s America. She’s one of seven singers who split up duties, so there’s not enough Maude, but what there is, is very nice.

Kurt Weill wrote “The River is So Blue” (lyrics by Ann Ronell) for the 1938 film Blockade, but it wasn’t used. That explains why I hadn’t heard the song before, but it ranks right up there with his best, I think. The first eight bars sound quite a bit like the song “For All We Know,” which The Carpenters had a hit with in 1970, but it seems doubtful the songwriters had heard Weill’s song and ripped it off. It is well-served by Maude Maggart and she included it on her own live album that year.

I know you’ve probably wondered, “Do any hit songs contain the word plebeian?” I know of one, “Cry Me a River”: “Told me love was too plebeian / Said that you were through with me and…”

Julie London had a hit with “Cry Me a River,” but Ella Fitzgerald was supposed to sing it first. It was written in 1953 by Arthur Hamilton for Ella to sing in the movie Pete Kelly’s Blues, but was cut. I read somewhere that the reason Ella wasn’t given the song was that the execs thought the public wouldn’t go for a black singer using the word plebeian. I don’t know whether that’s true, but I do know that Ms. Fitz eventually did get to sing the word, when she recorded the song for her 1961album Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie.

clap hands river

In 1955, the song made its way to Ms. London, who was at the time the wife of Jack Webb, the star of Pete Kelly’s Blues. She had a #9 hit with the song, and the great Joe Cocker almost made the top ten with it fifteen years later.

Joni Mitchell’s “River,” from her 1971 album Blue, is a beautiful and sad holiday break-up song. Her own first version is probably my favorite of the many I’ve heard, but Herbie Hancock included a nice version of it, sung by Corinne Bailey Rae, on his 2007 Grammy-winning tribute to Joni Mitchell, River: The Joni Letters.

herbie river

In 1973, Randy Newman wrote of the great Mississippi flood in his elegiac “Louisiana 1927.” The song was more recently recorded by Newman and New Orleans music giant Allen Toussaint on an album honoring victims of Katrina after that great flood. (That album was named after and included another Thelonious Monk river song, “Bright Mississippi.”) Charley Patton had memorably recorded a song just after that twenties disaster, “High Water Everywhere,” that is haunting so many years later.

sail away river

A funny take on the Cuyahoga River comes from Randy Newman in “Burn On,” from 1972. It’s about Cleveland’s poor, polluted waterway: “The Lord can make you tumble, the Lord can make you turn / The Lord can make you overflow—but the Lord can’t make you burn.”

Honorable Mentions: The first Mills Brothers song that made an impression on me, back when I was a mere lad, was their cover of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Lazy River.” Their almost-smooth blend and their gently rockin’ rhythm were a perfect match for Hoagy’s music. They also did a fine version of his masterpiece, “Stardust.” One of the first songs Hoagy Carmichael ever wrote, while he was a law student in Indiana, was a river song: “Riverboat Shuffle.”


The exquisite soundtrack of The Harder They Come, a Jamaican movie made in 1972, contains two river song gems. Jimmy Cliff, who starred in the movie, was well-known, and his plaintive “Many Rivers to Cross” is a highlight; however, it’s The Melodians’ “Rivers of Babylon,” adapted from Psalms 137, that is my favorite cut.

Al Green’s “Take Me to the River” and Bruce Springsteen’s “The River,” and so many more, are also worthy of note.

Which river songs float your boat?

Autumn Almanac

Autumn Almanac

I like to announce, over softly picked minor chords, that my group is about to sing a beautiful song for all the lovers out there called (and I over-exaggerate bad French) “‘Luh fweel mohrt,’ or, in English, ‘The Dead Leaves.’”

Yes, that’s the direct translation of the French name of the standard we know as “Autumn Leaves.” It is an international song. Hungarian Joseph Kosma composed “Les feuilles mortes” in 1946 for a French film. Frenchman Jacques Prevert wrote French lyrics for it. Then in 1951, along came American Johnny Mercer, who wrote English lyrics and got his most profitable song ever out of the deal. Our group does the Mercer lyrics, not the Prevert, and after the slow intro, we ramp up the tempo in a Latin-beat. Maybe we need Spanish lyrics.

The biggest hit version was sans lyrics: Roger Williams’ EZ-listening piano treatment, full of cascades representing all those falling leaves that drift by the window. It is the epitome of elevator music, and reached number 1 in 1955. Five other artists had a hit with “Autumn Leaves” in ’55. Rog had another stab at it ten years later, as “Autumn Leaves—1965.” That time he only got to #92 on the chart.


My favorite version is an instrumental featuring the saxophone of Cannonball Adderley. It’s on Cannon’s 1958 album Somethin’ Else, which like most Cannonball Adderley, is somethin’ else. Miles Davis joins Adderley on the album, which preceded their collaboration on Kind of Blue. Hank Jones contributes fine piano work.

There are not nearly as many autumn songs as there are winter, spring, or, especially, summer songs. But there is another great standard of autumn, Vernon Duke’s “Autumn in New York.” It continues, a year later, the theme Duke started with “April in Paris” in 1933. Frank Sinatra was the first singer I heard do the song. His 1949 hit lodged it in the American popular songbook, after it had languished for fifteen years, but the version I had was recorded by Frank ten years after that, for the album Come Fly with Me. It’s masterfully sung, of course. Billie Holiday is among the many fine vocalists who followed Sinatra’s lead and recorded the song. (Sinatra also recorded a nice “Autumn Leaves.”)

sinatra fly

Above all recordings of the song, I like the 1957 session in which Ella Fitzgerald meets up with Louis Armstrong. We get Ella first, singing through it with her pure voice. Louis is up next, and I am reminded of just how effective he could be singing sensitive ballads. (“That Lucky Old Sun,” anyone?) Louis follows his vocalized verses with some trumpet, and then we hear Ella again, this time backed by some subtle asides from Louis. It’s a real treat to hear these two together.

And, in honor of singer-actress Polly Bergen, who recently died, I should point out that she also recorded a nice, smooth version of “Autumn in New York.”

Sinatra did another great autumnal song, “Indian Summer,” fronting Tommy Dorsey’s Orchestra. It’s nicely done, but an instrumental version featuring the wonderful clarinet of Sidney Bechet is my preferred version; in fact, Bechet’s “Indian Summer” is probably only topped by his take on Cole Porter’s “What Is This Thing Called Love?”

Sidney Bechet Autobiography

Sidney Bechet Autobiography

Years ago, using The Jazz and Blues Lovers’ Guide to the U.S., my wife and I located the childhood home of Bechet in New Orleans’ 7th Ward. We pulled up in front and I got out to take a picture. I was instantly surrounded by a group of boys on bicycles demanding payment from me, saying they knew I was from some magazine. I got back in the car, drove around the neighborhood a few times and then swooped back by and got the shot from my car window. That historic house has since been demolished by the city as part of the post-Katrina clean-up.

The Kinks’ “Autumn Almanac” made it to #3 in the UK in 1967, but it didn’t even dent the charts here in the U.S. Silly Americans! It’s a whirlwind of a little pop number, maybe too much for American radio. It has a steady, up-tempo beat. It has sing-along parts—some “la-la-la” sections and a rousing “Yes, yes, yes, it’s my autumn almanac!” chorus. It’s got verses sung by Ray Davies in his sweet, old English gentleman voice. “Tea and toasted, buttered currants can’t compensate for lack of sun / Because the summer’s all gone.” And it’s got a fade-out in 6/4 that’s yet another sing-along section. Shoulda been a stateside hit, too!

"Autumn Almanac" is one of The Kink Kronikles

“Autumn Almanac” is one of The Kink Kronikles

Neil Young’s 1992 song “Harvest Moon” figures into one of my dearest performing memories. It was the favorite song of a good friend’s bride-to-be. As a proposal setting, my friend arranged with another friend to get the cavernous Union Station Ballroom for an hour or so one early evening. A wedding had taken place earlier in the day, and there were deflated balloons, empty plastic flute glasses, and confetti everywhere. In a little nook in a far corner of the room, my friend had placed a small table and two chairs, and an ice bucket containing a chilling bottle of wine.

He instructed me to wait, hidden behind a column, at the top of the grand marble stairway that led up to the ballroom. When I saw Friend and Lady-Friend enter, I started playing and singing “Harvest Moon,” as instructed. The pair ascended the stairs and walked arm-in-arm through the remains of the earlier celebration to the table set-up, with their troubadour following, strumming and singing. It was quite a magic moment.

She accepted, and they’re still married, fifteen years later.

An earlier song of the harvest moon was written by Nora Bayes and Jack Norworth. “Shine On, Harvest Moon” has endured as a great sing-along for more than 100 years. When I do it at the senior centers, everyone always knows all of the words. I let the audience sing “since January, February, June, or July” without me. Since the last words of the song are “For me and my gal,” I slide right into the song of that name, another sing-along standard just under the century mark. It was written by Edgar Leslie, Ray Goetz, and George W. Meyer for the musical Here and There. Judy Garland and Gene Kelly sang it together on film in the movie For Me and My Gal, in 1942. It was Gene’s film debut and was directed by Busby Berkeley. “Everybody’s been knowing, to a wedding we’re going.”


Honorable Mention: “Fall Breaks and Back to Winter” (also known as “The Woody Woodpecker Symphony”) is an oddity even among its off-the-wall companions on The Beach Boys’ Smiley Smile. It has a Volga-boatmen quality to it, or maybe of the entrance song of the Winged Monkeys from The Wizard of Oz.

Dream Jukebox: After listening again to The Kinks’ “Autumn Almanac,” I know it deserves a place on the Dream Box, aside “Sunny Afternoon,” “Waterloo Sunset,” and “Dead End Street.”


Any songs of autumn help you make the seasonal transition?

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