Do the lyrics of popular songs qualify as poetry?
In 2000, the Library of America published American Poetry: The Twentieth Century, a two-volume anthology in which Cole Porter's “I Get a Kick out of You,” Lorenz Hart's “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered,” and Johnny Mercer's “Blues in the Night” were printed side by side with such classics of American verse as T.S. Eliot's “The Waste Land” and Robert Frost's “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” Though the critical response was mixed, the editors' decision reflected a growing consensus that at least some of the work of the lyricists of the pre-rock era is worthy of serious consideration as a species of poetry.
The case against treating song lyrics as poetry, however, is both easily made and generally convincing. To begin with, most golden-age song lyrics were written for preexisting melodies, and thus have no independent metrical life. In addition, many of the best-known pop songs were originally composed for Broadway musicals, meaning that they first had to fulfill utilitarian theatrical considerations before seeking to make any kind of purely expressive statement. Similarly, not only are the vast majority of lyrics—and virtually all of the well-known ones—about romantic love, but they are specifically tailored to appeal to a mass audience.
Above all, lyrics are written to be sung, not read. To consider them separately from the tunes to which they were set is like listening to a film score without simultaneously viewing the film for which it was composed. However interesting or instructive such an experience may be, it is nothing like what its creators had in mind.
True, some of the best movie music of the 20th century has found its way into the concert hall, where it has proved to have considerable appeal in its own right.1 Might something similar be said for song lyrics on the printed page? For the most part, the answer is no. Setting aside the technical fascination exerted by the virtuosic wordplay of such lyricists as Porter, Hart, and Ira Gershwin, it is striking—if not surprising—how modest an impact even their lyrics make when read. As is the case with classical art song, the primary expressive effect of popular songs is achieved through the music, to which the words serve merely as a kind of articulate accompaniment. It is perfectly possible to spend an entire evening listening to instrumental versions of such songs as Hoagy Carmichael's “Stardust” or Johnny Green's “Body and Soul.” But imagine spending the same evening listening to their lyrics being read out loud by an actor, and you will acquire a surer grasp of the relative significance of the two elements of popular song.
Johnny Mercer's lyrics, however, are different.
Mercer was born in 1909, eighteen years after Porter and thirteen after Gershwin. Unlike his older colleagues, he was not significantly influenced by W.S. Gilbert, whose witty but emotionally null versification in the comic operettas he wrote with Arthur Sullivan did much to shape the styles of the first generation of modern American theatrical lyricists. Moreover, Mercer rarely wrote for the stage—most of his songs were done for Hollywood films—and so he rarely had to serve narrowly theatrical ends. Instead, his songs are “lyrical” in the other, older sense of the word, meaning that they express intensely subjective emotions in a songlike way.
Mercer's brand of lyricism—unabashed yet unsentimental, and expressed with a colloquial directness that conceals extreme technical sophistication—is unmistakable. No one else, for example, could have written a lyric like “Skylark” (1942): “Skylark,/Have you anything to say to me?/Won't you tell me where my love can be?/Is there a meadow in the mist/Where someone's waiting to be kissed?” In its precise rhymes and beautifully shaped cadences, it is obviously a product of the golden age of American songwriting. But no other golden-age lyricist, not even Oscar Hammerstein II, could have aspired to its air of uncontrived simplicity.
This special quality was widely recognized by those in a position to appreciate it most completely. “Johnny Mercer is the greatest American lyricist alive,” Hammer-stein once said. “I could no more write a lyric like one of his than fly. It's so Americana.”
The “Americana” was genuine enough. Mercer was one of the few major American songwriters who were not big-city Easterners—he came from Savannah, Georgia—and to some extent his style reflects this difference of cultural background. At the same time, though, he was more than a homespun versifier who just happened to write popular songs. His creative impulse, unlike that of Gershwin or Porter, was essentially lyrical, and this quality intensified as he grew older—so much so that in such later songs as “Days of Wine and Roses” (1962), the melody, memorable though it may be, is not needed in order to heighten the poetic quality of the words: “The days of wine and roses/Laugh and run away,/Like a child at play,/Through the meadowland toward a closing door,/A door marked ‘Nevermore,’/That wasn't there before.”2
Mercer's songwriting is discussed at length in two biographies. Philip Furia's Skylark: The Life and Times of Johnny Mercer, published last year, is a semi-formal, fully annotated monograph by a professor of creative writing at the University of North Carolina who has also written about Ira Gershwin and Irving Berlin. Gene Lees's newly published Portrait of Johnny: The Life of John Herndon Mercer3 is, as the title suggests, an informal biography by a distinguished lyricist and music journalist who knew Mercer personally in his later years. While the two books use much of the same source material, including an unpublished memoir by Mercer, they differ considerably in tone and emphasis. Furia is thorough and detailed (as well as error-prone, to the point of misquoting some of Mercer's lyrics); Lees is vivid, insightful, and discursive to a fault.
Between them, Skylark and Portrait of Johnny supply a clear account of Mercer's life, leaving no doubt whatsoever that he was a deeply troubled man whose great personal charm concealed an enormous amount of barely controlled rage. A heavy social drinker, he was notorious in Hollywood for viciously insulting friends at parties, then sending them roses the next day. His marriage appears to have been loveless, and his final years were blighted by the rise of rock-and-roll, which left the songwriters of his generation scrambling for work.
Mercer held on longer than most, writing several of his most successful songs in the early 60's, but he, too, ultimately faded from view. Even in his heyday, he had been better known to the public at large as the winsomely relaxed singer of such jazzy hit records of the 40's as G.I. Jive, Personality, and Strip Polka (all recorded for his own label, Capitol, to which he also signed such hugely popular artists as Nat King Cole, Peggy Lee, Jo Stafford, and Margaret Whiting). Today his name is less widely recognized than those of Porter, Berlin, and the Gershwin brothers, perhaps because he collaborated with so many different composers instead of forging a single long-lasting artistic partnership.4 Nevertheless, his special place in American popular song continues to be acknowledged by his peers. “Every American lyricist I have known,” Lees writes, “considers, or considered, him the best of them all.”
Looking at Mercer's 1,088 songs in the light of Skylark and Portrait of Johnny suggests that there were three major creative turning points in his life. The first was his decision to move from New York to Hollywood in 1935. Though he started out as an actor and longed throughout his life to write a Broadway hit, his natural inclinations, as Philip Furia explains, were anything but theatrical: “Whereas Hart and Hammerstein wrote to dramatic character and situation in a musical, Johnny Mercer . . . would best craft lyrics out of his own emotions.”
A case in point is his lyric for “Laura” (1945): “Laura is the face in the misty light,/Footsteps that you hear down the hall,/The laugh that floats on a summer night/That you can never quite recall.” For all its evocative power, this song is (in Fu-ria's words) “inconceivable as a number in a musical comedy. Purely lyrical, it evokes no character or dramatic situation for the singer that can be staged, performed, acted out.” In Hollywood, such action-halting songs were acceptable; on Broadway, and especially after Rodgers and Hammerstein began writing “integrated” musicals whose songs arose naturally out of onstage action, they were not.
No less significant were Mercer's more or less simultaneous encounters in 1941 with Judy Garland and the composer Harold Arlen. Though Garland was only nineteen when she and Mercer met and became romantically entangled, she was far more sexually experienced than her older lover, and their ill-fated relationship (she chose to marry another man) left its mark on Mercer's writing, which up to that time had mostly run to witty novelties and once-over-lightly love songs. In tandem with Arlen, whose jazzy, harmonically complex melodies were ideally suited to a lyricist who had grown up listening to black music in Georgia, Mercer produced a series of songs, including “Blues in the Night” (1941), “That Old Black Magic” (1942), and “One for My Baby” (1943), whose darker, more intense tone is plainly indicative of the disruption in his emotional life.
Finally, there was the emergence of what Lees perceptively terms the “quality of abstraction” heard in so many of Mercer's later lyrics (though apparent as early as “Laura”). Already disposed to write about emotional states rather than concrete situations, Mercer increasingly incorporated into his songs evocative imagery that floated free of any semblance of “realistic” specificity. The “door marked ‘Nevermore’ ” in “Days of Wine and Roses” is a prime example, as is this mysterious quatrain from “Charade” (1963): “Fate seemed to pull the strings,/I turned and you were gone./While from the darkened wings/The music box played on.”
Mercer was acutely conscious of what he was doing in these songs. As he observed of “Days of Wine and Roses”:
Allegorically, it's like a Dali painting, you know. You're walking through a meadow and suddenly there's a door and there's a word on it. You see past that and past that you can't go.
It is inconceivable that Berlin or Gershwin would have analyzed one of his own lyrics in such a way—or written a lyric that could be so analyzed.
But did Mercer's use of such techniques make him a poet, or merely an exceptionally imaginative craftsman?
At the end of Portrait of Johnny, Gene Lees paradoxically asserts that Mercer “was more than a poet, he was a lyricist.” Like all paradoxes, this one sheds light without offering a definitive answer to the question it implies. My own published view, if less suggestive, has the virtue of being more clear-cut:
For all the utilitarian considerations that brought [his songs] into being, their aesthetic appeal is considerable, and the more I reflect on Mercer's achievement, the more I am inclined to think that he deserves to be considered not merely as a writer of supremely well-crafted song lyrics, but as one of the most gifted poets this country has produced.5
Continued immersion in and reflection on Mercer's work has done nothing to change my opinion—though I would hasten to add that even his most frankly poetic lyrics are best heard in tandem with the melodies that inspired them. Hence they occupy the same equivocal position as, say, Bernard Herrmann's film scores, which are the products of a collaborative process and cannot be properly evaluated outside the context of that process. It is revealing that Mercer published no poetry, presumably because he felt he had no gift for writing it. Only in the crucible of collaboration did his talents manifest themselves completely.6
Does this diminish the significance of his achievement? Must he necessarily be considered a lesser artist than a writer who works exclusively on his own? To make such a claim, after all, is by extension to relegate all forms of collaborative art to a lower level of excellence simply because of the process by which they came into being. Is Citizen Kane an inferior work because Orson Welles created it in collaboration with Herrmann, the screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, and the cinematographer Gregg Toland? Conversely, is Irving Berlin's “How Deep Is the Ocean?” a better song than “Days of Wine and Roses” simply by virtue of the fact that Berlin wrote both words and music?
For me, the answer to all these questions is an unequivocal no—but whether or not that makes Johnny Mercer a true poet is another matter, and one about which he himself had nothing to say. Perhaps, though, one might look to one of his own lyrics, “One for My Baby,” for an answer:
You'd never know it,
But buddy, I'm a kind of poet,
And I've gotta lotta things to say.
And when I'm gloomy,
You simply gotta listen to me,
Until it's talked away.7
Who can doubt that the man who wrote these lines was at the very least “a kind of poet”? Or that the world will continue to listen to the things he had to say long after most of the full-fledged “poets” of our own day are dead and forgotten?
Johnny Mercer on CD: A Personal Selection
Nearly every important American popular singer of the prerock era recorded at least one song with lyrics by Johnny Mercer, and usually many more. Here are fifteen of my favorites:
1936: “I'm an Old Cowhand” (music by Johnny Mercer)—Bing Crosby, Bing: His Legendary Years, 1931 to 1957 (MCA, four CD's). An occasional amateur composer whose simple melodies crackled with rhythmic life, Mercer scored his first Hollywood hit with a song for which he wrote both words and music (the former, he claimed, in fifteen minutes). The well-read, classically educated Crosby reveled in Mercer's witty wordplay, though his jazz roots are no less evident in his rocking performance of this droll send-up of a latter-day cowboy: “I'm a ridin' fool who is up to date,/I know ev'ry trail in the Lone Star State,/'Cause I ride the range in a Ford V-8.” The infectious accompaniment is supplied by a big band led by the alto saxophonist Jimmy Dorsey and featuring Ray McKinley, among the finest drummers of the 30's.
1937: “Too Marvelous for Words” (music by Richard Whiting)—King Cole Trio, The Best of the Nat King Cole Trio: Vocal Classics, Vol. 2 (1947-1950) (Capitol Jazz/Blue Note). It was at Mercer's urging that Nat King Cole, a great jazz pianist who sang on the side, began to feature his engaging vocals on his recordings for Capitol (many of which were produced by Mercer, who signed him to the label in 1943). Both men had strong Southern accents, and though Cole's became less pronounced in later life, it adds a winningly idiomatic touch to his light-footed 1947 performance of one of Mercer's cleverest “list” songs.
1938: “Jeepers Creepers” (music by Harry Warren)—Louis Armstrong, Louis Armstrong: Highlights from His Decca Years (Decca Jazz, two CD's). Armstrong introduced this charming novelty in the now-forgotten 1938 Hollywood musical Going Places (whose supporting cast included Ronald Reagan), subsequently making a genial studio recording that helped to solidify his growing reputation as a full-fledged pop singer whose appeal extended far beyond the world of jazz.
1939: “I Thought About You” (music by Jimmy Van Heusen)—Frank Sinatra, Songs for Swingin' Lovers (Capitol). The greatest popular singer of the 20th century made definitive recordings of numerous Mercer songs, many of them for Capitol. “A Johnny Mercer lyric,” Sinatra reportedly said, “is all the wit you wish you had and all the love you ever lost.” The deceptively casual tone of this one, perfectly arranged by Nelson Riddle, conceals the painstaking care with which Sinatra realizes the onomatopoeic effect of the crisp terminal consonants used by Mercer to suggest a train rolling down the track: “I peeked through the crack/And looked at the track,/ The one going back to you.” (Interestingly, this is a rare example of a Mercer lyric that was written first, then set to music.)
1942: “I Remember You” (music by Victor Schertzinger)—Peggy Lee, Pretty Eyes/Guitars à la Lee (Capitol/EMI). No less memorable is Peggy Lee's hushed version of another song in which Mercer uses consonants to ingenious effect, here in the liquid double l's of the closing lines: “When my life is through/And the angels ask me to recall / The thrill of them all,/Then I shall tell them I remember you.” Yet for all its virtuosity, “I Remember You” is also directly autobiographical: “I always had such a crush on Judy Garland I couldn't think straight,” Mercer told a relative, “so I wrote this song.”
1942: “Skylark” (music by Hoagy Carmichael)—Tony Bennett, Forty Years: The Artistry of Tony Bennett (Columbia/Legacy, four CD's). The gracefully balanced phrases of Carmichael's Bix Beiderbecke-like melody inspired Mercer to write one of his most “outdoorsy” lyrics. Accompanied only by the piano of Ralph Sharon, his longtime musical director, Bennett reshapes the familiar tune with an expansive flexibility that places Mercer's words at center stage.
1942: “That Old Black Magic” (music by Harold Arlen)—Judy Garland, Judy Garland: The Complete Decca Masters (MCA, four CD's). Mercer's ode to physical passion (“I hear your name and I'm aflame,/ Aflame with such a burning desire/That only your kiss can put out the fire”) has been recorded countless times, but rarely with the unsettling effect of this little-known, surprisingly understated 1942 performance, which was recorded by Garland not long after she became romantically entangled with the thirty-one-year-old songwriter.
1944: “Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive” (music by Harold Arlen)—Johnny Mercer, The Capitol Collector's Series: Johnny Mercer (Capitol). Inspired by a phrase Mercer overheard in a sermon by a black preacher from Savannah, “Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive” is the quintessential example of the sharp-eared deftness with which he tucked colloquial idioms into his lyrics: “You've got to accentuate the positive,/Eliminate the negative,/Latch on to the affir-mative,/Don't mess with Mr. In-Between.” Mercer's delightful recording, which topped the charts in 1945, is no less illustrative of his prowess as a singer of rhythm tunes.
1945: “Laura” (music by David Raksin)—Woody Herman, Pop Music: The Early Years 1890-1950 (Sony, two CD's). Though far better known as a bandleader, Woody Herman was also an outstanding vocalist who scored a well-deserved hit with his 1945 recording of the sinuous theme from Laura, a film noir scored by David Raksin. In addition to his stylish singing of Mercer's evocative lyric, which was written after the film was released (but before Mercer had seen it!), Herman contributes a ripely romantic half-chorus solo on alto saxophone.
1946: “Come Rain or Come Shine” (music by Harold Arlen)—Dick Haymes, The Best of Dick Haymes (Curb). Most singers pull out all the stops on this swinging ballad, written for the unsuccessful Broadway musical St. Louis Woman. But Haymes, a much-admired pop balladeer of the 40's who made his best recordings in the mid-50's, after a long battle with alcoholism had darkened his youthful voice and tinged it with disillusion, sings with a controlled restraint that proves more rewarding.
1946: “I Wonder What Became of Me” (music by Harold Arlen)—Joe Mooney, The Happiness of Joe Mooney/The Greatness of Joe Mooney (Koch Jazz). Mooney, a blind, crippled singer-accordionist whose sophisticated jazz quartet enjoyed a brief vogue on New York's 52nd Street in 1946, emerged from semi-retirement eighteen years later to record two albums for Columbia that show off his subtle singing to remarkable effect. This version of “I Wonder What Became of Me,” a little-known ballad from St. Louis Woman, is acutely alive to the self-lacerating streak in Mercer's personality that sometimes surfaced in his songwriting as well.
1949: “Early Autumn” (music by Ralph Burns)—Jo Stafford, The “Big Band” Sound (Corinthian). Burns, who wrote arrangements for Woody Herman from the mid-40's on, borrowed this handsome melody from “Summer Sequence,” a multi-movement suite he had composed for the Herman band in 1947, and spun it into a free-standing instrumental that became one of Herman's most popular recordings. Mercer then added a nostalgic lyric, giving “Early Autumn” a second life as a standard: “When an early autumn walks the land and chills the breeze/And touches with her hand the summer trees,/Perhaps you'll understand what memories I own.” As always, Jo Stafford's warm mezzo-soprano voice and unadorned simplicity are irresistibly winning. The gentle accompaniment for clarinets and rhythm section was scored by Paul Weston, Stafford's husband.
1954: “Something's Gotta Give” (music by Johnny Mercer)—Fred Astaire, Fred Astaire's Finest Hour (Verve). In addition to being one of his strongest self-penned tunes, this deliciously syncopated swing song offers a rare look at Mercer the character-driven dramatist (while perhaps also affording a somewhat calmer look back at his affair with Judy Garland). Written for Fred Astaire to sing to Leslie Caron in Daddy Longlegs, “Something's Gotta Give” tells how a middle-aged man can become attracted to a much younger woman: “When an irresistible force such as you/Meets an old immovable object like me,/You can bet as sure as you live,/Some-thing's gotta give.” Even at fifty-five, Astaire tosses it off with a dancer's lithe grace.
1961: “Moon River” (music by Henry Mancini)—Nancy LaMott, Come Rain or Come Shine: The Songs of Johnny Mercer (Midder Music). Originally recorded by Audrey Hepburn for the soundtrack of Breakfast at Tiffany's, “Moon River” was one of Mercer's biggest hits, and its unexpected success briefly revived his flagging career. Though it was composed specifically for Hepburn, its folksy lyric might just as easily have been written for Nancy LaMott, a cabaret singer who was profoundly in tune with Mercer's small-town sensibility: “We're after the same/Rainbow's end/Wait-in' round the bend,/ My huckleberry friend,/Moon River/And me.” Her heartfelt, unaffected recording is a priceless memento of the promising career that was cut short by her untimely death in 1995.8 This CD, which was out of print for several years, can now be ordered directly from www.middermusic.com.
1964: “Emily” (music by Johnny Mandel)—The Singers Unlimited, A Cappella (Universal). This tender love song in waltz time, written for the Arthur Hiller film The Americanization of Emily, was Johnny Mercer's last truly popular song. It is heard here in a sweetly lyrical performance arranged by Gene Puerling for the Singers Unlimited, a vocal quartet led by Puerling that used overdubbing to create harmonically complex choral effects in the recording studio (the group never performed in public). Bonnie Herman's lead vocal is noteworthy for its combination of tonal purity and emotional expressiveness.
Except as indicated, these CD's can all be purchased online by viewing this article during the month of November on COMMENTARY's website:
1 See my essay, “I Heard It at the Movies” (COMMENTARY, November 1996).
2 “Days of Wine and Roses” has been recorded many times, most notably by Peggy Lee in 1963 on Mink Jazz (Capitol). Other notable recordings of Mercer lyrics, including “Skylark,” are discussed in the discography at the end of this piece.
3 St. Martin's, 328 pp., $27.95.
4 Though Mercer wrote most of his best-remembered songs with Harold Arlen, he also worked with Rube Bloom, Ralph Burns, Hoagy Carmichael, Duke Ellington, Gordon Jenkins, Jerome Kern, Michel Legrand, Henry Mancini, Johnny Mandel, David Raksin, Victor Schertzinger, Jimmy Van Heusen, Harry Warren, and Richard Whiting. In addition, Mercer himself wrote the music for three of his biggest hits, “Dream,” “I'm an Old Cowhand,” and “Something's Gotta Give.”
5 “The Great American Songbook: A Finale” (COMMENTARY, May 2002).
6 Skylark contains excerpts from a series of undated, unpublished free-verse poems by Mercer that may possibly describe his affair with Judy Garland. Without exception, they are undistinguished.
7 Mercer recorded “One for My Baby” in a 1946 performance currently available on The Capitol Collector's Series: Johnny Mercer (Capitol). His quietly rueful interpretation contrasts strikingly with the slower, more explicitly theatricalized version recorded by Frank Sinatra in 1958 on Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely (Capitol).
8 See “Mourning Nancy LaMott” (COMMENTARY, May 1996), reprinted in A Terry Teachout Reader (Yale) under the title “My Friend Nancy.”