Saturday, November 8, 2008

The Mystic Chords Of Memory: "Try To Remember"

Here in Southern California, we baked like hell (nearly literally) in the second hottest October since record-keeping was initiated in 1885, thus obliterating for me even the most fleeting memories of the multi-hued autumns of what was my favorite of all months of the year growing up in the Middle West five decades ago. The fading late afternoon light, softened by the sun's declension into a lower arc in the evening, the chill of the early evening air, the pungent scent of burning leaves - all encouraged the wonderfully strange and almost mystical feelings of melancholy and passing time and yearning for I knew not what that sought out the deepest reaches of my adolescent and Irish soul and embedded themselves there, familiar and comfortable annual visitors that gave even my youngest self opportunities for reminiscence and a gentle, not-unpleasant sense of regret.

And into this emotional landscape dropped the song that expresses those feelings as effectively as any song I know, Harvey Schmidt's and Tom Jones' "Try To Remember" from the longest-running show in theatrical history (42 years, 1960-2002, over 17,000 performances), off-Broadway's The Fantasticks. [The original cast from 1960 (including Jerry Orbach,  center) is pictured at left.]

The show itself is a bit of slightly cornball fluff, a romantic semi-comedy that taps into audiences' most accessible emotions about love and youth and age and experience. There is a narrator named El Gallo who sings this number (repeatedly, like "Old Man River" in Showboat), an ingenue couple, wise old parents, and a Romeo/Juliet kind of story though with an almost happy ending.

But the song burst out of the show that resided all those years at the Sullivan Street Theater, a non-Equity playhouse, meaning 99 seats or fewer, and almost immediately became a standard of the American songbook. Like the signature song in many an American musical - you could walk out of the theater, never having heard it before, humming it and wanting to hear it again.

"Try To Remember" isn't a folk song - but then, in the purest sense, neither is "The Mountains of Mourne" - or "Oh, Susanna!" for that matter. Yet all three and many more like them have been beloved of and sung by generations of people, reminding one of Big Bill Broonzy's quip that all songs are folk songs because he never heard a horse sing (or Bob Shane's corollary - "I'm not a folksinger - I'm a folks' singer.")

The song, though, has many of the elements of a folk song - repetition, lyrical simplicity, a fairly easy tune, and an accompaniment structure that can be done with four easy chords (you can throw in a kind of rogue 7th if you feel you have to). It's so widely known now that it might as well be a folk song - and interestingly, after the play itself, it was largely folk type singers who popularized it.

And now to the music. We start with the original El Gallo himself, the late, great Jerry Orbach. Now Law and Order is one of my all time favorite TV shows, and Orbach was its centerpiece as Det. Lennie Briscoe. But I had known of him 25 years before the TV show because of his Broadway career including Tony Awards and nominations - and Jerry gets our first video today - the original cast recording here:

Now Bob Shane of course always had a way with show tunes, from the very beginning of the group with "Maria" from Paint Your Wagon. What I like so much about this great solo from the KT album #16 in addition to the wonderful guitar arrangement (by John Stauber) is that the raw talent that Bob demonstrates on the several live recordings of "Maria" has grown through years and performance into the superb craft of a vocal artist on his take on the song:

Here is Bob again, eight years later in 1970 from a Japanese recording of the New Kingston Trio - interesting to compare it to his first recording:

A year or so before Bob, though, The Brothers Four had one of their patented mellow top ten hits with the number. This video from the 2002 This Land Is Your Land PBS special has only bassist Bob Flick from the original group, though lead singer Mark Pearson is kind of the George Grove of the BF, having joined the band in 1969 and remained with them through the years. I prefer baritones on this number, but Mark's voice is so clear and melodic that he has almost changed my mind:

To some degree in the popular mind of the time, the song "belonged" as well to Harry Belafonte - and with good reason. This video, from 1976, shows the interpretive and vocal power of one of the greatest popular singers of the last century, 39 at the time and at the height of his power. HB is using his own distinctive vocally counter-pointed arrangement and accompanied by all-star guitarists, Brazilian Sivuca on the left and long-time Belafonte collaborator Millard Thomas on the right. That smoky, mellow baritone of Belafonte's still moves me beyond words:

Critics have branded the song as a kind of sentimental nonsense. Sentimental, yes - but like the best songs of that stripe ("Danny Boy," anyone?), an honest and unabashed sentimentality is an art form of its own, one of enduring validity. "Try To Remember" pretends to be nothing more than it is - a simple song whose evocative power resides precisely within its simple emotionality.

Appendix - 6/7/10

Within the last few weeks, a performance video of the great Jerry Orbach doing the number in 1982 surfaced. Given the fact that videos from TV shows tend to disappear rather quickly from YT, I'll post it here for as long as it's viewable:


For the full on pop vocal, the great Ed Ames:

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