Thursday, March 31, 2011

La Plus Ça Change, Plus C'est La Même Chose - Sheldon Harnick's "The Merry Minuet"

Believe it or not, that ["The Merry Minuet"] was written in the 50s I think, maybe late 40s. Not much has changed!
- Bob Shane, FaceBook, 3/28/11


It is both amusing and disconcerting to find that a song like Sheldon Harnick's "Merry Little Minuet" that was written in 1948 or '49 as a topical comment on those times retains both its humor and its relevance more than six decades later. The vast majority of such songs amuse or rankle (or both) for a few years and then get dumped into the folk "remainder" bin when they lose their relevance as the events and conditions that inspire them fade into newer sorrows, outrages, and idiocies. But the best topical songs seem to acquire lives of their own, or "legs" as they used to say on Broadway. "Blowin' In The Wind" is surely an offspring of the Civil Rights era, and it was the Dust Bowl and Great Depression that engendered "This Land Is Your Land" - but does anyone doubt that those tunes will be loved and sung a century from now? What was originally created to be timely can occasionally become timeless, as with those two classics.

But I doubt that Harnick could have foreseen that his composition would remain as apropos as it has. "This Land" and "Blowin' In The Wind" have a distinct advantage in that regard over "Minuet" because their themes are universal and even more because they are not humorous. Usually nothing has so short a shelf life as topical humor. Vaughn Meader's The First Family was a brilliant and affectionate send-up in 1962 that wouldn't even get a smile (much less a laugh) out of anyone under the age of 60 today. Few comic impressionists were as gifted as was David Frye, and if you look today at videos of his Nixon, LBJ, RFK, William Buckley and more, you'll still probably laugh at how apt his barbs were - but your children will wonder what's so amusing about the guy. So why has "The Merry Minuet" beaten the odds and remained funny through all these years?

Well, for one, it's a well-crafted composition by an expert crafter of lyrics. Harnick would be enshrined in the pantheon of great American lyricists had he never written anything other than his best-known work, Fiddler on The Roof (with music by Harnick's long-time collaborator, Jerry Bock), which is surely one of the best and most enduring classics of Broadway musical theater. But he also wrote the words for the songs in Fiorello! and She Loves Me and the musical play version of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg - and maybe fifteen other profitable shows on The Great White Way. Harnick is a pro's pro, and if his lyrics never quite attain the poetic flavor of Oscar Hammerstein or Alan Jay Lerner, they possess truer emotional depths and a much more wicked and satiric trenchancy - think "Do You Love Me?" for the former and "If I Were A Rich Man" for the latter.

Harnick's "Merry Minuet" was composed for an off-Broadway review, one that also included songs by Michael Brown, whose "Lizzie Borden" and "The John Birch Society" later got the Chad Mitchell Trio off and running in terms of radio airplay. At some point in the mid-1950s, MIT mathematician and general satirical gadabout Tom Lehrer heard the song and began including it in his shows, always careful to credit Harnick from the stage - to little avail because to this day many people assume it to be a Lehrer composition. Lehrer was a regular act at San Francisco's Purple Onion and Hungry i in the mid 50s, along with Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce and Phyllis Diller and more. The SanFran nightclub audience considered itself more hip and with-it than their counterparts in New York - which is probably part of what motivated the otherwise determinedly apolitical Kingston Trio to add Harnick's topical comment (undoubtedly learned by them from Lehrer) to their shows, which after all began in those same Bay Area night clubs.

But the Kingstons left out two verses* (for time purposes, really - there's nothing especially controversial about them) and made one critical change to the song. Harnick's original lyric calls for "la la la's" between the satiric lines; the KT, however, had an expert whistler in Bob Shane, who with Glenn Yarbrough of the Limeliters was one of the best of the era. The drollery of punctuating the black-comic awfulness of riots and nuclear explosions with a mindless, light-hearted whistle just took the song to another level of humor - and has helped to keep it there. Nearly everyone who does the song today retains the whistle - so for our first version, we turn to Raymond Crooke for the song as Harnick wrote it:



Crooke is an Aussie who lived in Hong Kong from 2004-09; he was a teacher there and a moving force in the resuscitation of the Hong Kong Folk Society. His YouTube channel of his performances of more than 500 traditional folk songs has earned an impressive viewership of over 6 million hits.

The version most people in the world heard first was this next one, by the Kingston Trio in live performance at the Hungry i in the summer of 1958, some months before "Tom Dooley" became a hit single and ushered in the popular folk revival, not to mention fame and fortune for Trio members:



When "Tom Dooley" took off as a single and pulled the group's debut album with it to the top spot on the charts, it also ignited a chart rise for the From The Hungry i album from which this cut is taken. The latter was released in January of 1959, the same week that both the TD single and album were awarded gold records. Unlike the first five studio albums by the group, Hungry i did not hit the #1 position on the charts, mostly because Capitol decided to try to rectify its initial error of not recording the now-cash-cow KT in stereo, and a mere two months later rushed out the (IMHO) fairly useless Stereo Concert album, basically a retread of the first two LPs. Three albums by the same group vying for chart positions, all released within nine months - that insured that Hungry i with "Merry Minuet" would only make it to #2. Even at that, it sold several hundred thousand copies, and for my money only this song and "Zombie Jamboree" from the same record are enduring and not dated comedic classics of all the attempts the group made at humor.

Travis Edmonson was a mentor to the KT and a regular in the SF folk scene, both as a solo act and as a member of the Gateway Singers, and later with partner Bud Dashiell in the Bud and Travis duo:



Travis adroitly avoids uttering the KT's name while indicating that B&T heard and learned it from Lehrer at about the same time. The two part harmony on the whistling adds a nice touch, though it sounds less like the product of an unbalanced mind than Shane's is supposed to and does.

Like Raymond Crooke, Alonsogarbanzo is a non-professional YouTube phenom whose work I usually enjoy:



I like Alonso's idea of ending the song with the nuclear blast (even if it wasn't completely intentional to do so). Heckuva nice looking Martin he's playing, too.

Finally, the U.K.'s G.D. Clarke has an amusing YT channel called The Poetry Fireside Hour - and he delivers this week's selection as a poem:



I'm guessing that Clarke reconstructed the lyric from memory and updated it a bit - and he has the properly dry and droll tone of voice that we associate with British humor. Though I like what he does here, I believe it also underscores a point I have made in many other posts, especially about Bob Dylan - poetry and lyric writing are two entirely different things. Lyrics get a boost from the music and vice versa, whether humorous or impassioned. Real poetry and real music are distinctly different crafts or arts, complete within themselves.

Harnick was writing in the shadow of World War II, and we may today be more in a bit more danger from nuclear power (sushi, anyone?) than nuclear war. Too, the ethnic hatreds and geographic flash points that the original lyric highlights may have drifted a bit - but just a bit: the strife in Iran is more threatening than it was in 1950, and Rwanda and New York and London and Madrid and elsewhere worldwide are sober indications of the changing but ever-present danger of what may be "done by our fellow man." We may yet find ourselves whistling that chorus inanely as we dig ourselves out of the ashes of whatever self-inflicted horrors we perpetrate that insure the continued relevance of Sheldon Harnick's little ditty.

*Appendix: The Full Original Lyric

There are days in my life when everything is dreary
I grow pessimistic, sad and world weary
But when I am fearful and tearfully upset
I always sing this MERRY LITTLE MINUET

They're rioting in Africa
La,la la, la la, la la
They're starving in Spain
La,la la, la la, la la
There's hurricanes in Florida
La,la la, la la, la la
And Texas needs rain
La,la la, la la, la la

The whole world is festering with unhappy souls
The French hate the Germans, the Germans hate the Poles
Italians hate Yugoslavs, South Africans hate the Dutch.
And I don't like anybody very much

In faraway Siberia
La,la la, la la, la la
They freeze by the score
La,la la, la la, la la
An avalanche in Switzerland
La,la la, la la, la la
Just got fifteen more
La,la la, la la, la la

But we can be tranquil and thankful and proud
For man's been endowed with a mushroom shaped cloud
And we know for certain that some lovely day
Someone will set the spark off, and we will all be blown away

They're rioting in Africa
La,la la, la la, la la
There's strife in Iran
La,la la, la la, la la
What nature doesn't do to us
La,la la, la la, la la
Will be done by our fellow man
La,la la, la la, la la

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