Coming in from the old Cold War

BRIAN D. JOHNSON February 19 2007

Coming in from the old Cold War

BRIAN D. JOHNSON February 19 2007

They make us smile with our heart

How do you write a song that says ‘I love you1 in a way that hasn’t been said before?



Back in my teenage years, I started doing little story-behind-the-song features—first for radio, then on TV and in print. And I would have to say, after interviewing hundreds of composers and lyricists and teasing out all the best “And then I wrote...” anecdotes, the most frustrating aspect of the whole business is the huge mountain of great songs with no stories behind them, no anecdotes. As Lennon and McCartney once said, “There are two things we always do when we sit down and write a song. First we sit down. Then we write a song.”

A lot of songs get written that way. Here’s one you hear a lot around the second week of February:

My funny Valentine

Sweet comic valentine

You make me smile with my heart...

There are thousands of love songs for Valentine’s Day but only one great Valentine love song. After Sinatra reintroduced it to the world on the first track of Songs For Young Lovers in 1954, everyone and his aunt started singing it, to the point where, at the dawn of the LP era, the joke was that it would be easier to list the albums that didn’t have My Funny Valentine on them. Fifty years on, the joke stands up almost as well as the song: Sheryl Crow and Christina Aguilera and Rod Stewart and Anita Baker have all recorded the number in recent years. But where did it come from? How did it get that good? It was written by Rodgers and Hart in 1937, for a show called Babes In Arms, and it was sung to the leading man, who was called “Val”— short for “Valentine,” an imperfect object of the young lady’s affection:

Is your figure less than Greek?

Is your mouth a little weak?

So it was written to be sung to a guy called Valentine. And that’s pretty much all we know. Richard Rodgers’ Musical Stages has nothing to say, in keeping with its generally soporific tone (at one point, Rodgers borrows wholesale a slab of prose from David Ewen’s biography of him—a bizarre example of an autobiographer regarding a biographer as a more reliable guide to himself). So you turn to Will Friedwald’s 2002 offering, Stardust Memories: A Biography of Twelve of America’s Most Popular Songs, one of the dozen being My Funny Valentine. And, amidst all the fine insights into the merits of Miles Davis’s ’58 recording with John Coltrane versus his ’64 recording with Herbie Hancock, it’s easy to overlook Mr. Friedwald’s account of the actual creation of the music and lyric:

“At some point during the writing of the Broadway version, Rodgers and Hart came up with the song My Funny Valentine. ”

And that’s it. That’s all there is. First they sat down. Then they wrote a song. And we’ll never know the process by which Lorenz Hart decided he could use a six-syllable word in a romantic ballad and make it sound utterly natural:

Your looks are laughable


That was autobiographical. Hart was misproportioned four-foot-ten: he’d written a hundred love songs for everyone else, and this was one for himself, the one he’d like to have had someone sing to him. No one ever did.

Likewise, we’ll never know how Richard Rodgers hit upon climbing an octave higher for the dramatic climax of the lyric yet avoided the usual big-note bombast and instead captured all the ache and yearning of the words: “Stay, little valentine, stay!” A love song is very fragile thing, and the false tinkle of the wrong word on the wrong note can tip the thing into absurdity. Perhaps that fine line is something you can only understand instinctively, but it doesn’t stop publishers cranking out a gazillion books on how to write smash hits with titles like If They Ask You, You Can Write A Song (that’s a Rodgers and Hart allusion, too).

People have been handing out advice to budding songwriters since at least 1926, when Charles K. Harris published his autobiography. Mr. Harris was the composer of After The Ball, a song that was earning him $25,000 a week in 1892, back when 25,000 bucks was still 25,000 bucks. And he was full of tips on how you could do likewise. I recently reread Bound For Glory, the famous 1943 memoir by a very different kind of songwriter, Woody Guthrie. But he too feels that, if they ask you, you can write a song:

“If you think of something new to say, if a cyclone comes, or a flood wrecks the country, or a busload of schoolchildren freeze to death along the road, if a big ship goes down, and an airplane falls in your neighbourhood, an outlaw shoots it out with the deputies, or the working people go out to win a war, yes, you’ll find a trainload of things you can set down and make up a song about.”


Undoubtedly. If an airplane drops into your cornfield or the entire grade school freezes to death on the bus, I think most of us could rise to the occasion and get some kind of dime-store Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald out of it. Indeed, Guthrie’s list is so beguiling you’re tempted to sling ’em all into the same ballad and produce the all-time great godawful pileup of folk-song tragedy. But what do you do when there’s no outlaw shooting up the school bus during the cyclone? How do you write a song that says “I love you” in a way that hasn’t been said before? In If They Ask You, You Can Write A Song, Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn (who composed

the songs for The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno) write:

“Before the 1950s, lyrics primarily dealt with love, sad or happy, in general terms, such as ‘You’re Breaking My Heart,’ or ‘Love Walked In.’ Now the field has opened to encompass all problems, and the subjects are characterized in depth. Consider the characters you meet in songs... Some are ‘On Top Of The World.’ Others are ‘Alone Again, Naturally’. .. If you’re at a carnival, you’re likely to run into a ‘Gypsy Woman.’ ”

Indeed. In fairness, although they express it very badly, they’re on to something. In essence, take the specifics of the Woody Guthrie scenarios and, instead of writing it up as a death song, use it as the setting for a love song:

I took a trip on a train And I thought about you...

Forget the kindergartners freezing to death and you could do something similar with the bus. Or the plane. “A poet should address the specific,” wrote Goethe, “and if there be anything about him he will articulate the universal.” Today, though, the universal is out of fashion. In the new book Faking It: The Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music, Hugh Barker and Yuval Taylor address, as part of that quest, the rise of autobiography in popular music: “Norwegian Wood was a key transitional song for Lennon because for the first time he found a way to write a song directly about himself. The actual lyric is somewhat guarded, partly because he was speaking about a one-night stand and, as a married man, was reluctant to be too confessional. But the song is rooted in a recognizable version of Lennon’s real life and has a confessional tone.”

Well, if you’re looking for a song about

John Lennon, that’s swell. On the other hand, if you’re looking for a song of more general application, stick with Yesterday. If I had to

have a shot at codifying it, I’d say that, if you’re talking about lost love and bust-ups, there’s a sporting chance you can grab something from real life. Lee Hazlewood overheard some guy in a bar snarling at some departing female, “One of these days these boots are gonna walk all over her,” and wrote it up for Nancy Sinatra. Sadie Vimmerstedt of Youngstown, Ohio, overheard someone in a drugstore say, “I want to be around to pick up the pieces when somebody breaks his heart,” and sent it in to Johnny Mercer, who gave her half the royalties. In such circumstances, even the clumsiest among us can find the muse in bitterness and loathing and alight on some original formulation. But, when you’re just in love and she’s the

one and you want to be with her forever and gosh, she’s beautiful, you generally need a professional to help you say it in a fresh way. With the iconic love songs—the ones on those Rod Stewart Slaughters the Great American Songbook CDs—there’s no autobiography, no anecdotes: if you ever do find yourself in a love worthy of It Had To Be You, As Time Goes By, The Way You Look Tonight, Til Be Seeing You, you’ll be too moonstruck to spot the fresh image or original metaphor. So instead, a couple of hard-working professionals sit down and write it, and say it for everyone. And there’s not a how-to book in the whole music biz that can teach you how to do that. M