by Charles Marowitz
(Swans - July 28, 2008) Every so often someone pivotal to one's life cashes in and the passing leaves one stymied and bereft. That was the case with Jo Stafford, who died on Wednesday, July 16th, in Century City, California. Truth to tell, she had been off the national scene since the mid l960s -- still her recordings remained vigorously alive for a good fifty years after her official retirement. They couldn't help but endure; there was nothing like that wistful, dulcet, haunting, perfectly-pitched voice before she became a vogue in the l940s and it is hard to believe another singer will come along whose lush romanticism can cast the kind of spell that Stafford cast for the homesick, soulful, lovelorn people of my generation throughout the '40s and '50s.
Her voice had a crystalline quality that gave her recordings an aura as unmistakable as they were mesmerizing. Some of it had to do with the excellent arrangements her husband Paul Weston devised as a framework for that uniquely lush voice, but essentially it was the soaring soulfulness in that voice that set her apart from any other pop singer of the period. It was a voice that carried with it a romanticism that was rooted deeply within the American psyche. Stafford was the personification of the gorgeous American girl that everyone hoped one day to meet and sweep into one's arms. She made falling in love feel like a spiritual awakening, which, if one were very lucky, one could experience at a local dance hall, a block party, or on a magical blind date. There was nothing corny or commercial about the way she emptied her heart into the lyrics of songs like "You Belong To Me" or "All The Things You Are" -- just as in her album of American folk songs, she made ballads such as "Red Rosy Bush," "Black Is The Color Of My True Love's Hair," and "Barbara Allen" feel like a restoration of the simple, rustic sentimentality that once dominated early American life but somehow got lost in the smug ironies of a later, faster, less sensitive popular music that "swung" rather than sauntered and was more concerned with being "hip" than soulful. Of course, she recorded up-tempo songs as well as jazz and hillbilly parodies, but this was the flightier side of her versatility. The throbbing, emotionally-contained expression of the deepest emotions was the true, the unique side of her vocal talent -- the one that placed her in a class of her own.
Her death was strangely irrelevant because the work was so perfectly enshrined in the albums and singles that constituted Jo Stafford's artistry. Even when she withdrew from the limelight, she was still present in the record cabinets of those whom she had first enchanted -- and the reissued vinyls and CDs will keep that pellucid, tremulous, and perfectly-pitched tonality alive for those of us who were charmed by it in that "other America" where popular songs evoked our deepest passions and tried to soothe our most inconsolable heartbreaks. That is the legacy of artists like Stafford; they keep rekindling feelings so strongly experienced that no matter how deeply they are wedged in the past, they can be instantaneously recalled by a vague snatch of melody or a few words of a lyric capable of transporting us to a fonder, more passionate time.
No obit can capture the significance of an artist as soulful and luminescent as Stafford was to millions of Americans -- particularly during World War II, when she was affectionately dubbed "G.I. Jo" by the members of the armed services, but if one is reduced to using words to capture the essence of this artist, perhaps these lines of Jerome Kern's ballad will do until something more definitive comes along:
You are the promised kiss of springtime
That makes the lonely winter seem long.
You are the breathless hush of evening
That trembles on the brink of a lovely song.
You are the angel-glow
That lights a star,
The dearest things I know
Are what you are.
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