by Charles Marowitz
(Swans - June 15, 2009) When one looks back over the recorded music from The Golden Days of the last century, a certain number of predictable composers leap out at us: George M. Cohan, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Vincent Youmans, Rodgers & Hart, and a few others. But invariably, Walter Donaldson seems to be either slighted or just passed over. In David Ewen's comprehensive work Great Men of Popular Song, there is no succinct biography of Donaldson and only two brief passing references in chapters devoted to others. For someone who epitomized the twenties, was highly fertile in the 1930s, and contributed some classic popular songs even into the '40s, this seems like a serious neglect. When he died in l947 at the age of fifty-four, his songs, proving their longevity, continued to be recorded by leading vocalists such as Ella Fitzgerald, Billy Eckstein, Mel Torme, Nina Simone, Dean Martin, and Billy Holiday -- right through to the end of the century and into the next with unlikely artists such as Peggy Lee and Dr. John.
As a melodist, Donaldson was consistently enthralling. His mother, who carefully tutored her son, had been a classical pianist and the young Donaldson was brought up with the music of Schubert, Chopin, Schumann, and Grieg dinned into his ears. It was that grounding in the classical repertoire that may account for the fact that of all the 20th century composers, Donaldson possessed more breadth, more originality, and a richer resource of melody than many of his peers.
He captured the rollicking spirit of the '20s in songs such as Because My Baby Don't Mean Maybe Now, a jaunty novelty number that was recorded by several artists but most notably by a very young Bing Crosby and The Paul Whiteman Orchestra blessed by the presence of Bix Beiderbecke. The same was true of Just Like A Melody Out of the Sky that was recorded by Cliff Edwards and actually lifted the popular song into a realm where it could be compared with the finest operatic music being created during the same period. A quick glance over his output reveals some of the most endurable numbers in the American Song Book -- viz. Love Me or Leave Me, My Blue Heaven, Yes Sir, That's My Baby, Carolina In The Morning, Making Whoopee, Little White Lies, You're Driving Me Crazy, etc. His most durable song may well have been My Buddy written in l922, inspired by the unexpected and heartbreaking death of his young fiancé and curiously adopted during World War II as a song about male camaraderie among the allied troops. A simple but mesmerizing waltz tune, which, sung by an evocative singer, can still subdue a noisy nightclub audience into a reverent silence.
After serving in World War I and writing what became one of its most poplar anthems, How Ya Gonna Keep 'Em Down On The Farm After They've Seen Paree, Donaldson assumed he would go on to his real calling as a broker on Wall Street, but the lure of Tin Pan Alley was irresistible. It all changed for the young veteran in l920 when the vaudevillian William Frawley (of "I Love Lucy" fame) introduced his song My Mammy. Al Jolson heard it and immediately appropriated it for himself and ultimately it wound up in the first talkie, The Jazz Singer. Donaldson hung up his bowler, stowed his tickertape and devoted the rest of his life to music. A few years later, he solidified his career by writing the highly popular score for Eddie Cantor's and Florenz Ziegfeld's production of "Whoopee," which was a gigantic hit in the late '20s. Donaldson worked again with Cantor contributing to the score of the film "Kid Millions." Like most composers who made it big on Broadway, Donaldson wound up in California where he married and segued into a life of nostalgic domesticity. In 1938, he earned an Academy Award nomination for the song Did I Remember from the Jean Harlowe-Cary Grant film "Suzy" and, confronted by the post-Depression world that swirled all around him, wondered whether his "era" had past. Little did he know that due to the caliber of his musical output, it would be revisited over and over again -- and frequently with rediscovered songs by Walter Donaldson.
Just as Tchaikovsky is lauded for being a supreme melodist, so does the best work of Donaldson transcend the routine structure of popular songs into something more ambitious and more ethereal. Donaldson takes risks, both harmonically and rhythmically, rising into areas where conventional composers never dare to tread. In You, for instance, that first elongated pronoun which seems to go on much longer than it should, suddenly breaks out into an up-tempo, frolicsome love song. Just as in Let Me Day-Dream, the singer seems to be overtaken by supernatural forces that he or she cannot resist. This is inexplicable music with a profound undertow that raises it from the predictability of ABBA into a sphere that brings to mind the intense lyricism of Schubert and Mahler.
In Noel Coward's "Private Lives," Amanda Prynne, on the hotel balcony with her former husband reacting to an insistent little tune being played by a distant orchestra, says, "Extraordinary how potent cheap music is." Of course this is something of a cover-up because it is the potency of that refrain that is reminding her of the good days from her previous marriage. But in fact, cheap music (read popular music) can be extremely potent, especially when it emanates from a memorable past and is associated with indelible events. The best of Donaldson's "cheap music" is rich and unforgettably potent -- as are many of the songs bundled together in the American song book.
Obviously, musical tastes differ and for some zealots Donaldson's airborne lyricism may be too wet and sentimental to be borne, but I have always found that unlike other composers from the same era, one can reprise a Donaldson song perpetually. It never gets stale or asks to be retired. To put it in Shakespearean terms, one might say as with Orsino in "Twelfth Night":
If music be the food of love, play on,
Give me excess of it that, surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken and so die.
That strain again!
A poetic way of saying that Donaldson's best is, in modern parlance, "to die for."
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