Friday, July 13, 2007

Parish Politics

The topic for discussion today is the lyrics of Mitchell Parish.

You may not be familiar with the late Mitchell Parish (or Michael Hyman Pashelinsky to give him his real name) but you will probably be familiar with many of his lyrics. Sweet Lorraine, Stars Fell on Alabama, and Volare are all part of his catalogue based on a career which stretched from 1919, when he was hired as a staff writer for a Tin Pan Alley music publisher, right up to his death, aged 93, in 1993. Perhaps his most famous lyrics were the ones for the Hoagy Carmichael song Stardust, a song which has frequently featured in lists of the best popular songs ever written. He also wrote the words to one of my favourite songs of all time, the Duke Ellington composition, Sophisticated Lady.

As with most Ellington tunes, Sophisticated Lady was written as an instrumental and only later, once it had become a popular part of the Ellington repertoire, was a lyricist commissioned to provide words. As, by then, the tune had a firmly established title, this presented a challenge to the lyricist : he or she was already working within confines set in what was the chance naming of a tune.

In the case of Sophisticated Lady, it is said that Ellington named the tune after three of his High School teachers who taught all winter and then toured Europe during the summer months. To the young Ellington, this represented the height of sophistication - hence the title. Ellington wrote the tune in 1932 and it became so popular that in the following year, the Dukes' manager, Irving Mills, commissioned the lyricist Mitchell Parish to add words. As frequently was the case, Mills - who as well as being Ellington's manager was one of the most successful music publishers in the States in the 1920s and 30s - also got his name of the credits for the song although it is difficult to identify his specific contribution.

When Ellington eventually saw the words Parish had produced for his song, he said it was not quite what he had in mind when he first wrote the tune. Nevertheless, he was well satisfied and described the lyrics as "wonderful". If you are not familiar with them, let me remind you of the lyrics:

"They say into your early life romance came
and in this heart of yours burned a flame
a flame that flickered one day and died away.
Then, with dissolution deep in your eyes,
you learned that fools in love soon grow wise
the years have changed you, somehow
I see you now

Smoking, drinking,
never thinking of tomorrow,
nonchalant
diamonds shining,
dancing, dining
with some man in a restaurant.
is that all you really want?

No, sophisticated lady,
I know,
you miss the love you lost long ago
and when nobody is nigh you cry"

Now, I think those are some of the finest lyrics you are ever going to come across and match the mood of the music well (even though, Parish's sophisticated lady was not quite the sort Ellington had in mind). However, the lyrics have come in for considerable criticism over the years. The critic and songwriter Alec Wilder described them as "excruciating", claiming that the chorus is "scarcely lyrical". In his book, "The Poets of Tin Pan Alley", Professor Philip Furia cites "Sophisticated Lady" as an unfortunate example of a "superb song" being saddled with "sentimentally didactic lyrics" which "work against Ellington's elegantly sensuous music".

Personally, I think they are very wrong. But you will need to sit back and listed to Sophisticated Lady yourself and make your own mind up.

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