The Quarantine Blog XXVI: April 5, 2021

And now, at last, the Andrew Sisters.

I desperately wanted to fit in with my classmates in middle and high school. Realizing my musical preferences, opera and classical, were making me “different”, causing me to be mocked, I suppressed any reference to the music I loved and listened, studiously, as though I were conjugating French verbs, to pop music, which was largely, but not exclusively, the Andrews Sisters. Every Saturday, or was it Sunday, evening I would tune my radio to the program many of my schoolmates were listening to, the Billboard count down of the most popular songs in the country. This was not particularly painful but it was boring.

In the 1940’s and the 50’s the Andrew Sisters were the prime pop group with hit after hit. To quote a friend, admittedly a New Yorker, “They were awful–mushy, cheap, and certainly not eye candy.” Until he mentioned it I hadn’t thought about the “eye candy” angle. It’s quite true. They were a curly coiffed, rigidly hair-sprayed, homely group. What they sang while “mushy and cheap” was also bland, banal and vapid. But their primary interesting characteristic was intense cheeriness. All their songs are happy sort of jump about ditties, full of bounce. That cheeriness is, for me, one of the salient traits of the 1950’s and I suspect what causes people to have such nostalgia for that period. We had come out of the Second World War triumphant and all was right with the world. The music insists, all is well; everything is fine, fine, fine. We are all happy, happy, happy.

The truth of the 1950’s was quite different from that—desperate single mothers unable to find work, lynchings in the south, acute poverty both urban and rural all over the country. The personal truth of the lives of the Andrew Sisters also contradicted this artificial happiness.

From Minneapolis, Minnesota they started singing very young for fun becoming commercial singers after their father’s restaurant business collapsed. They supported their parents for the rest of their lives. They were famous for their close harmony singing and performed all varieties of music from boogie-woogie to Country to Calypso. (You can find everything I mention on YouTube.) However, if you listen to the music they, and, their arranger, Vic Schoen, had an odd leveling effect on these styles making them sound similar.

If you listen to “Rum and Coca Cola” and then Harry Belafonte’s “Banana Boat Song”, it becomes clear that although the beat has been retained it has been iron out so that it is not as pronounced. And, remember Belafonte was himself a popularizer. The “real” calypso was even more unique in style.

Of course, popular music, is just that, popular; to achieve mass appeal it can’t be heavily individual. What the Sisters did to “Rum and Coca Cola” was also done to classical music when it was adapted to popular song. I will only give two examples, “Full Moon and Empty Arms,” a Frank Sinatra hit, takes its melody from the third movement of Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto; “Never Gonna Fall in Love Again,” sung by Eric Carmen, comes from Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony, the third movement.

But the lyrics of “Rum and Coca Cola” are another problem. Here are some, not all, of the words the Sisters sang:

Rum and Coca-Cola

If you ever go down Trinidad
They make you feel so very glad
Calypso sing and make up rhyme
Guarantee you one real good fine time

Drinkin’ rum and Coca-Cola
Go down Point Koomahnah
Both mother and daughter
Workin’ for the Yankee dollar
Oh, beat it man, beat it

Since Yankee come to Trinidad
They got the young girls all goin’ mad
Young girls say they treat ’em nice
Make Trinidad like paradise

Drinkin’ rum and Coca-Cola
Go down Point Koomahnah
Both mother and daughter
Workin’ for the Yankee dollar
Oh, you vex me, you vex me

From Chicachicaree to Mona’s Isle
Native girls all dance and smile
Help soldier celebrate his leave
Make every day like New Year’s Eve

Drinkin’ rum and Coca-Cola
Go down Point Koomahnah
Both mother and daughter
Workin’ for the Yankee dollar.

The fact that this song was about women prostituting themselves to American soldiers went right by the 1950’s listeners as well as the Sisters. “We neverthought of the lyrics. The lyric was there; it was cute, but we didn’t think of what it meant….” Maxene said in an interview. She points out that content went right over people’s heads, both singers and listeners. They paid no attention.

That perhaps sums up the 1950’s for me. It was an era when people didn’t think. They were oblivious particularly to the effect they were having on other people, and their lives

The Sisters’ first hit is an even odder instance of not thinking. In 1937, a year after I was born, they recorded “Bei Mir Bistu Shein” a Yiddish song from a Yiddish musical comedy titled I WOULD IF I COULD. However, Jack Kapp of Decca Records didn’t want them to sing it in Yiddish but in American vernacular English. Somewhere along the way the title was translated into German, becoming “Bei Mir Bist Du Schön.” Not only did a Jewish song have its title translated into German but a Nazi pop band a few years later recorded it with “state-approved anti-Semitic and anti-Bolshevik” lyrics. It doesn’t appear to have occurred to anyone in the American recording industry that taking a Yiddish song and translating its title into German was a bad idea. Of course it was just the beginning of the war.

The song sold seven million records and was on the Billboard Charts in first place for seven weeks. The title was incomprehensible to most Americans and according to LIFE MAGAZINE people went into stores asking for “Buy a Beer Mr. Shane” or  “My Mere Bits of Shame. ¨ I have had experience with this problem of consumer approximation of a title, having worked in a Doubleday Bookstore when BONJOUR TRISTESSE hit the bestseller list. My favorite interpretation of the title was “Bangor Treaties.

Other hits of theirs which may be familiar are “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy”, “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree”, and “Beer Barrel Polka.” A thought in passing. It is an oddity of popular music, for which I have no explanation, that it is always played at the same volume. It never gets louder or softer. It is always at a constant volume.

Another characteristic of popular music is sentimentality. Out of this period I remember “The Tennessee Waltz” as a prime example of saccharine drench. But if you have never heard Spike Jones’ satire of it, you have missed a good thing, again YouTube. At the time I didn’t know about Spike.

However the monsters of celebrity and money slowly gobbled up the Sisters. When their parents died, one after the other in 1948 and’49, they started arguing over money, solos and billing. Finally they split up and became estranged from each other, there were suicide attempts, and they never really reunited, although each had a separately successful career. It is an American story of ego arrogance and greed destroying relationships.

Now I have to add a caveat emptor here. Paul Taylor made a thoroughly delightful series of ballets out of these songs, performed to a recording of the Andrew Sisters singing. It captures the naiveté of that time period with its utter lack of sensitivity to anyone outside of the mainstream. You can see these on YouTube.

There was other music around, folk, jazz, but I grew up in the narrow channel of classical and knew nothing of these other forms until I was in college. When I brought home a record of Ertha Kitt my family greeted it with firm disapproval. I didn’t get to Dexter Gordon until much later. But they were just as opposed to Dave Brubeck. I knew of Burl Ives but had not heard him and even The Weavers were totally unknown to me.

Obviously, in my family there was a hieratic snob value attached to music, which I had not been aware of and the same was true, in a different way, of my classmates’ musical choices. If you liked a certain kind of music you belonged. Surely, using music in this way, or any other art form, to place people up or down in the hierarchy or to decide they are “acceptable” is a sad and grievous twisting of what art is.

5 thoughts on “The Quarantine Blog XXVI: April 5, 2021

  1. There was a joke going around in the early ’50s about a jazz quartet that found itself on the same bill as a klezmer band. The two groups were trying to determine if they had any tunes in common they could play together. One of the klezmer musicians asked the jazz cats if they knew “Bi Mir Bistu Shein,” and he started to play it. The jazz guys brightened — “Oh yeah, we know that: The bear missed the train! The bear missed the train!”

    One more: my sainted mother once told me of the experience of her friend, who was a librarian at Brooklyn College. According to this gentleman, a student came in and asked for a book titled “Oranges and Peaches.” “Are you sure that’s the correct title?” mom’s friend inquired. The young man remained adamant that he was pronouncing it correctly. “What are you studying?” the librarian asked, to which the student replied, “biology.”
    Bingo! The book he asking for was “The Origin of Species.”

    By the way, re Spike Lee — I think you mean Spike Jones.

    Karen, be well and more than well.

    Mikhail

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  2. Wonderful writing. I want to share a take on the Andrew Sisters from another art form. I am sure it can be found on YouTube: It is a dance by Paul Taylor
    wherein he uses several of their songs to create a suite of dances about that period. For “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boys”, in the foreground are dancers in couples
    dancing away as if there is no tomorrow, and NO WAR. Yet in the background, in silhouette, are soldiers relentlessly crossing in a line in front of the scrim
    throughout the dance. A nonverbal expression of what you describe in your blog, Karen.

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  3. Hi Karen. Thanks for this great Blog and your myth-busting of the superficial music & lifestyle of the ‘50s, and the story of the Andrews Sisters. I didn’t know them but looked them up, and it was pretty much what you had said. I noticed a lot of patriotic military imagery in their performances as well. As you mentioned at the end, there were also some great songs to come out of that period too, most it seems by African-American singers. I’m also partial to “Only You” sung by The Platters, and their “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” though as you say these were geared to White followings, as were songs like Sam Cooke’s “You Send Me.” However it seems that Cooke was inspired (and somewhat irked) by Dylan, moving on to one of my favorite songs, “A Change Is Gonna Come,” Which was released posthumously after his suspicious murder in a motel in 1964… And long before, Billy Holiday sang “Strange Fruit” in 1939 in NYC, Which I see was written by a White Jewish teacher (?) from the Bronx. This was another very absorbing and informative blog! Matt
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bo23bJnlnzo Only You
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=57tK6aQS_H0 Smoke Gets in Your Eyes
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wHGAMjwr_j8 Strange Fruit
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fPr3yvkHYsE A Change Is Gonna Come

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