Vanity Fair, December 1919
The Nation’s Songs
Revealing, for the First Time, the Identity of Their Author
By P. G. WODEHOUSE
YOU have never heard of Andrew Fletcher, of Saltoun. (If you have, kindly pretend you haven’t, or I shall have to begin this article some other way.)
And who was Andrew?
I’ll tell you. He was born in 1653 and died in 1716, and he is one of those pathetic people who get only one quotation into Bartlett’s famous book.
Along about 1690 Andrew was rather up against it. Among his contemporaries were Thomas Otway, Mathew Henry, Henry Carey, Matthew Prior, and Dean Swift; and every day he heard these fellows getting off one wise crack after another, all of which he could see were destined to land in Bartlett, while he was still jockeying for a start.
So he shut himself up in his study, ordered a few quarts of black coffee (the real thing—none of that There’s-A-Reason stuff), and tied a wet towel ’round his head: and after awhile he evolved this:—“I knew a very wise man that believed that if a man were permitted to make all the ballads, he need not care who should make the laws of a nation”.
True, somebody later on—Gladstone, I think—did him out of a lot of the credit by putting the thing much better and more crisply: but anyway that is what Andrew said, and it brings me neatly to the subject of my article. As foreshadowed by the title, it deals with The Nation’s Songs.
Who Writes America’s Songs?
THE man who is permitted to write the songs of America employs a great number of aliases, doubtless from motives of prudence. To the vapid and unreflective public it probably seems that Isadore Levinsky, the author of My Mother was a colleen and my father’s name was Pat is a different person from Nathan Edelstein, who pleads guilty to My dusky Dixie Maid: but anyone with any ability at all in the way of marshalling internal evidence can see that it is one man writing under different names. And all the other names which we see on the title-pages of the new songs are merely further pseudonyms of this single individual.
The proof is simple.
We will admit, for purposes of argument, that there might be two men who considered “land” a musical rhyme for “Uncle Sam”, and really believed that, if they ended one line with “childhood”, all they had got to do was to shove “wildwood” at the end of the next: but two is the outside number, and these rhymes—and others of the same kind—occur in every popular American song.
Then again, we have the significant matter of construction. The verse of each these songs ends with the word “said” or “cried” or the phrase “she to him did say”, as a handy means of bringing in the refrain. Thirdly, and lastly, we have the similarity of ideas, unavoidable by a man with such an enormous output.
Yes, one man makes all the ballads. Let us try to construct him as a personality from what we can glean from his printed works. The ignorant public—who, as Sherlock Holmes bitingly says, could hardly tell a compositor by his thumb, or a weaver by his tooth, and who have to think twice before deciding whether a man they meet on the street is a retired corporal of marines with a mole on his left shoulder and a sister living in Canarsie, or a vers libre poet with a golf handicap of forty-seven—will doubtless be baffled.
Not so the present writer.
What Is He Like?
THIS human song-bird has the following well-marked traits of character. He loves his mother but dislikes prohibition: he is a cheery soul, with a smile for everyone he meets: he wants to live in Dixie: he hates to get up in he morning: he admires the shimmy—and those who practise it: and he would prefer Ireland to be free.
Who can he be? It sounds rather like Senator LaFollette.
Yet, would Senator LaFollette have written so much about the War? Probably not. Our hero was particularly strong on the War, while it lasted, and, if there is one criticism that might be made of him, it is that he perhaps failed a little to appreciate the magnitude and seriousness of the thing. His idea of a song breathing the spirit of the great holocaust was something on the lines of When the Kaiser Does a Shimmy from Berlin or Play Up That Croony Shell-Shock Melodee. One feels that Homer would have done better with the subject.
But that, no doubt, was the way the thing struck our author, and, presumably, he did his best. At any rate, say what you will of him, he writes better than his father, the man who used to write the popular songs of England in the days when we were young. Here is the refrain of what Father always considered his best lyric, and its popularity shows that the public endorsed his view. This is how it runs. You start at the top and read straight down:—
Father was one of those slow, careful workers who chisel and polish every line of a lyric before letting it out of their hands. He wrote the last line first and worked up to it. He always used a blunt pen, and could not write unless there were roses in the flower-bowl on his desk. His favorite author was Keats, to whom, he frankly admitted, he owed much.
The Four Main Branches
OUR hero’s output is divided into four main branches—Songs about Smiles; Songs about China, India, Egypt, and other foreign localities; Songs about Mother; and Songs about the Shimmy. As a rule he keeps them separate, but, when pushed, is capable of writing about Mother Smiling as she does the Shimmy; or toying with the problem of whether Cleopatra would have done the Shimmy on the banks of the Nile if she had had a Mother. What used to be his stand-by, the Moon, he has unaccountably neglected of late, though a firm of publishers are now announcing a song entitled Moonlight on The Nile, which seems to suggest that the kid is about to come back in great shape.
The curious thing about him is that he seems to have inherited nothing of his father’s penchant for the straight patriotic song. If there was one thing that Father, despite the inherent modesty of a great artist, always claimed that he could do as well as the next man, it was the patriotic song. I don’t mean things like Oh, boy! the dough-boy is going to can the Kaiser!, but lyrics that strike a deeper note. Deep note is right, because they were nearly always sung by basses. In the old days, when you went to an English music-hall, you could be certain of being confronted, at about ten o’clock, by a stout man in baggy evening-dress with a diamond solitaire in his shirt-front, who walked on the stage in a resolute way and stood glaring at you with one hand in the arm-hole of his waistcoat.
You knew he wasn’t a juggler or a conjurer, because he had no props and no female assistant in pink tights. And you knew he wasn’t a dramatic twenty-minute sketch, because he would have had a gang along with him. And presently your worst fears were confirmed, when he began to sing one of Father’s patriotic songs. Specimen refrain:—
For England’s England still!
It is and always will!
Though foreign foes may brag,
We love our dear old flag,
And old England is En-ger-land still!
Son doesn’t seem to go in for this sort of thing at all. It is hard to say why. Probably it’s a gift, and we all have our limitations. If our hero has tried the patriotic song and failed, he has no reason to be ashamed of himself. A writer as versatile as he can well afford to fall down on one branch of his many-sided industry. No poet, however gifted, has ever had a really full hand. Shakespeare never wrote a single lyric which a jazz-and-hokum comedy team could put across. Browning couldn’t turn out a solitary Mother song—at any rate he didn’t.
And, as for Edgar Lee Masters, he found, after repeated efforts, that he could not even rhyme ‘line’ with ‘sublime’, so he had to give it up in despair and do stuff that doesn’t rhyme at all.