Tuesday theme – Sit Right Down

To balance the high-tech communication tools we’ll be discussing, the theme song for ENGL 203-04 today evokes an older, slower medium of expression. “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter” was written in 1935 by Joe Young (lyrics) and Fred Ahlert (music) and was made popular by the great jazz pianist Fats Waller.

Of course, since the singer (let’s call him “Waller” for now) is describing a letter he’ll be writing to himself, he won’t have to watch the mail to learn what’s in it: so maybe this isn’t such a slow-paced communication after all.

This theme song also looks forward to the discussion we’ll have on Thursday about Graff and Birkenstein’s They Say/I Say. The book’s premise is that academic writing typically takes the form of conversation, even if the conversation is one between the writer and an imaginary interlocutor. Waller’s letter will be from himself to himself – but he’ll be imagining it’s from his lover.

I’m gonna sit right down and write myself a letter
And make believe it came from you

The song’s wit lies partly in the way it becomes a song about writing, and indeed about the singer’s own power as a writer.

I’m gonna write words oh so sweet
They’re gonna knock me off my feet

This amusing prediction of self-astonishment (which is also, perhaps, an expression of authorial self-satisfaction) has tripped up some performers. Listen to Ella Fitzgerald get the pronouns wrong in this version, telling the listener, “I’m gonna write words oh so sweet,/ They’re gonna knock you off your feet.

She also substitutes “you” for “I” twice in what should be “A lot of kisses on the bottom, I’ll be glad I got ’em.”

Sarah Vaughan, too, sings “knock you off your feet,” but then recovers for the “kisses” line.

Both Fitzgerald and Vaughan are more interested in the music of this song than the lyrics, of course; and we might usefully think of them as entering into conversation with Ahlert (and Waller as the song’s canonical performer) through the way they play with the melody. At the same time, their slips are an indication that there’s a bit of psychological complexity to the singer’s situation.

Is this a jaunty, playful song or a sad one? Why must the singer pretend to write a letter in the lover’s voice anyway? Evidently the lover has failed to write. Why? The singer doesn’t appear too hopeful about their relationship, or it wouldn’t be necessary to “smile and say [taking on the lover’s identity], ‘I hope you’re feeling better.’” And, come to think of it, whose smile is it – that of the lover (in the singer’s imagination) or of the singer? If the singer’s, it could be a smile of pleasure (at the singer’s own cleverness), but it could also be a smile of resignation (in accepting the reality that the lover isn’t smiling … or writing).

The air of loneliness that hangs about this song of one-way communication imagined as two-way communication is reinforced, in Waller’s version, by the urgency with which he repeats the phrase “make believe” three times at the song’s conclusion, as if trying to persuade himself that he can be persuaded – if only he tries hard enough – that the letter is from the uncommunicative lover:

I’m gonna sit right down and write myself a letter,
And make believe – make believe – make believe it came from you.

And for whom are these urgent words intended? For whom is the song itself a kind of love letter? Why, the very same lover who hasn’t written and, for that very reason, probably isn’t listening – assuming the song even reaches them. Perhaps, after all, the song, like the imaginary letter it describes, is merely from the singer to the singer: a perfect and self-contained act of make-believe.

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