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.

Thursday Theme – Tomorrow is My Turn

The theme song for today’s class in ENGL 203-04 is “Tomorrow is My Turn.” Here it is performed by Rhiannon Giddens:

As performed by Giddens, it comes across as a declaration of agency that feels very much made for our present cultural moment:

Tomorrow is my turn
No more doubts no more fears
Tomorrow is my turn to receive without giving
To make life worth the living
For it’s my life I’m living
And my only concern, for tomorrow is my turn

(Read the complete lyrics on Genius.)

But the song was originally written in 1962 by Charles Aznavour and Yves Stéphane and was originally titled “L’amour c’est comme un jour.” The original lyrics (read them here in Italian and French) sound a very different theme from the English version (released in 1964 and performed by Honor Blackman, who, as it happens, played Pussy Galore in the James Bond film Goldfinger). Listen to Aznavour sing it here.

It was Nina Simone’s inclusion of the English version on her album I Put a Spell on You (1965) that gave it its present effect of boldly asserting a marginalized identity (perhaps more than one). Listen to her live performance here.

Both “L’amour c’est comme un jour” and “Tomorrow is My Turn” now have independent and continuing lives. Aznavour has performed the French version as a duet with Sting.

You can read more about the history of “Tomorrow is My Turn” in this story about Giddens from NPR.

A little respect

This story about the song “Respect” hits almost every theme we’ll discuss this semester in “Fluid Readers, Fluid Texts”: How and why does something come to be treated as a “text” in our culture? How do such factors as race, class, and gender enter into the equation? What’s “in” the text that doesn’t announce itself explicitly (and so must be discovered through “interpretation”)? How is the meaning of that text affected by its existence in multiple versions? By the identity of the “author” or the “reader”? How are both authors and readers shaped by culture? Where is the line between “identity” as an individual characteristic and a cultural artifact? And finally, what is “due” to each one of us by virtue of possessing an identity? What, in the end, is “respect,” and how do we show and get some?