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*In his autobiography, Dancing in the Dark, lyricist Howard Dietz narrates how he came to help write the lyrics for several of the songs from Oh, Kay! including "Clap Yo' Hands." Help was needed when Ira Gershwin had to undergo an emergency appendectomy that required a lengthy hospital stay. One of Dietz' contributions, he writes, was the
versefor "Clap Yo' Hands." Dietz, who had not yet partnered up with Arthur Schwartz nor achieved the fame he later would as part of the songwriting team of Schwartz and Dietz, was chosen to fill in by George over the more obvious possibilities of Oh, Kay!'s book-writers, P. G. Wodehouse (who was also an accomplished and acclaimed lyricist) and Guy Bolton, because Dietz was willing to do it without receiving credit, which George wanted to go solely to his brother. Dietz adds, I was very proud to work with the great Gershwin, and I would have done it for nothing, which I did" (Dancing in the Dark, p. 74 Hardcover Ed.).
"Clap Yo' Hands" was introduced in the first preview of Oh, Kay! in Philadelphia on October 18, 1926, by Harland Dixon as Larry, Betty Compton as Molly, Paulette Winston as Daisy, Constance Carpenter as May, Janette Gilmore as Peggy and ensemble. It served to introduce a dance number that had no obvious connection to the plot of the story. From Philadelphia the show continued its previews in Newark, NJ and then opened on Broadway at the Imperial Theater, Nov. 8. In all these venues British musical comedy star Gertrude Lawrence appeared in the title role. After 256 performances, Oh, Kay! traveled to London where it opened at His Majesty's Theatre on September 21, 1927 with a new cast except for Lawrence, who was welcomed home as the local girl who had swept Broadway off its feet. In both New York and London, Oh, Kay! was acclaimed by the critics, though more extravagantly in New York where several called it the best musical of the year.
The broad outline of the show reveals a farce with touches of satire aimed at Prohibition in the United States. Oh, Kay! had a bifurcated birthright, the
scorecoming from the American Gershwins, the
bookfrom the British writing team of P. G. Wodehouse and Guy Bolton. In fact, Wodehouse and Bolton worked on the show on their side of the pond, while the Gershwins, the shows producers Alex Aarons and Vinton Freedly, as well as director, choreographer, etc. worked on the new world side.
The story is set in the Long Island, New York Hamptons, already in the Twenties a summer playground for what we now call the one percent. An English duke has fallen on hard times and so turned to rum-running with his headquarters on a yacht anchored off the shore of a mansion owned by Jimmy, an American playboy, residing in the fictitious town of Beach Hampton, NY. Thus the tried and true formula of British aristocrats plus American millionaires plus lovely but confused young heroine and/or hero equal melodramatic hijinks. Along with Prohibition, the satire also focused, according to Gershwin biographer Howard Pollack, on "American self-righteousness," and included humor that was "unusually adult" for the typical romantic comedy of the time.
The heroine and title character of Oh, Kay! is the bootlegger-duke's sister, played by Gertrude Lawrence. who not surprisingly falls in love with the playboy millionaire, Jimmy Winter. The actions that drive the plot are the efforts made to save Jimmy from his unfortunate marital entanglements so he can become engaged to Kay and to save the duke and his associates from the law so millionaires and aristocrats all can live happily ever after. This was made acceptable because the aristocrat-bootleggers were all lovable, typified by Victor Moore (the comic actor who a decade later would play Fred Astaire's sidekick in the 1936 movie, Swing Time), so no one much minded that the criminals were not properly punished. As Philip Furia points out, Guy Bolton felt his and Wodehouse's book for the show, after much doctoring, had managed to "capture the rhythm of the era." And, we might add, as is so often the case with shows including songs that have taken their place in The Songbook, the stories now seem contrived and even silly, but a number of the songs, especially those that have becomestandards, are still as vital, relevant and appealing as they were then.
(All but two of the eighteen songs George Gershwin chose for inclusion in his Song-book from the hundreds he had already written by the late 1920s, have also been chosen for inclusion in the Cafe Songbook Catalog of The Great American Songbook, created c. 2008. (The two that weren't are on our short list.) This suggests Gershwin knew, with a great deal of accuracy, while, and/or not long after, he was writing them which of his songs were destined to last.
The republication of George Gershwin's Song-book
under the title The George and Ira Gershwin Songbook,
New York: Simon and Schuster,
(The republished volume includes the same content as the original)
In her Supplement to Isaac Goldberg's George Gershwin A Study in American Music, Edith Garson includes in the discography the notion that the eighteen songs of Gershwin's Song-book, which Garson calls "Transcriptions of Eighteen Songs" can be considered a single piece. She writes, "This is no doubt the least known of Gershwin's compositions" (meaning concert compositions) while in the next breath acknowledging that the composer did not consider these eighteen songs taken together to be a "work"; but adds, nevertheless, it is, "in a way a stylistic distillation along the lines of Bartók's Microcosmos." She then goes on to distinguish the one from the other: "Unlike the Bartók pieces, which are graded piano pieces proceeding from the simplest to most difficult, the Transcriptions are all exceedingly difficult to play." She lists one recording by pianist Leonid Hambro, number 200 on the Walden label.
Just how "Clap Yo' Hands" fit into Oh, Kay!'s dramatic structure is less than clear, perhaps because the song wasn't, at least obviously, tightly
integratedinto the show's story. A long-standing discussion about the evolution of American musical theater involves the degree to which (or the point at which) songs became
integrated into the plots of musical shows and designed to carry the action forward as opposed to being songs serving only as featured numbers in a revue, i.e. a series of unrelated skits or acts, most of which had a single song as a focal point but were otherwise unrelated to the show as a whole.
Gershwin biographer Edward Jablonski writes that in Oh, Kay! "songs are not integrated in the contemporary sense -- songs like 'Fidgety Feet,' 'Clap You Hands,' and 'Heaven and Earth' have nothing to do with the plot and would serve in any score as production numbers" (Jablonski, p. 132-133, hardcover Ed.). Almost fifty years after the show was on Broadway, P. G. Wodehouse, one of the writers of the
bookfor Oh, Kay!, appears to corroborate Jablonski's claim writing in a letter to his co-writer, Guy Bolton, that he recalls how Ira Gershwin simply gave Bolton the lyrics for "Clap Yo' Hands," having written the song's words, according to Wodehouse, with no intention of fitting the lyric to the story; in fact, he expected Bolton to "fit the book to them." (Pollack, p. 384).
In Ira's memoir, Lyrics on Several Occasions, he quotes George as marking the music "Spirited but Sustained" and that in the show the song was "exclaimed and stomped by Harlan Dixon and ensemble in a Long Island drawing room," but he makes no comment on how or whether "Clap Yo' Hands" bore any relationship to the plot, with the possible exception of it being used to reflect the positive state of mind of one of the characters at a given moment. In other words he was suggesting the song's purpose was to speed up the show's pace by means of a big, spirited rhythm number, not affecting the story or characters in any significant way -- and he (Ira) understood this and wrote the lyric to fit that bill.
In his book George Gershwin, an Intimate Portrait, Walter Rimler backs up, in a way, the idea that Ira wrote the lyric for "Clap Yo' Hands" with the expectation that the book would be fitted to his lyric and not the other way around. Rimler, referring to Gershwin shows scored before the end of 1926, suggests that the main reason that the Gershwin's did not tailor their songs to fit the plots of these shows was because the plots were too weak and silly. He notes "If Gershwin were going to fulfill his potential as a stage composer, he would need better scripts" and that Ira "would usually write independently of the plots and then wedge their songs into creaky story lines, usually about flaky socialites or lovable bootleggers," certainly the case in Oh, Kay!. Rimler postulates that the Gershwin's potential to write great songs was stymied by the frivolous nature of the shows that were being produced, stating that of the nearly 250 songs George wrote music for by the end of 1926, only a handful were gems" -- of which he counts "Clap Yo' Hands" as one.
On the other hand, the whole idea of the Gershwin's writing songs, even at the beginning of their careers, without regard for the context within which they would be performed is challenged by both Deena Rosenberg and Michael Feinstein both of whom have written that George and Ira almost never wrote a song "without a theatrical context in mind."
Rosenberg makes a case for "Clap Yo' Hands" not only having been written with the dramatic context of the show in mind but being integrated into that context with a great deal of subtlety and sophistication. It's a matter for Rosenberg of Oh, Kay! having a dramatic structure in which "quiet moments alternate with euphoric ones as the mood shifts back and forth between longing and certainty." The two songs that best represent these two poles of emotion are "Maybe" and the song that follows it in the score, "Clap Yo' Hands," a song Rosenberg calls "an exuberant foil to the pensiveness of the other." She elaborates on this contrast by pointing out that although both songs begin with "a similar melodic motif," they "move at different tempos" much like another pair of Gershwin songs written for their 1924 score for Lady, Be Good!, "The Man I Love" and "Fascinating Rhythm." She then speculates that the Gershwins might have been implying that the "effect of love can be public and kinetic as well as private and quiet" (Rosenberg, p. 141). If it is true that the Gershwins were consciously pursuing a dramatic rhythm for the show by writing this pair of songs, then it follows that they had indeed written "Clap Yo' Hands," both words and music, with, if not a dramatic context in mind at least a thematic one -- even if the words themselves do not seem to apply to specific actions of the characters. This could be exculpatory with regard to Wodehouse's accusation that Ira seemed to want Bolton to make the story fit his lyric, because it already did, just not in the conventional sense of specifically referencing elements of the plot. It is also quite ironic because as Philip Furia points out, "While none of the songs [in Oh, Kay!] are closely integrated into a particular dramatic scene, Ira did manage to achieve a more general level of integration between songs and story by weaving through his lyrics the thematic motif of time so central to the book. . . " (Furia, p. 57, hardcover Ed.) So in this thematic sense Ira did fit his lyric to the book by perceiving the theme of time residing in Bolton and Wodehouse's own story and weaving it into his [Ira's] lyrics, no place more directly than in Clap Yo' Hands":
Clap-a yo' hand! Slap-a yo' thigh!
Don't you lose time! Don't you lose time!
Come along--it's Shake Yo' shoes Time
Now for you and me!
On the sands of time
You are only a pebble;
Remember, trouble must be treated
Just like a rebel;
Send him to the Debble!
Deena Rosenberg believes that with "Clap Yo' Hands," "the meaning of time began to figure prominently in the Gershwins' work (Rosenberg, Fascinating Rhythm, p. 141).
This idea of a non-specific integration of book and song was in fact noted as early as The New York Times review of Oh, Kay! by theater critic Brooks Atkinson when he writes, "Mr. Gershwin's score . . . [is] woven closely into the fun of the comedy. Sometimes its purely rhythmic as in 'Clap Yo' Hands' and ' Fidgety Feet'; sometimes it is capricious as in 'Do-Do-Do'" (See Jablonski, hardcover Ed. p. 130).
George termed Clap Yo' Hands" "a modern dance spiritual," but did not, as far as we know, comment on its integration or lack thereof into the plot or other aspects of Oh, Kay! Ira, however, in his memoir Lyrics on Several Occasions, writes that usually he has a preference for concluding a lyric with a "verbal twist" or minor "surprise ending" but in "Clap Yo' Hands" he merely repeats the opening group of three lines. He explains that he did this because "Clap Yo' Hands" is a "stage tune" the purpose of which is to introduce a dance, and he didn't want to "impede" any "exhortatory momentum" the song might create before the dance by distracting the audience with verbal cleverness. (See pp. 213-215, paperback Ed.) Although his comment does not completely exclude the possibility that he had another purpose for the song in mind; that is, using it to augment certain themes some critics have suggested are at work in the show and thereby revealing how the song is integrated into the show as a whole, the comment seems to reduce the likelihood of the lyricist having this in mind, at least consciously.
That the immediate and perhaps only purpose of "Clap Yo; Hands" is to introduce a dance is reinforced by spot Ira places "Clap Yo Hands" in his memoir. He includes the lyric for and his comments on the song in a chapter titled "A Gathering of Guidance," which also includes "Lose that Long Face," One Life to Live," "Slap that Bass," and "Strike up the Band," all song titles that reflect a straight forward, practical intention more than a subtle hint at a relatively hidden theme.
"Ah, the power of the pentatonic [five note] scale. The sequence of notes--the easiest example for nonmusicians to find is the series of black notes on the piano--is arguably the most appealing and certainly the most universal melodic motif in human history" (Ted Gioia, The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire, p. 382).
Wilfred Sheed in his book The House That George Built comments that it wasn't the case, as some critics pejoratively suggested, that Gershwin's concert pieces were not much more than an off-shoot of hisTin Pan Alley/Broadway style songs; rather, and more tellingly, his concert music was an important influence on his songs (pp. 58-59, hardcover Ed.).
Howard Pollack states that Gershwin himself confirms this notion when he quotes the composer: "In my songs and in my pieces for symphony orchestra I've naturally made plentiful use of the five note scale. Off-hand, you'll find an obvious example in the refrain of 'Clap Yo' Hands', from Oh, Kay!  and in one of the early themes of my Concerto in F." After quoting Gershwin, Pollack elaborates on the point by writing that the song resembles the Concerto by exhibiting "metrical dislocations of a sort found in the Concerto, and that the score for Oh, Kay! reveals a harmonic sophistication related to the concerto, suggesting further that Gershwin's concert pieces not only drew on but helped nourish his work in the theater" (p. 350). (For more on this topic, visit the Cafe Songbook page for The Man I Love.)
As mentioned above, George Gershwin saw his song as a "modern dance spiritual." Astutely, Pollack sites "Clap Yo' Hands" as playing a role in developing the relationship between African American spirituals and American musical theater, noting that of "the Big Four get-happy religious numbers from Broadway musicals" ("Clap Yo' Hands" -- 1926, Vincent Youmans' "Hallelujah" -- 1927, Harold Arlen's "Get Happy" -- 1930, and Cole Porter's "Blow, Gabriel, Blow" -- 1934), "Clap Yo' Hands" is the earliest and, furthermore, it might not be a coincidence that Gershwin first read Dubose Heyward's novel Porgy, and perhaps even got the idea for making it into an opera ( Porgy and Bess), during the rehearsals for Oh, Kay!(Pollack, pp. 383-384, hardcover Ed.)
More than one commentator on "Clap Yo' Hands" has observed that the song uses the pentatonic scale (a five note scale) as opposed to the more common diatonic scale. Alec Wilder writes that "Clap Yo' Hands," "a strong, direct and markedly rhythmic song" does not interest him except for it being Gershwin's first use of this scale. (It is, however, of interest to Gershwin himself. See his comments, just above.)
Wilder also notes, writing c. 1972, that the song's lyric with its African American colloquial speech is "out of bounds" in contemporary life. Ira Gershwin, in his 1959 Lyrics on Several Occasions, shows no awareness of this problem. He notes that the title never appears in the song in exactly the same form it does as the title itself. He writes that for the purpose of how the title would look on the sheet music, he changed the "Clap-a yo' hand" that appears repeatedly in the body of the song to "Clap Yo' Hands" for the title. He adds that some thirty-three years after he created the lyric and title he no longer thinks too much of the change he made or the reason he had for making it (See Wilder, p. 136, hardcover Ed.).
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Notes: Recorded on Nov. 4, 1926 in New York City, the same year as the show, Oh, Kay!, for which "Clap Yo' Hands" was written, opened on Broadway. Kahns recording reached number 9 on the charts in February, 1927. Personnel for this instrumental version on Victor includes distinguished players such as Miff Mole (trombone), Joe Venuti (violin), and Eddie Lang (guitar). Roger Wolfe Kahn, a popular 1920s dance band leader playing the jazz of the day was the son of George Gershwin's friend, financier and supporter of the arts, Otto Kahn as well as of his son. Kahn the father had been a backer of the 1924 Gershwin show Lady, Be Good! The track appears on various albums including those shown above. (Please complete or pause one
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Notes: The track on the music-video above may be from the piano roll edition of Gershwin playing his own songs. The track for "Clap Yo' Hands" on the album cited above and linked to through Amazon was recorded at the Columbia Studios in London on November 12, 1926. This is a two CD set consisting of recordings of George Gershwin on piano made during the 1920's and 1930s. These recordings are not from piano rolls but are Gershwin himself at the piano; and, according to the liner notes, document "Gershwin's commercial recording career including all his commercial solo piano and piano with orchestra recordings." Included are songs made at Columbia studios in London during 1926, some with Gershwin accompanying Fred and Adele Astaire; concert pieces including Rhapsody in Blue with Paul Whiteman and his orchestra in the New York City Victor studios June 10, 1924, four months after the famous premier performance in Aeolian Hall, New York; the finale of Corncerto in F (the only recording of him playing any of this work) and An American in Paris with Nat Shilkret; selections from Porgy and Bess with Gershwin accompanying Lawrence Tibbett and Helen Jepson; and various recordings from radio shows.
The arrangements for the songs are by Gershwin himself and very similar to if not the same as the one published in George Gershwin's Songbook in 1932, in which were included the arrangements by him of eighteen of his songs based on his playing of them at countless parties and other events. These arrangements are difficult to play, Gershwin himself explains, because they include variations that composers inevitably create for songs of their own that they play repeatedly, in his words, "to indulge the desire for complication and variety that every composer feels when he manipulates the same material over and over again." He emphasizes their difficulty by adding they are , "not for little girls with little hands" (quoted from George Gershwin: A Study in American Music, Isaac Goldberg supplemented by Edith Garson., p. 311 paperback Ed. -- Goldberg's book is the first critical biography of Gershwin, written while the composer was still alive. Goldberg was a close friend of the Gershwins).
The above referenced George Gershwin's Songbook was originally published in a limited edition in 1932 and republished in 1960 by Simon and Schuster under the title, The George and Ira Gershwin Songbook.
Notes: Smith's Victor recording reached number 15 on the charts in March, 1927. He was born in The Bronx, New York, May 31, 1898 and died in New York City, May 13, 1950. One account explains the "Whispering" part of his name as a description of his baritone voice having a particularly soft sounding quality due to a gas attack he suffered during service in WWI. Smith sings the
verseon this version of "Clap Yo' Hands." Music-Video: same track as on albums referenced above (Please complete or pause one
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Notes: The CD available from Amazon and the digital album from iTunes may offer a somewhat different selection of songs, but both contain the same version of "Clap Yo' Hands." (Please complete or pause one
video before starting another.)
Notes: Although "Clap Yo' Hands" was written for the 1926 Broadway show Oh, Kay! starring Gertrude Lawrence, it was
interpolatedinto the 1957 movie "Funny Face" (originally a Gershwin scored Broadway musical from 1927 starring Fred and Adele Astaire). The film stars Fred, Audrey Hepburn and Kay Thompson, Fred and Kay being featured in the video of the performance on the video of "Clap Yo' Hands" below. Amazon reviewer Funny Face: 'S Paradise offers the following assessment:
"If each of our three stars has a signature performance on the album, "Clap Yo' Hands" is unequivocally Kay Thompson's. A spicy mixture of swing, jazz, and blues, peppered occasionally with scat vocals for good measure, the track is perhaps the most uncharacteristic and unexpected. It fits into the story [even though it is not from the original score of the show Funny Face -- Ed.] through Dick [Fred Astaire] and Maggie [Kay Thompson] posing as the flamboyant, country-fried pair from "Talluh-hassee" in order to gain admittance to the empathicalist gathering. In the middle of the song comes one of my favorite moments in the film: after the brash "ringa dem bells" section, the music comes to an immediate halt. What directly follows is a light, lilting melody accompanied by a hilarious synchronized jig by the actors: "Why, we's the two most friendly vibrations you ever seen." Thompson proves herself to be a force to be reckoned with vocally, demonstrated by the surprisingly high note she hits at the end. Another track sure to make the surliest of surlies crack a smile."
The rack on album above is a studio version of the filmed performance and includes the original verse and refrain of the lyric but adds the "ringa dem bells" prologue and epilogue as well as the 'jig'/soft-shoe referred to above. We recommend enlarging the video to full screen for best effect.
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1957 The Barbara Carroll Trio
Plus "Funny Face"
And Other Gershwin Tunes
Notes: "This CD presents the two albums The Barbara Carroll Trio recorded for the Verve label in 1957 [the year the movie Funny Face was released]. On the first, "Barbara," she confines herself to piano on a selection of familiar standards, with a strong leaning towards slow ballads. Relaxed and refreshingly at ease, she leisurely explores the tonal colours suggested by the material in a reflective approach to trio playing. On the up-tempo tunes, Mine and Acquaintance, the bassist Joe Shulman's strength and intelligence is evident, while drummer Bill Faite's brushwork is a model of good taste. The second album presents six songs from 'Funny Face,' along with six from several Gershwin shows. This set contains a pair of nicely off-hand vocals, 'Who Cares?,' and a lightly swinging version of ''S Wonderful' that she sings much in the sophisticated style of Bobby Troup. With Joe Shulman on bass, and Joe Petti on drums, the trio s approach displays a blend of imagination, taste, touch, and swing. And though Barbara Carroll was by no means an innovator or trailblazer, she was a talented performer with a distinctive musical personality that enabled her to do justice to her repertoire and communicate musically with the listeners attractive and hardly minor gifts at any level of music." from Amazon Editorial Review. We might add she was also, by the evidence of her rendition of "Clap Yo' Hands" hip when she recorded the song in 1957, the age of "hip" and still is in post "hip" 2015. (Please complete or pause one
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Notes: Chris Connor includes the verse on her recording made March 26, 1957, with Jimmy Cleveland, Jim Thompson, and Warren Covington (trombones) Eddie Wasserman (tenor sax and bass clarinet), Hank Jones (piano), Barry Galbraith (guitar) Wendell Marshall (bass) and Ed Shaughnessy (drums). (Please complete or pause one
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Notes: "McGovern is, in turn, sweet, sultry, warm, cool, sophisticated and funny. She simply possesses one of the finest voices I've ever heard and in this album, especially, she not only understands the lyrics but makes them her own. This live concert is accompanied by a 1st class 5-man-band and the audience's pleasure is obvious." (from Amazon customer reviewer, Movie Maven.) Video: An abbreviated version of the track from the album.
Notes: Flute Quartet: Shawn Wyckoff, flute; Maria Millar, violin; Entela Barci, viola; Adrian Daurov, cello. Filmed on July 7, 2008 at Julliard's Paul Hall in New York City. Arranged by Stanley Silverman. (Please complete or pause one
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