Search Tips: 1) Click "Find on This Page" button to activate page search box. 2) When searching for a name (e.g. a songwriter), enter last name only. 3) When searching for a song title on the catalog page, omit an initial "The" or "A". 4) more search tips.
Robert Kimball and Alfred Simon, Eds.
New York: Atheneum,
sheet music cover for
as sung in Sinbad,
Winter Garden Theater
New York, 1919
The first time Gershwin songs were performed by a classical singer in concert was on the occasion of Eva Gauthier's recital of "Ancient and Modern Music for Voice" at Aeolian Hall, in New York City, November 21, 1923. The idea for doing this virtually unheard of combination of song styles in concert was proposed to Gauthier by Carl Van Vechten (American, writer, music critic, and photographer) when she asked him for suggestions for her upcoming recital. When Van Vechten mentioned American songs her response was tepid, but when he "particularized" by making a reference to the songs as "Jazz," her interest picked up; and when Maurice Ravel saw her in Paris and made a similar proposal, she accepted the concept. On asking Van Vecten who might accompany her for the American songs portion of her program, he suggested Gershwin. (See Van Vechten's introduction to The Gershwin Years.) So along with Gershwin's songs ("Swanee," "Stairway to the Stars" and "Innocent Ingenue Baby") receiving their debut on a classical stage, so did Gershwin himself. Other "jazz"* songs performed were by Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern and Walter Donaldson. *"jazz" is broadly defined here as the term was used by pre-jazz critics of the day.
Gauthier followed Bartók and Hindemith songs with Irving Berlin's "Alexander's Ragtime Band," which opened her American set and into which Gershwin, in his accompaniment, inserted a couple of bars from Shéhérazade to show his musically serious-minded audience how he was hip to their world. "Swanee," which closed the American section of the recital, however, was the show-stopper.
Reviewers were generally unfriendly to the mixing of the "classical" and "jazz" elements. Deems Taylor of the New York World was the exception, writing "the audience was as much fun to watch as the songs were to hear, for it began by being slightly patronizing and ended by surrendering completely to the alluring rhythms of our own folk music."
Gauthier's recital was the precursor to another concert in Aeolian Hall the following year, an event that changed America's attitude toward jazz forever because it included the debut of Rhapsody in Blue, with Gershwin again at the piano.
Eva Gauthier playbill for "Recital of Ancient and
Modern Music for Voice
Nov. 1, 1923,
New York City
Richard Rodgers wrote the music for "My Heart Stood Still" in a single afternoon and Bali Ha'i "while his other dinner guests were finishing their coffee." Stephen Sondheim composed "Send in the Clowns" overnight (Hyland, The Song Is Ended, p. 82). Irving Caesar was well known for writing his lyrics quickly as well as telling anybody who would listen how quickly he wrote them. He told Max Wilk, " I can write very fast when it hits me. Sometimes lousy, sure, but always fast. What the hell, Gershwin and I wrote 'Swanee' in about eleven minutes flat!" (Wilk, p. xxvi). Gershwin, on the other hand, recalled that it took them about an hour.
Caesar told Ian Whitcomb that it took slightly longer. In Whitcomb's interview with the lyricist, Caesar remembers that in 1919, when Gershwin was about nineteen and he was twenty-one, there was a big hit titled "Hindustan" by Oliver Wallace and Harold Weeks, which was a one-step dance number with a flavor of the far east that was a "raging" hit. So while the two of them were having dinner at Dinty Moore's, a favorite hangout in the NYC Theater District, Caesar suggested to Gershwin that the two of them should write "An American one-step." After dinner, they set out by bus for the Gershwin apartment at 144th street and Riverside Drive in Washington Heights, and on the ride discussed Caesar's idea. According to Gershwin biographer Edward Jablonski, they decided that instead of India, the lyric would be set in the still exotic but closer-to-home American South, and "by the time they arrived . . . they had the song blocked out lyrically, with some concept of the tune" (Jablonski, p. 30, hard cover Ed.) Once at the apartment, Gershwin sat down at the piano and played some of those modern chords he always had at the ready. "You see," Caesar relates, "George wrote with chords. His chordation was so interesting, so modern and remarkable, and out of his chordation came the melodies" (Kimball and Simon, p. 23). While writing "Swanee," with George developing the melody at the piano, virtually simultaneously, Caesar elaborated on the lyrical idea set forth on the bus, keeping this up until the song was complete. In this telling, Caesar claims, it was finished after fifteen minutes -- leaving out, perhaps, the time spent writing while on New York City public transportation.
At the same time Gershwin and Cease were writing "Swanee" on one side of a room divider in the Gershwin apartment, George's father was playing poker with his cronies on the other side -- some of whom were complaining about the racket George and Irving were making. But the song, once finished, won the card players over to the extent that Morris Gershwin, "playing a tissue wrapped comb," joined his son and Caesar in what was perhaps the unofficial debut of "Swanee."
Ironically, Caesar points out to Whitcomb, neither he nor George had ever been South, but so many popular songs evoked aspects of the mythic (or perhaps more precisely mythological) South that they found it hard to resist jumping on the bandwagon. He further notes that not even Stephen Foster who wrote what Caesar called "the real 'Swanee'," (meaning "Old Folks at Home" ("way down upon the Swanee River. . . ." etc.) had ever been South. In fact some time after their song became famous, Caesar and Gershwin were taking the train to Florida and as they crossed the Georgia-Florida state line the Pullman conductor, who knew who they were, said, "Hey boys, there's that river you wrote about." As Caesar tells it to Whitcomb, they looked out the window at this rather unimpressive stream and agreed it was better that they had written the song first. (Watch and listen to the full Whitcomb 1972 interview with Caesar on the Cafe Songbook page for Irving Caesar. During the interview, Caesar sings the entire Caesar-Gerwhwin "Swanee" a cappella.)
"Swanee" received its official introduction in the Broadway revue "Demi-Tasse" (also known as The Capitol Review), a show mounted by Ned Wayburn. He had heard and liked the song when Gershwin played it at a rehearsal for one of the Ziegfeld Midnight Frolics" on the roof of the New Amsterdam theater while Gershwin and Caesar were performing it for some chorus girls. "Swanee" in Demi-Tasse, "Swanee" was sung by Muriel De Forrest and danced to by a line of sixty girls with electric twinklers on their slippers on opening night of the Capitol Theater on October 24, 1919. This was, as Jablonski tells it, about a year after Gershwin and Caesar had written it. The Capitol was, at the time, the largest movie/vaudeville house in the country. So "Swanee" was first heard (that is after Gershwin's father and his poker friends and some chorus girls at a rehearsal), by 4000 people at the opening of a spectacular new Broadway movie house. Nevertheless, sheet music sales were poor (despite Caesar's and Gershwin's rather desparate attempts to stimulate sales by buying copies in the lobby) and it was decided by the publisher that the song was not commercial enough to promote. Caesar, who was devastated, continued to insist that it could be a commercial success and was proven correct in spades -- but only after the right performer got behind it.
It just so happened that Al Jolson was in New York on a tour with his show Sinbad, a Sigmund Romberg revue, at the Winter Garden Theater just across Broadway from the Capitol. Gershwin attended a party for Jolson and, as was typical for him, found his way to the piano and played (and sang), among other songs, "Swanee." When Jolson heard the song he immediately told his arranger and music director Al Goodman, who was also there, to get it for him. He wanted the song
interpolatedinto Sinbad, which within three days it was. And on January 8, 1920, "Joli" recorded it. From that point on, according to Caesar, the song "took off and never stopped."
"Swanee" was Caesar's, not to mention Gershwin's, first major hit. He and Gershwin had known each other since their mid-teens having met at Remick's music publishing house where George worked as a song plugger and general factotum starting in 1914. By 1918, before undertaking "Swanee, "they had already collaborated on several songs. One of them was the highly regarded "I was So Young (You Were So Beautiful)," which according to Caesar was "a hit of sorts" (Pollack 230-231). "Swanee," however, eventually earned him a great deal of money in royalties. To this day, the song remains the greatest earner in the George Gershwin catalog, but more importantly, as Jablonski puts it, "Swanee", though "it was "[Gershwin's] most blatantTin Pan AlleySong," was also his ticket out of The Alley, because it raised his reputation enough to make him "ready for Broadway" (Jablonski, p. 41) -- and for that matter for Europe as well. The song was a great hit in Britain and continental Europe. When Gershwin disembarked from his ship in Southampton on his first visit to Great Britain, a customs officer recognized his name as being that of the composer of "Swanee." Gershwin later said of the moment, "I felt like I was Kern." One London commentator wrote of the song, "You can't get away from it. Every night everywhere 'Swanee' has been played for months and months with no sign of exhausting its popularity" (Pollack, 280). As a result, Gershwin was invited to London to write music for shows there. "Swanee" had launched George Gershwin on a trajectory arcing towards the pinnacle of American popular song.
Al Jolson sings "Swanee." (in the original 1920 recording,
which, according to the song's lyricist Irving Caesar,
made the song take off and never stop.
"Swanee's" popularity also worked, if in less than direct ways, to influence the future of The Songbook. Classical Composer Victor Dukelsky (born in Belarus, trained in Kiev (Ukraine), a friend of Prokofiev, and composer of a ballet for Diaghilev) first heard "Swanee" in Constantinople and was so entranced by the song that upon coming to America, sought out Gershwin with whom he struck up a profound friendship. Although Dukelsky continued his career as a classical composer, his association with Gershwin led him to write popular songs of great and lasting value under the more American name Gershwin suggested for him -- Vernon Duke (Rimler, p. 115, hard-bound Ed.).
An Intimate Portrait
Urbana and Chicago:
University of Illinois Press, 2009.
In 1921, Gershwin wrote a "Swanee" spin-off called "Swanee Rose" with lyrics by Buddy De Sylva and sung again by Jolson. Howard Pollock suggests everyone concerned with the song knew they were just trying to capitalize on the success of Swanee," but Gershwin was not happy going back towardTin Pan Alleyand, by extension, farther away from Broadway (Pollack, 154).
Alec Wilder does not have a lot of good things to say about "Swanee." It does not in his opinion have the qualities of a
theater song, an important factor for any popular song to be counted as distinguished -- this being so even though it was used in two theatrical productions (Demi-Tasse and Sinbad). Wilder comments that "Swanee" precedes Gershwin's starting point for writing theater songs, which comes with, "I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise" (actual title "Stairway to Paradise") in 1922, several years after "Swanee." Furthermore, "Swanee" was a "manufactured song . . . deliberately contrived" from a number of contemporary devices in wide use at the time, an idea readily acknowledged by Irving Caesar, the song's lyricist. Wilder contends that it would be difficult to distinguish "Swanee" from any number of contemporaneousTin Pan Alleysongs later forgotten. Nevertheless, Wilder still finds a mark of distinction in Gershwin's composition, as if it would be impossible for him to write anything without one. In "Swanee" it is a device "both melodically and harmonically beyond the limitations of an average writer" manifesting itself in a change within a single measure from the F minor key of the verse to a D natural and a B-flat major chord in its ninth measure before returning to the F minor in the tenth. This, says Wilder, occurs several times in the song, a foreshadow of the Gershwin to come (Wilder, p. 125, hard-bound Ed.).
When Irving Caesar suggested to George Gershwin that they write a "one-step" (See above.), based on the song "Hindustan," Caesar, according to Howard Pollack, was hoping to capitalize on the then wide spread interest in "Middle Eastern and central Asian exotica" in popular music and culture represented by films starring Rudolph Valentino and operettas such as Sigmund Romberg'sDesert Song. Caesar, however, wanted to do the capitalizing by changing the setting to an American locale, namely Dixie with its exotic veneer of romance, "thus conflat[ing] two popularTin Pan Alleytropes, Araby and Dixieland . . . ." William Zinsser in his book Easy To Remember picks up on the same notion by calling "Swanee" "a faux ode to Dixie," an ironic conflation of the austerity of classical Greek poetry and the romance of Dixie at the hands of American sentimentalist writers and musical showmen, among whom "Swanee" placed Gershwin and Caesar, even though by their own design, at the very beginning of their careers.
Pollack also suggests that it was not just the popularity of the one-step "Hindustan" that inspired Gershwin and Caesar to write their song. "Swanee" reflected "Hindustan's" musical and lyrical structure as well: in the parallel major and minor modes employed by both songs, in their mutual debt to "Jewish music," and in their "stylized Orientalism" so prevalent in the Tin Pan Alley songs of the day. He also writes that both songs share a more modern quality in their "steely rhythmic drive," even greater than that of Berlin's "Alexander's Ragtime Band" from a decade earlier.
For Pollock, "Swanee's" ties with Foster's "Old Folks at Home," and with minstrelsy in general place it an American musical tradition that in the early twentieth century looks back to Foster and others who celebrated the romanticism and sentimentality of the Old South but at the same time partakes of an American musical modernism, "through its relentless vigor" similar, in fact, to the andantino of Gershwin's own prototypically modern Rhapsody in Blue. In general support of this contention, Pollack quotes the composer himself, who expresses his desire that his song be seen as inclusive in its capacity to touch on widely diverse elements of American culture:
I am happy to be told that the romance of that land [the 'Southland'] is felt in ["Swanee"], and that at the same time the spirit and energy of our United States is present. We are not all business or all romance, but a combination of the two, and real American music would represent these two characteristics which I tried to unite in "Swanee" and make represent the soul of this country.
Pollack concludes, that "'Swanee,' which probably more than any other song signaled the start of the Roaring Twenties, also helped elucidate Gershwin's self-identity as a 'modern romantic'" (Pollack, p. 239).
Differently from Pollack, many commentators have made the point about "Swanee" being a Gershwin anomaly in that it was his first (and really only) hit, but was not a characteristic song for him, nor even a particularly good one, having little to do with the ascendent reputation he gained as a songwriter over the course of his all too short life.
Ruth Leon, author of Gershwin (a brief but often insightful biography) illustrates the anomaly by making an unlikely comparison between Gershwin's "Swanee" and Stephen Sondheim's "Send in the Clowns": Both songs had little to do with the shows they appeared in, Gershwin's being
interpolatedinto Sinbad because Al Jolson, its star, having heard it played at a party, wanted to sing it; and Sondheim's being written so the leading lady of A Little Night Music would stop complaining that she didn't have a solo. Both songs became the only "hit" song written by either Gershwin or Sondheim; and both composers never wanting to think of themselves as pop songwriters still rose to the pinnacle of American songwriting, not only for their respective periods but, most likely, for all time.
Leon also captures the historical and ethnic significance of "Swanee" that led to its becoming what we would now call a megahit:
Al Jolson and "Swanee" were a marriage made in heaven. George and Irving's song, with its mixture of sentimentality and genuine sentiment, commercial schmaltz and musical chutzpah, was a perfect match for Jolson's almost uncanny rapport with an audience that, in the aftermath of World War One, longed for home, any home, preferably the idealized Swanee River home of the song. Two Jewish boys from the Lower East Side of New York had caught the prevailing mood perfectly. A third, Jolson himself, knew how to make it universal (Leon, p. 33, paper-bound Ed.)
Gerald Mast, unlike many other commentators who have seen "Swanee" as significant more because of its differences from most Gershwin songs that followed it, sees the restless nature of "Swanee" as a precursor to the restlessness that characterized "Gershwin's spirit, music and career." He emphasizes the point by describing Gershwin's piano as "a percussion instrument before it was a key board instrument. As for the song, Mast writes,
'Swanee' hammered its way to popularity on the restless, churning drive of its verse, the similarly churning drive of measures three-four and nineteen-twenty (accompanying Irving Caesar's words, 'How I love ya, how I love ya,' and 'Waitin' for ya, prayin' for ya'). . .
This first Gershwin hit set the pattern for many that would follow: a clear, fixed musical pattern suddenly shattered by a startling surprise; words that rap the notes into the ears in the same way that hammers rap the piano's strings; and the underlying sense of perpetually seething, driving, restless energy --moving, moving, moving
(Mast, p. 68).
Submit comments on songs, songwriters, performers, etc.
Feel free to suggest an addition or correction.
Please read our Comments Guidelines before making a submission. (Posting of comments is subject to the guidelines.
Not all comments will be posted.)
Borrowed material (text): The sources of all quoted and paraphrased text are cited. Such content is used under the rules of fair use to further the educational objectives of CafeSongbook.com. CafeSongbook.com makes no claims to rights of any kind in this content or the sources from which it comes.
Borrowed material (images): Images of CD, DVD, book and similar product covers are used courtesy of either Amazon.com or iTunes/LinkShare with which CafeSongbook.com maintains an affiliate status. All such images are linked to the source from which they came (i.e. either iTunes/LinkShare or Amazon.com).
Any other images that appear on CafeSongbook.com pages are either in the public domain or appear through the specific permission of their owners. Such permission will be acknowledged in this space on the page where the image is used.
For further information on Cafe Songbook policies with regard to the above matters, see our "About Cafe Songbook" page (link at top and bottom of every page).
The Cafe Songbook
Record/Video Cabinet: Selected Recordings of
(All Record/Video Cabinet entries
include a music-video
of this page's featured song.
The year given is for when the studio
track was originally laid down
or when the live performance was given.)
(*indicates accompanying music-video)
Notes: Gershwin made the piano rolls (for player piano) between 1916 and 1927. Altogether he played for 130 rolls. Even though Gershwin was well known for his improvisations on the piano, the essentially contemporaneous piano roll version Gershwin made for the recording heard below can't be that different than what Jolson heard at the party in 1919 that motivated him to use the song in his, show Sinbad, record it, and launch it on its path to immortality. (Please complete or pause one
video before starting another.)
1920 Al Jolson
album: Collected Works of
Album Notes: "Very upbeat with jazz/swing interpretations. The ballad numbers are sung in the style that gave Bing his nickname of The Crooner. The Buddy Cole Trio backings even include some organ with drum accompaniments scattered here and there ... unusual and interesting change" (from Amazon reviewer Kay Carson). (Please complete or pause one
video before starting another.)
album: Classic Garland: Capitol Years, 1955-1965
Notes:"Just in case you haven't yet made up your mind about whether to love or hate Mandy Patinkin, you should be able to decide after hearing his solo debut. Released in 1989 near the height of his Tony-winning fame, the album is as wildly eclectic as the actor himself. In a torrent of emotion he wears his heart--and seemingly the rest of his organs--on his sleeve. The oft-neglected verse to the opener, 'Over the Rainbow,' is tenderly delivered in his sweet tenor before giving way to a bombastic close that was memorably spoofed in Forbidden Broadway's 'Somewhat Overindulgent.' And so it goes: beautiful standards ('I'll Be Seeing You,' 'Pennies from Heaven') and Stephen Sondheim ballads ('No More,' 'Anyone Can Whistle,' a multitracked "Pretty Lady'), Gilbert & Sullivan, and near-manic versions of Carousel's 'Soliloquy' and Gershwin's 'Swanee.' It's all here, just as Patinkin is all here, laying himself before you. Love him or hate him, but you won't ignore him." --David Horiuchi at CDUniverse.com.
1995 David Grisman and Martin Taylor
album: Tone Poems II
Notes: "David Grisman doesn't stick exclusively to mandolin on this top-notch duo date with guitarist Martin Taylor, playing mandola, mandocello, tenor guitar, and guitar as well. As on this album's predecessor, the two artists play a different vintage instrument on each track, though the music this time is much more familiar to jazz fans. The interpretations of such classics as "Swanee," "Anything Goes," "Blue Moon," and "Over the Rainbow" are consistently both stunning and fresh" (iTunes review).
Notes: "The Trio comprises Ralph Sharon on piano, Lennie Bush on bass and Jack Parnell on drums, all of whom played in the Ted Heath orchestra at some time. Lennie Bush also played in Jack Parnell's ATV orchestra. The other CDs in the series feature the music of Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, and Richard Rodgers. There are 18 tracks on the CD including one medley of three tunes and a shortened version of `Rhapsody in Blue'. The tempo at which some of the tunes are played are not the ones we hear most often - which gives many of the tunes a fresh sound quite apart from Sharon's improvisations" (from Amazon reviewer Dr. H. A. Jones
). Video: (Please complete or pause one
video before starting another.)
2007 Patti Austin
album: Avant Gershwin
studio version --same track as on album referenced above