"All the Things You Are"
Jerome Kern, Oscar Hammerstein
Can you imagine a Broadway show featuring a score by Jerome Kern and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein being a flop? The thought is preposterous. I can hardly imagine even using the words "Kern," "Hammerstein," and "flop" in the same sentence. But there you have it. This week’s Sometimes a Song premiered in not just a so-so show, but in a genuine no-show show. The opening night reviews for “Very Warm for May” were so bad that on the second night the theater held only twenty patrons. Sadly for Jerome Kern, the failed show would be his last on Broadway. But fortunately him and for Oscar Hammerstein, some songs from the score became very popular. The best of these, "All the Things You Are," reached the charts in that bench-mark year 1939 and, unlike the show it was written for, became a big hit. The song held its own in a field filled with great songs by the big bands of Glen Miller, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Woodie Herman, Tommy Dorsey, Artie Shaw, and by such singers as Judy Garland, Mildred Bailey, Bing Crosby, and the Andrews Sisters.
Of course, not every hit song becomes a standard — a song which 50 or more years after its release is still in the repertoire of most musicians and vocalists. But by 1964, twenty-five years after its release, “All the Things You Are” was chosen in a Saturday Review poll of American composers and songwriters as the "Best Song of All Time." If that sounds like high praise, it is. Jerome Kern’s melody is far from ordinary; in fact, the song is a small musical masterpiece.
Kern did not expect this tune to go far on the American music scene, because he thought that people would not understand the complexity of the piece or find it memorable or singable. Then to his amazement one day, he happened to hear a man on the street whistling his tune. Of the song’s lyric, Oscar Hammerstein said that he was always annoyed with himself for using the word, “divine,” in the song, that Kern also hated it, but that after much effort, he could find no more appropriate choice for the “ine” rhyme he needed on the ultimate line, “When all the things you are are mine.” But eighty-five years later, history has proven Oscar Hammerstein’s worth. And I’ll add that his lyrics are — well — divine.
You are the promised kiss of springtime That makes the lonely winter seem long. You are the breathless hush of evening That trembles on the brink of a lovely song. You are the angel glow that lights a star, The dearest things I know are what you are. Some day my happy arms will hold you, And some day I'll know that moment divine, When all the things you are, are mine!
In the history of American Song, Fred Astaire holds the title for introducing the greatest number of songs which would become standards. This distinction is due not so much to his voice -- which was in the "just okay" category -- but to his immense popularity over his long career. Composers fell over themselves for the chance to write songs expressly for him. But for making hit songs into standards -- “singers’ songs,” the ones that every singer loves to perform -- Frank Sinatra took the prize. His 1945 version of "All the Things You Are" is practically perfect. And yes there are many many beautiful recordings of this wonderful song. But today I give you Jerome Kern (the music), Oscar Hammerstein (the lyric) and Frank Sinatra (the voice), in “All the Things You Are.”
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I just subscribed to Word & Song. In taking peeks into various sections, here I discovered what has been for me since my early teen years and remains for me now at 79 the sweetest of songs of romance, love, and longing. I think of it often when my wife of 56 years and I are apart. Thank you for your words, Dr. Esolen - and of course for this song.
I can't tell if this is a great song or not. Of course the intellectual and rational part of my brain says that of course it is, no question.
Unfortunately (or not, depending) the emotional part of my brain chokes up with longing memories of my at-least-younger-than-seven year old childhood that cloud my rational thoughts, recalling music drifting upstairs at night where my bedroom in the Iowa farmhouse was (we moved to California when I was seven, thus my claim, only by calculation, of "younger-than-seven"), or playing downstairs on the living room floor with my skyscraper construction toy kit (I wish I could remember which brand it was and look it up), or even drawing pictures on the dining room/kitchen table (they were pretty much the same room on the farm) of houses and roses and whatever (my mom, an artist and illustrator, taught me some drawing, and would brag that I was drawing buildings with perspective at 5 when other kids were drawing a square with a triangle on top for their picture of a house).
And the reason is that they played a particular album (though of course other records too) often -- and it is one that I still have in my record shelf (that I can't play because my turntable -- ok, ok, record player -- just trying to sound like an aficionado there :-) -- is not hooked up, and hasn't been for at least the last couple decades, but it is still there waiting for the day when I pull out those records and...).
That album is an admittedly syrupy-sounding, probably considered schlockey these days, collection of songs from that period called "Mantovani -- Gems Forever." And the first song on that album is "All the Things You Are." And just hearing the opening strains of the orchestra playing that song as the album starts, immediately puts me back in that farmhouse lying upstairs in bed at night or building skyscrapers on the living room floor or drawing pictures on the kitchen table (I can even almost smell the roast cooking in the oven).
Anyway, i probably didn't need to type all those personal memories and such, but I guess seeing and hearing the lyrics (I'm sure I've heard them before but haven't remembered them, only the instrumental version on that childhood-memory album of my parents' collection), especially the line, "...That trembles on the brink of a lovely song" brought them to mind.
AND. I just now checked on youtube, and whaddaya know, that whole album -- ALONG with the actual album cover (that my brother and sister and I would gaze at on that same kitchen table or the living room floor next to the record player, and argue about which was the best tasting gem on the cover -- we pretended that they were hard candies to suck on). And as I started the youtube video up, it even has that old scratchy sound from a too-often played record. But oh, those opening screechy, even a bit warbly strains. I can hardly bear it... :-)
Ok, enough. Thanks for the memories. Wish I could say more about the song itself here, but I can't think with all those memories running wild around in my head...
And here is a link to that youtube video with that wonderful cover: