This is a sad post. OK, maybe “sad” is not the right word. Perhaps elegiac.

Once upon a time, in 1941, Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer collaborated on a song called “Skylark”. It was a beautiful song — perhaps one of the most beautiful songs of all time And in a strange way, a way that I would guess its authors never intended, that song draws a line in the sand, a cultural divide between the America that was and the America that now is.

Let me bring you back… There was a time when there was such a thing as “the great American songbook”. It was a magical time, when the soaring melodies of 19th century European music were married to the astonishing chromatic sophistication of early 20th century American jazz. There has not been anything like it, before or since.

In a way the song “Skylark” was the apotheosis of this marriage — a song in which it all came together. If you are the religious sort, you would probably believe that Carmichael and Mercer were assisted by the gods on this one. I’ve been listening to this song, enjoying its rapturous perfection, and I’ve come to an odd and uncomfortable conclusion: Modern singers are incapable of singing it.

I know that sounds strange. Aren’t singers today every bit as talented as the vocalists of seventy years ago? Well, yes, but in a different way. “Skylark” is a song with immense depth of melody and chromaticism — an example of an art that is now long dead. In the modern era of rock and roll — the era in which you and I were born — there is simply no equivalent. In our age there is no such thing as the intricate twisting melody married to a long and subtle sequence of chord changes. Our music is basic, simple, meat and potatoes. It requires the singer to add something to the mix, to provide seasoning.

But “Skylark” needs no seasoning. It is already complete, perfect. It asks only that a singer traverse its beautiful rises and falls faithfully. Consider, for example, the lovely performance by Dinah Shore. No adornment — just a reflection of the perfect creation of the songwriters.

Similarly, Maxine Sullivan gets it. She knows that the song is already perfect, requiring only a faithful jazz priestess to bring the word down from on high to us mortals.

Ella Fitzgerald gets it almost right. She mostly allows the song to do its magic, without trying to reinvent it, although one could argue that she is right on the border of imposing her will on the song.

But modern singers can’t seem to do this. For example, Aretha Franklin adds the modern-vocalist spin, pretty much ripping the song to pieces, and destroying its inherent beauty. There are lots of other examples of this to be found on YouTube. There just seems to be a disconnect. Singers trained on modern pop cannot faithfully render the classic American songbook — they feel the need to enhance, to bend the notes, to modulate the rhythm.

There was a time when songs could stand on their own, when they didn’t need randomly added seasoning to soar. Call me crazy, but I wish we could, every so often, find our way back to that place.

Oh skylark, I don’t know If you can find these things, but my heart is riding on your wings. So if you see them anywhere, won’t you lead me there?

3 thoughts on “Skylark”

  1. There are still great things happening today in places like Brazil: latin America, etc, but maybe not in the *western* countries in terms of musical renovation…. Funny but the contemporary *European* musics make me think of repeatedly baked pancakes – yikes 🙂

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