Friday, February 11, 2011

Friday Songbook: It's Only a Paper Moon

I went to a chiropractor the other day, and what do you think was playing in the waiting room, but a Fats Waller tune, Honeysuckle Rose. The timelessness of this music always surprises me. It simply stays on our cultural playlist, forever.

I like Honeysuckle Rose, but that's not our song this week. For this edition of Friday Songbook I choose It's Only Paper Moon. This is another Yip Harburg lyric. It was never my intention to give special attention to Harburg-penned songs, but this is the third in this brief series so far. It all started with the iconic Brother, Can You Spare a Dime (written with Jay Gorney), and continued a couple of weeks back with April in Paris (written with Vernon Duke).

With "Paper Moon" Harburg was teamed up with the great Harold Arlen, the duo that composed the music of The Wizard of Oz. Paper Moon is another characteristic song of the 30s, both recognizing the intrinsic limitations of the "make believe," but also using its gimcrack imagery to say something about the reality of love. But something more even than love. The wished for thing here is simply to be believed in. In an era in which 25% of the workforce was unemployed, in which the fathers and "bread winners" were often on the road looking for work, and in which the fear of abandonment was very real, the singer not only sings a love song, but dreams of a time of restored faith.

This song is certainly one of my favorites, and of course there are countless wonderful versions. Most crooners have given it a sprightly beat and missed the tinge of sadness inherent in the lyrics. James Taylor captures both the sadness and the persistent hope that is a mark of this song and really of much depression-era music.

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