Back when the 50s had just turned into the 60s, in the days of listening to Radio Luxembourg at night on a valve radio that glowed in the dark; in my early teenage days, before the beat from out of Liverpool had shaken things up – in those days, one of my favourite singles was ‘Blue Moon’ by the Marcels. I was just a kid and with the innocence and ignorance of youth I had no idea that I was listening to a Rogers and Hart show tune from the thirties: what I heard in the animated nonsense ‘bomp-baba-bomp’ of the bass man’s intro and the unrestrained wails and chants of the rest of the group was teenage magic.
So it was with great pleasure that I read this post by Thom Hickey on his always enjoyable Immortal Jukebox blog. It’s such a wonderful piece of writing that I felt compelled to share it here.
‘How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!
here will we sit and let the sounds of music
Creep in our ears; soft stillness and the night
Become the touches of sweet harmony.’
(Shakespeare from The Merchant of Venice)
While The Akkadians slept the Moon shone down.
While The Hittites dreamed of an eternal empire the Moon set the tides a flowing.
While The Assyrians and The Phoenicians marched the Moon shone down.
While The Babylonians, The Persians and The Etruscans dreamed of eternal empires the Moon set the tides a flowing.
While The Greeks and The Romans rose and fell the Moon shone down.
While the empires of great Alexander and that of Chandragupta Mauraya rose and fell the Moon set the tides a flowing.
Look up! Look up!
It’s the same moon! The same moon!
And, looking up, we can’t help but feel the Moon looks down on us knowing all the secrets of our hearts.
Sometimes we shiver as we realise we know so little of what the Moon has known and seen and is yet to see.
Yet, somewhere within us we feel that the Moon is a mother and a mentor.
So we address the Moon in worship, in stone, in ritual, in story and poetry and song.
Somehow we feel the Moon understands.
So night after night, for century after century, for millennia after millennia we look up.
We look up as the Moon looks down. We look up as the Moon looks down.
And, looking up we see the Wolf Moon. Or the Snow Moon. Or perhaps the Pink Moon or the Milk Moon.
Sometimes above us we see a Strawberry Moon or a Mourning Moon. Sometimes the Thunder Moon or the Harvest Moon.
Sometimes as we look up and ponder our fates we are blessed by a Blue Moon.
The song Blue Moon came from the fabled Broadway Golden Age partnership of Richard Rogers and Lorenz Hart. It was written in 1933/34 and went through several iterations before becoming the song we all know and love.
Initially Rodgers’ limpid melody so redolent of the moonlight was called, ‘Prayer’ and intended for Jean Harlow. Unused, it became, ‘Manhattan Melodrama’ then, ‘The Bad in Every Man’ before by the power of commerce (MGM demanded a hit!) and the alchemy of the tortured genius of Lorenz Hart it became the eternal yearning prayer of the heart that is, ‘Blue Moon’.
All Lorenz Hart’s great romantic songs are distinguished by their lyrical felicity and sophistication. But, with Hart, there is also always a melancholic core, a subliminal shadow of foreboding, a sense that isolation and the curse of loneliness can only be eluded momentarily – if at all.
Without a love of his own he sensed that his dream, his prayer for someone to care for, would almost certainly go unanswered and that the blue moon above would cruelly stay blue and never, ever, glow gold.
In his version from 1949 Billy Eckstine’s burnished tones evoke a man walking down the moonlight city streets at four o’ clock in the morning.
Amid the rapt surrounding stillness he offers up his prayer in a stately voice that suggests the rarely glimpsed gold moon is a passing dream or chimera not the harbinger of a bright future.
Still, he walks on. For, whatever else befalls, he knows he can rely on the Moon to light the world tomorrow night and every night that he can look up to see it. And, there is comfort in that.
Elvis recorded his ghostly take on Blue Moon in the summer of 1954 for Sun Records with the wind whispering percussion probably played by Buddy Cunningham. Elvis takes the song far, far, away from The Great White Way.
Elvis’ Blue Moon shines over Southern soil. I have always heard his eerie crooning here as a keen for the lost thousands of Southern men and boys who perished in the Civil War.
Elvis, normally a singer of enormous physicality, here, miraculously achieves a wraithlike weightlessness that evokes the silent smoke drifting over the battlefield after the living and the wounded have withdrawn leaving the charred earth to the care of the unnumbered dead and their departing spirits.
Lately, when the sky is clear and the moon is high, I’ve taken to heading off into the dark woods in search of clarity of mind and peace of the spirit. It’s my habit to read a passage from a beloved book to inspire and sustain my thoughts before I set off.
Last week it was James Joyce’s masterpiece Ulysses.
Over the course of five days I recited over and over again the following passage until I knew it by heart and could chant it out to the Moon above as it bathed me in the balm of its light:
‘Her antiquity in preceding and surviving succeeding tellurian generations; her nocturnal predominance; her satellite dependence; her luminary reflection; her constancy under all her phases, rising and setting by her appointed times, waxing and waning: the forced invariability of her aspect; her indeterminate response to inaffirmative interrogation, her potency over effluent and refluent waters; her power to to enamour, to mortify, to invest with beauty, to render insane, to incite and aid delinquency; the tranquil inscrutability of her visage, the terribility of her isolated dominant propinquity; her omens of tempest and of calm; the stimulation of her light, her motion and her presence; the admonition of her craters, her arid seas, her silence, her splendour, when visible; her attractions when invisible.’
Perhaps after such an exhalation of genius there is no more to be said about The Moon.
Yet, our imaginations cannot exist on a diet of the sublime alone. We also need more than once in a while to throw our heads back, laugh out loud, and ask the silent moon to share in our good humour.
So, on other nights, as the moon shines through crowded trees I dare to sing with all the force at my command to the distant satellite the joyful Esperanto which kick starts The Marcels 1961 worldwide No 1 hit version of Blue Moon (All together now!)
‘Bom ba ba bom ba bom ba bom bom ba bom ba ba bom ba ba dang a dang dang
Ba ba ding a dong ding Blue Moon moon blue moon dip di dip di dip
Moo Moo Moo Blue Moon dip di dip di dip Moo Moo Blue Moon dip di dip di dip
Bom ba ba boom ba bom ba bom bom ba ba bom ba ba bom ba ba dang a dang dang
Ba ba ding a dong ding …’
Now, don’t that make you feel mighty, mighty, fine!
The Marcels (named after the hairstyle) were five high school (multi-racial) friends from Pittsburgh who in 1959 bonded over their love of Doo-Wop and Rhythm & Blues music.
Richard Knauss was the baritone, Fred Johnson hit those low, low notes on bass, Ron ‘Bingo’ Mundy was first tenor with Gene Bricker second. Out front was the happily named Cornelius Harp.
A demo tape of theirs found its way to sharp eared Stu Phillips at Colpix Records. He was particularly taken by their arrangement of The Cadillacs, ‘Zoom’ with its ‘Bom ba ba bom ba bom ba bom bom ba bom ba ba bom ba ba dang a dang dang’ intro.
When he had a little time free in Colpix studio on 15 February 1961 Stu asked them to sing, ‘Heart and Soul’ but found they didn’t have it worked up.
So instead, in a glorious example of serendipity he said let’s do, ‘Blue Moon’ using that intro to, ‘Zoom’ – and thus a classic was cut in two takes!
I recommend you listen first to the song for the sheer thrill of it then listen again to all the wonderful ensemble vocal work going on behind Cornelius Harp’s stellar lead.
I have to say that my heart is always uplifted by the hosanna in excelcis passage that starts at 1.53 and lasts for ten ecstatic seconds – providing enough joy to blast you all the way to the moon and back!
Sometimes I look up at the Moon and wonder if she ( the Moon is surely a she?) is sad and lonely in all that immensity of space – perhaps recalling her traumatic birth some 4.5 billion years ago when cruel Theia hit the Earth broadsde and brought her into independent being.
Does her ache carry across the lonely miles to Earth. Is that the ache you feel in the pit of your stomach, for no discernible reason, on certain moonlit nights?
Does her ache call forth the howling of the wolves?
Sometimes, as Shelley wrote the Moon does seem to be a dying lady lean and pale wrapped in a gauzy veil.
Now, if its ache you want I defy you to find any group to match The Cowboy Junkies.
Listen to them here taking Blue Moon with riveting gentleness into the cold dark realms of inter stellar space. The Timmins siblings assisted by Jeff Bird and Jaro Czewinec will slow down the beating of your heart and let it find a contemplative rhythm that may just open up interior worlds normally barred and shut in the hurly-burly of our everyday lives.
It seems to me that this version is an exquisite hymn to and lament for two of the greatest American artists; Lorenz Hart and Elvis Presley whose tenure on this Earth was so brief yet whose music will echo on through the centuries.
We humans have been looking up at the Moon in wonderment throughout all of our existence as a species. Contemplating the Moon has stirred us to puzzle about the meaning of becoming, birth, death and resurrection.
We come to understand that life is a series of cycles.
How many cycles and how they continue we know not.
We know not.
So we look to the Moon. And the Moon looks down on us.
We must hope that the Moon will bless us with her silver will and turn her perfect face towards us always.
And, with the Psalmist trust the righteous will flourish and peace will abound so long as the moon endures.