Skylark…

As our president speaks on the radio about his recent decision to kill an Iranian general (and others) in Iraq, I thought I might share a post about love and melody and music…

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John Herndon Mercer was born on November 18, 1909 in Savannah, Georgia.

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From the 1930s to the 1960s he co-wrote a slew of hit songs including “Jeepers Creepers,” “Hooray For Hollywood,” “You Must Have Been A Beautiful Baby,” “Come Rain or Come Shine,” “One For My Baby (And One More For The Road),” “Anyplace I Hang My Hat Is Home,” “I’m Old Fashioned,” “Moon River,” “On The Atchison, Topeka And The Santa Fe,” “Too Marvelous For Words,” “Accentuate The Positive,” “That Old Black Magic,” “Blues In The Night,” “In The Cool, Cool, Cool Of The Evening,” “Autumn Leaves,” and “Skylark.”

Mercer was nominated for 19 Academy Awards — winning four Oscars for best original song — and had two successful shows on Broadway.

He was also a popular recording artist AND co-founded Capitol Records!

“Skylark” was published in 1941 — when Europe was engulfed in WWII but the USA had not yet entered the fight…

The song had a long creative gestation.

According to Wikipedia, the composer Hoagy Carmichael was inspired to write the melody for what became “Skylark” by an improvisation which his old friend Bix Beiderbecke — a jazz cornet player — had once played.

Bix’s music and too-short life had already inspired a novel called YOUNG MAN WITH A HORN which Hoagy was hoping to adapt into a Broadway show (and which a decade later provided the source material for a movie of the same name starring Kirk Douglas, Lauren Bacall, Doris Day and Hoagy Carmichael…)

Apparently the Broadway production never gelled, and after that Hoagy shared the melody with Johnny in hopes that he might write lyrics for it.

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Different books report different versions of how long it took Johnny to write the lyrics for “Skylark.”

Most agree, however, that it was a long period of time — several months to a year — and that Hoagy had kind of forgotten that Johnny was working on lyrics for it (or at least Hoagy had stopped checking in with Johnny to ask him if he had made any progress…)

Around this time Johnny had started an on-again, off-again love affair with Judy Garland.

He was 31 years old (and married…and upset because his father had recently died) and she — fresh off her success as Dorothy in THE WIZARD OF OZ — was 19 years old.

Many writers have speculated about which of Mercer’s lyrics were inspired by his love for Judy — and “Skylark” is one of the contenders.

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Here is Judy in an MGM publicity photo from 1943 — when she was 21 years old.

Beautiful and funny and gifted and smart and hard-working and … inspirational.

Another thing which inspired Johnny was the natural world.

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His family had a summer home outside Savannah on a hill overlooking an estuary — and he spent his summers as a child fishing, swimming, sailing, picking berries, and lying very still.

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He wrote in an unpublished autobiography, “The roads were still unpaved, made of crushed oyster shell, and…they wound their way under the trees covered with Spanish moss…”

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“It was a sweet indolent background for a boy to grow up in…and as we drove out to our place in the country there (were) vistas of marsh grass and long stretches of salt water.”

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“It was 12 miles from Savannah, but it might as well have been 100…”

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“Out on (our) starlit veranda, I would lie on a hammock and — lulled by the night sounds, the cricket sounds… my eyelids would grow heavy (and I would fall sleep) — safe in the buzz of grown up talk and laughter (and) the sounds of far-off singing…”

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I started reading about Johnny Mercer when fellow singer Bobbi Carrey and pianist Doug Hammer and I put together a program of his songs that we performed at Scullers Jazz Club here in Boston.

We also were fortunate enough to perform this program of songs on Spring Island — one of the multitude of barrier islands which run along the Georgia and Carolina coast.

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Spring Island was once one of the largest cotton plantations in the southern United States.

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And echoes of plantation life remain on the island…

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Spring Island is now half wildlife sanctuary and half retirement community for folks who are very wealthy — some of whom love music enough that they would fly me and Bobbi and Doug down to perform in their lovely club house.

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Although he enjoyed living in New York and California, Johnny returned home to Georgia on a regular basis — usually via a long train trip since he did not like to fly.

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He savored the slower pace of life in his hometown as well as the beauty all around.

Having traveled to Spring Island, I have a much more vivid sense of Johnny Mercer’s roots…

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A song like “Skylark” or “Moon River” makes sense in a different way now that I have seen and smelled and tasted and heard the environment where he grew up.

Spring-Island

Full of streams…

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And birds…

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And mist…

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And blossoms…

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And swamps…

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And big old trees…

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And ocean…

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And flowers…

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And light…

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And sky…

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Thank you to Bix Beiderbecke and Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer for creating such a lovely song.

And to Doug Hammer for his spectacular piano playing as well as his super-competent engineering skills.

And to Pixabay and Wikimedia Commons for most of the images in this post.

And to YOU for reading and listening to this blog post!

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96 thoughts on “Skylark…

    • Thank you, Kevin. I record almost all of my rehearsals with pianist Doug Hammer, and sometimes we get into a zone…and a memorable take happens. I appreciate you finding time to read and listen!

  1. Another lovely post and song, Will. I didn’t know this one. There’s sort of a bittersweet feeling to it. I liked your observation that songs like this and “Moon River” have a different feel when associated with the nature he grew up with and loved. Thank you!

  2. Thank you for sharing this beautiful rendition of Skylark Will. It’s very touching and evocative, along with your words and photos giving us a lovely sense of Johnny, and his roots. Maybe one day we’ll learn to live in harmony with each other and nature. We vacationed on Jekyll Island a couple of times when I was young and I have fond memories of the area, including the Spanish moss hanging from trees.

    • You are very welcome. Hurrah that you visited Jekyll Island as a child! Although I was born in Washington DC, I had not traveled to any of the southern USA as an adult until these musical trips to Spring Island a few years ago. I did not appreciate how many barrier islands (hundreds?) stretch along the Atlantic coast, for example. What a lush and beautiful and heart-breaking — when one opens up to the history of slavery and plantation life and lynchings — part of the planet. Thank YOU for making time to read and listen to another blog post!

  3. Once again, you’ve provided a lovely antidote to current events. Your song, prose, and photos flow together seamlessly. I plan to journey through this one several times.
    One of the photos looks almost like a Van Gogh. And seeing the lush young Judy Garland was especially poignant after watching Renee Zellweger’s performance.
    How did you gain access to the unpublished work? Or is that none of my business?

    • One biographer appears to have been given access (maybe by his widow, Ginger?) to these reflective writings by Johnny, and then after that different chunks of his memories have appeared in other books. He wrote a very powerful poem, for example, about how crazy we human beings are to have polluted the natural world and created/used nuclear power/weapons. Johnny and Judy remained friends and apparently occasional lovers for decades (and Ginger is quoted in one biography as talking about how a very famous female movie star (which I am guessing must have been Judy…) used to call Johnny at all hours of the day and night. I liked the respectful tone of the new movie about the last year of Judy’s life starring Ms. Zellweger. And Judy DOES look particularly lush in that MGM photo, doesn’t she? Thank you very much for reading and listening to another one of my blog posts!

      • Johnny wrote the following poem inspired by a NY Times article on April 18. 1969, which read in part: “four unusual little trees…produced from a tiny plug of unspecialized non-sexual tree cells, began their existence in a laboratory dish at the Institute of Paper Chemistry in Appleton, Wisconsin, today.”

        I think that I shall never see
        A poem as loveless as a tree
        A tree whose hungry mouth is pressed
        Against some scientific breast
        A tree from which no acorn springs
        But comes from Mother’s barkless rings
        A tree that looks to vitamin A
        and lifts her leafless arms to pray
        A tree whose beauty life and soul
        Starts in some laboratory bowl
        A tree who may at birth be found
        With nests of nutrients around
        Who must, as one non-sexual cell
        In niacin and Thiamine dwell
        A tree who may in winter wear
        No rain or snowflakes in her hair
        Whose thirst is slaked—if slaked at all
        When auxins and cytokins fall
        Who’ll feel no sunshine kiss of love
        Just an electric light above
        A tree whose very birth may have
        Joyce Kilmer whirling in his grave
        While G-d (if he’s alive of course)
        Accepts retirement pay by force
        A tree improved in every way
        For each undappled summer’s day
        A tree that’s neither he nor she
        Who’ll know no dog, who’ll know no bee
        Poems are made by fools in love
        But only Dr. Linus Winton, biologist of the Institute of Paper Chemistry out there in Appleton, Wisconsin, can make an entire non-sexual aspen grove!

      • Here’s the one I mentioned in my previous comment. It is an untitled poem found by his wife Ginger among Johnny’s papers:

        Ain’t you proud of me?—I’m a man
        I spoil everything I can
        And I’ll never be satisfied
        Till I’ve ruined the countryside
        I catch all the fish in the seas
        Burn up forests and chop down trees
        Fill the rivers with sludge and oil
        Wash the minerals from the soil
        I kill tigers and leopards, too
        I put everything in the zoo
        (Those I haven’t destroyed I save
        to remind me I’m so brave!)
        Soon not one of them will be here
        I make everything disappear
        Giant turtles and blue sperm whales
        Now are rarer then nightingales
        I shoot eagles and bears from planes
        They’re all gone with the whooping cranes
        I have mountaintops leveled down
        To one ticky-tack hi-rise town
        Soon all the air will be black as ink
        All the water unfit to drink
        I raise cattle and pigs for meat
        Ducks and chickens are good to eat
        As for hummingbirds—they’re no loss
        They’re delicious in bearnaise sauce!
        I kill sables and minks for furs
        —Some are his’n —and some are hers—
        I stuff everything I can
        Ain’t you proud of me?…I’m a man!
        When I’ve got ’em all on a shelf
        I may even destroy myself!
        I have children my wife adores
        So I send them off to wars
        Where they shoot someone else’s sons
        Ain’t that wonderful? That sells guns
        That ain’t all — I’ve been on the moon
        Like a fly on a macaroon
        But them planets are no damned good
        Ain’t no animals there for food
        Some damn dreamers — and I mean damn
        Think they’re better than what I am
        Say by usin’ the sense G-d gave
        There’s no species they couldn’t save
        It we only killed one apiece
        We might even make things increase!
        Did you ever hear such damn rot?
        They don’t know of the plans I got
        Like the buffalo and the gnu
        Like the passenger pigeon, too
        I plan startin’ in on the shrew
        Soon, ol’ buddy, I’ll start on you!
        Then, imperious, I will stand
        In a waterless, treeless land
        On a planet of sand and stone
        Picked as clean as a chicken bone!
        Well. I’d like to just stay and “jaw”
        But in Africa I just saw…
        Say!…they tell me in Timbukoo
        There’s a panda or two in view
        And I know—’cause I’ve seen the map
        oil lies under the polar cap
        So I’m takin’ my blastin’ rig
        That uranium’s tough to dig!
        Well. ol’ buddy, I’ll see you roun’
        Don’t take nothin’ that ain’t nailed down.

  4. I liked your rendition of “Skylark.” I didn’t remember it by its name but once I heard you singing I recognized it. The story of Mercer is interesting, too — he wrote a lot of songs, as I see by your list, whose titles bring up good memories, of songs I never hear these days.

    Also, as I’ve never been to the region of the country that you give us a little peek into with your travelogue and found photos, it was a welcome tour. Thank you for that!

    • You are very welcome! Thank YOU for making time to read and listen to my blog post. Every day each of us has 10,000 choices about how we want to spend the precious minutes of our lives — so I’m always delighted and grateful when someone reads/listens to one of my blog posts.

    • Thank you, Audrey, for making time to read and listen. I was laid off from my day job seven years ago, and since then I have devoted myself to music — researching it and teaching it and writing it and performing it and recording it and sharing it via this blog. I earn a lot less money than I used to, and experience a lot more pleasure and joy on a weekly basis…

    • Thank you for listening and for echoing that sentiment! In addition to donating small amounts of money each month to various candidates/organizations, contacting my elected officials from time to time, and participating in various marches/demonstrations, I remain hopeful that making and sharing music might help in some small way to bring peace and even harmony to our human lives here on planet earth…

      • That is my goal… but there are billions of dollars worth of advertising still enticing many of us to consume, consume, consume (travel as much as you want, buy a new truck, watch endless hours of television, etc.) Deep breath in. Deep breath out.

      • Keep doing what you’re doing. I believe the traditional business goal of profits is gradually being replaced by environmental and social impact.

  5. Gorgeous! Now I’m REALLY looking forward to hearing your Judy Garland show and will be thinking of her as the inspiration for this lovely song.

    • THANK YOU for listening, dear Jill. There is one song, “I Remember You,” which Johnny (I think) did acknowledge was directly inspired by Judy — and we usually include it in the hour-long show of songs written for or memorably associated with Judy Garland which we will be bringing to Newbury Court next month!

    • THANK YOU for reading and listening, Jill. Joe and I will be sharing the song “I Remember You,” (for which Mercer wrote lyrics) in the Garland program. It is one of his lyrics for which he DID openly acknowledge a Garland connection/inspiration…

  6. What a fabulous read, Will! I can still sing seven of his songs that you listed. I had no idea he co-founded Capital Records. I wonder if he wrote “Moon River” when he was back home in Savannah. The photos are gorgeous and bring the words he wrote to life. Thank you for this warm, wonderful post on a gray New England day.

  7. As you probably remember, Mercer wrote the lyrics for “Moon River” later in life using a beautiful tune by Henry Mancini for Audrey Hepburn’s character to sing in the movie BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S. I don’t know if he went home for inspiration. At least early in his career he liked to lie very still for long periods of time while thinking about and working on lyrics. The composer Harry Warren, if I am remembering correctly, nicknamed him “Cloud Boy” because of this working habit/trait. So if he wasn’t able to return home to Savannah, he may have just chilled out and let his memory and imagination guide him… THANK YOU for reading and listening on a gray New England day, Jennie!

    • Thank you for reading and listening, Malinda. Since Johnny Mercer was married to his first (and only) wife Ginger for many decades, his on-again-off-again affair with Judy had to be somewhat private/secret. I am always interested to read songwriter and performer biographies to learn more about who was friends with whom…

  8. You brought Skylark to life through your singing, piano accompaniment, the biography, and the photos of the place Mercer went to be “home.” That place looks like heaven on earth, and the music reflects it.

  9. Very nice rendition! I like the “winding road” approach to the song, a nice contrast to the heavy strings of other versions I’ve heard. And beautiful photos!

  10. Hello, Will. Thank you for introducing me to such a beautiful song. After the drudgery of Winter, it is one life’s pleasures to step outside on a Spring morning and hear the song of this wonderful bird as it rises unseen into the sunny, blue sky.
    Take care.

    Mick.

  11. I feel like I just had a mini vacation – smooth and dreamy – just my kind of escape. But all those beautiful places, words, and music are real which makes it even better.

    • Thank you, D. Wallace Peach! I often wonder what value music has in the face of our HUGE environmental challenges, but I suppose it can at times provide catharsis, hope, comfort and encouragement. And some of the bravest things that human beings have done in recent memory — such as the extraordinary and courageous acts of civil disobedience in the USA (especially in Southern states) during the 1960s — often involved singing together! Deep breath in. Deep breath out.

    • Yes, it is a daily question in my life: when to stay abreast of the “challenging political news” and when to take a break from it. Thank you for reading and listening to my blog post. I am delighted that it could serve as a musical reprieve!

  12. As you may know, SKYLARK is also the title of Philip Furia’s biography of Mercer (subtitled The Life and Times of Johnny Mercer), which I own. The book does not give an exact date when he composed the lyrics, but does indicate that it was some time after Hoagy wrote the melody.

    There were a number of recordings of this song in 1942, but I found this one by Gene Krupa & His Orchestra (with vocal by Anita O’Day) with a recording date of Nov. 25, 1941 (despite the 1942 date shown on the clip). So, Mercer did pen the lyrics in the same year, though possibly months later, than Hoagy composed the music.

  13. Will,

    I’m preparing an environmental piece in which I mention my carbon footprint. Is it all right with you if I include your comment on my little poem about Mother Nature and Trump’s wall, in which you talk about almost all your friends continuing to fly here and there, etc? ( I also plan to describe your lovely site.) I hope to post it Saturday, so if you can respond soon, I’ll be grateful.

    Cheers,
    Annie

  14. Sure! Let’s do all we can — with two scoops of love and respect — to help us all WAKE THE F–K UP regarding climate change and our individual choices here on planet earth.

  15. I was introduced to Mercer via my obsession with Bobby Darin in the late 60s/early 70’s. (Don’t ask, I was so weird kid.) Their duet “Two of a Kind” was on the second side of an obscure Darin LP.
    As always, there was a joy in Mercer’s performance and an understanding of the lyrics that surpassed mere translation. I was eight – I certainly didn’t know about “rare chateaubriand or crackers and milk” but I just “knew” Johnny & Bobby were out somewhere arm-in-arm and swingin’.
    It’s fitting that the song is named “Skylark.” I have a collection of songs I call my “Bird Songs” – music I like to listen to early on those clear blue summer mornings when the day belongs just to me and I aggressively calm myself by lounging on the swing by the hummingbird feeders.
    I love your voice and every interpretation of every song and use can’t wait to introduce you to the birds. 💗

    • Hi, Esther! THANK YOU for making time to read and listen and leave such a thoughtful comment. Hurrah for “Bird Songs!” I love the image of you “aggressively calm(ing) yourself by lounging on the swing by the hummingbird feeders.” I have seen (and heard) a few hummingbirds in recent summers. They are truly amazing beings!!! I am now going to listen to Bobby and Johnny sing “Two Of A Kind” via the wonder of YouTube…

    • You had excellent taste as a child, Esther!

      According to Wikipedia, Variety wrote that “Johnny Mercer, who is 27 years older than Bobby Darin, has got a vocal verve that excellently complements the youngster’s piping pyrotechnics. Together they bring an unusual bounce and delightful casual flavour to a snappy disc production. The mood is jovial and bright and the sock standard repertoire has appeal for adult as well as juves.”

      In his Allmusic review, critic Richard S. Ginell wrote “Give a pair of medals and hefty raises to the two fellows at Atlantic who thought of pairing Bobby Darin—then 24—and Johnny Mercer—then 51—and backing them with the charts of Billy May… The music world hadn’t heard this brand of impeccably timed, back-and-forth joshing since the heyday of Hope and Crosby (or perhaps Mercer and Crosby)—or the inspired Nashville rivalry of Red Foley and Ernest Tubb. Don’t miss it.”

      Now I need to listen to the entire album!!! Thanks for turning me on to it, Esther!

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Two_of_a_Kind_(Bobby_Darin_and_Johnny_Mercer_album)

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