Charlie Chaplin, Judy Garland, Lyle Lovett & Toots Thielmans : Smile

Exploring the genius of Charlie Chaplin featuring :

Chaplin himself, Nat King Cole, Judy Garland, Jimmy Durante, Lyle Lovett & Toots Thielmans.

Genius is an extremely overworked term when applied to popular artists of the twentieth century.

Nevertheless, without any hesitation I can assert that Charlie Chaplin was a genius.

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He was a master of every aspect of film making – writing, acting, producing and directing.

And, he did something only the very rarest artists do – he created an iconic character (the Tramp) who has become part of the very fabric of popular consciousness.

He was a Poet of  the Cinema with a deep tragi-comic vision.

A vision whose beauty and truth was recognised and welcomed whatever the age, language and culture of those who encountered his films.

The best definition of genius I know comes from Arthur Schopenhauer :

‘The genius … lights on his age like a comet into the paths of the planets, to whose well-regulated and comprehensible arrangement its wholly eccentric course is foreign.

Accordingly, he cannot go hand in hand with the regular course of the culture of the times as found; on the contrary, he casts his works far out on to the path in front …

Talent is like the marksman who hits a target which others cannot reach; genius is like the marksman who hits a target … which others cannot even see.’

Charlie Chaplin fully meets that definition.

Oh, and in addition to the honour board of talents listed above he was also a talented composer who wrote the music for one of the most affecting songs of his and any other era – ‘Smile’.

Chaplin, of course, thought in cinematic terms so let’s kick off this tribute to his genius with ‘Smile’ in its first incarnation as part of his score to his masterpiece from 1936, ‘Modern Times’.

Every element of this scene reflects the enormous pains Chaplin took to achieve the exact effects he was seeking.

Chaplin knew all about the Fear and Sorrow that beset so many lives.

He knew that a smile was often your best disguise and perhaps your only defence against the sadness that might otherwise overwhelm you.

The Tramp always keeps alive a spark of Hope, of determination to survive – to be present for what, who knows, may, just may, turn out to be a better tomorrow.

Chaplin’s whole cinematic persona – in the delicacy of his facial gestures and the gamut of his physical pantomime amounts in a sense to an alertness to the promise of Life – no matter how dire the circumstances.

With his mastery of mime and the balletic grace of his movement he was able to convey more nuances of emotion than a hundred lines of dialogue could convey.

His genius was both to acknowledge the Fear and Sorrow but not to surrender to it – to grandly and magnificently literally laugh in the face of it.

And, if Charlie can survive so might we.

As cinema goers, a spring anew in their step, left a Chaplin film they were reassured that light and laughter could outshine the darkness.

Smile, though your heart is aching
Smile, even though it’s breaking
When there are clouds in the sky
you’ll get by
If you smile through your fear and sorrow
Smile and maybe tomorrow
You’ll see the sun come shining through
for you ….

The lyric and a title for Chaplin’s melody came from John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons in 1954.

The Premier recording was by a peerless balladeer of Golden Age American Song – Nat King Cole.

Light up your face with gladness
Hide every trace of sadness
Although a tear may be ever so near
That’s the time you must keep on trying
Smile what’s the use of crying
You’ll find that life is still worthwhile
If you’ll just Smile.

There is no grandiloquence in Nat’s performance.

Knowing that he had a rare treasure here he simply presents the song allowing the beauty of the melody and the poignancy of the words to travel into the hearts and minds of the audience.

‘Simple’ for Nat King Cole because of the burnished gold of his voice which makes us all gladly share any emotion he is evoking.

If I imagine an exhausted couple slow dancing to Nat’s version in the sanctuary of their home I can only imagine the next take as a solo dance underneath a waning Moon.

Judy Garland.

If ever an artist was born to sing a song it was Judy to sing, ‘Smile’.

Fear and Sorrow and Heartbreak surrounded her all her days.

And, those circumstances were fully incarnated in her voice when she sang – especially when she sang, ‘Smile’.

Her Version is filled with tears and sadness – the gladness and the smile is in the going on, the going on.

I am going to repeat something I wrote about Garland before because I don’t think I can say what I mean to say any better.

Her singing on this song seems to me to be almost miraculous.

It’s as if her singing really came from secret chambers of the heart all the rest of us keep under guard.

No wonder she has such a deep impact on us – we know she is expressing a profound truth about the human condition – our need to love and know we are loved.

Judy Garland paid a high price in terms of personal happiness for living her life and art with such an exposed heart and soul but she fulfilled a vocation given to very few and left an indelible mark on her age and will surely do for aeons to come.

There are hundreds and hundreds of versions of Smile but not a single one sounds anything like the depths that Judy Garland does.

And now for something completely different!

Jimmy Durante brought his own very real magic to Smile.

A straight from the shoulder, Hey Bud, have one on me, growl that’s surprisingly affecting.

Lyle Lovett knows songs having written many fine ones himself.

There is always consideration and deliberation involved in the way he approaches a song.

So, his Smile is ruminative, baffled and melancholic.

 

To conclude here’s something really special.

The great Jazz Harmonica virtuoso Toots Thielmans, at 90, bringing a lifetime of craft and experience to bear on Chaplin’s insights into the changeable weather of the human heart.

In a previous feature on, ‘The Third Man’ I noted that it had one of the great endings in the Film Canon.

Well, Charlie Chaplin was a supreme master of ending a Film in a highly memorable and emotionally satisfying way.

The melody plays, the camera rolls and our hearts are uplifted.

Smile, though your heart is aching
Smile, even though it’s breaking
When there are clouds in the sky
you’ll get by
If you smile through your fear and sorrow
Smile and maybe tomorrow
You’ll see the sun come shining through
for you

Light up your face with gladness
Hide every trace of sadness
Although a tear may be ever so near
That’s the time you must keep on trying
Smile what’s the use of crying
You’ll find that life is still worthwhile
If you’ll just Smile

If you just Smile.

Rickie Lee Jones, Mills Brothers : Nagasaki (Wicky-Wacky-Woo)

Featuring :

Rickie Lee Jones, Fats Waller, Cab Calloway, Django Reinhardt & The Impala Troubadours.

And generous measure of chewing tobaccky and wicky-wacky- woo.

The holiday season is upon us.

As we live nestled in the South Downs we have chosen this year to explore far flung coastal towns in the East, the West and the North spending a week or so in each destination.

As our delightful Granddaughter, now 10 months old, is travelling with us there is even more planning and packing to be done before we set off.

Much more kit to be found or sourced then safely stowed.

For my part the annual deeply considered decisions about which books to take.

So, essential to have a really well compiled poetry anthology – ‘The Rattle Bag’ edited by those Himalayan figures of the poetic art, Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes, will do the job very well.

A Poetry collection by a living Poet – without question this will have to be, ‘Distance’ by Ron Carey. The emotional acuity and impact of this book ensures that it is always close at hand.

A couple of non fiction works examining aspects of my continuing obsessions.

So in respect of the American Civil War, ‘A Year in the South 1865’ by Stephen V Ash.

In respect of Popular Culture, ‘Pulp Culture – Hardboiled Fiction & the Cold War’ by Woody Haut.

An old faithful Novel that I never get tired of re-reading, ‘A Month in the Country’ by J. L Carr.

Finally, a big book that will in equal measure delight and challenge – time to get James Joyce’s ‘Finnegan’s Wake’ off the high shelf and dive in!

Opening it at random I found this :

’… aign he draws for us is as flop as a plankrieg) the twinfreer types are billed to make their reupprearance as the knew kneck and knife knick knots on the deserted champ de bouteilles.’

Now by some mysterious process of neuro chemistry this immediately had me singing a song I doubt Jim ever sang himself, ‘Nagasaki’.

Such are my thought processes!

Hot gingerbread and dynamite
That’s all there is at night
Back in Nagasaki where the fellows chew tobaccky
And the women wicky-wacky-woo!

They got a way that they entertain
They wouldn’t hurry a hurricane
Back in Nagasaki where the fellows chew tobaccky
And the women wicky-wacky-woo!

Fujiama, get a mama
Then your troubles increase, boy!
It’s south dakota you want a soda
First shake me then ten cents please

They hug and kiss each night
By jingo, boys, it’s worth that price!
Back in Nagasaki where the fellows chew tobaccky
And the women wicky-wacky-woo!

Back in Nagasaki where the fellows chew tobaccky
And the women wicky-wacky-woo!

Come on you Troubadours!

Ipana for the Smile of Beauty indeed!

Yowsah! Yowsah! Yowsah!

Now don’t that just say Holiday to you!

I plan to have Nagasaki ringing out on every coast this summer!

Can’t beat that hot gingerbread.

Eternal thanks to Harry Warren and Mort Dixon for writing in 1928 a song that unfailingly sweeps away all cares and ushers in unbridled joy.

Oh yes, I’m going to let all parts of this United Kingdom know that, whatever they do round here – Back in Nagasaki the fellows chew tobaccky and the women, Lord don’t you know, they sure wicky – wacky – woo!

By jingo I think we can all agree that Nagasaki was just perfect for the Mills Brothers.

Throughout their career they had a way to entertain that wouldn’t hurry a hurricane.

I cut quite a rug to this one i can tell you!

I have read a number of biographies of the Fats Waller so I think I can safely assert that fellows chewing tobaccy and women very well versed in the arts of the wicky-wacky- woo! were everyday experiences for the great man.

Imagine your delight as you quaffed another cocktail in your favourite speakeasy to see Fats sitting down at the piano.

Now, an all night jumpin’ jamboree is 100 per cent guaranteed!

You bring the hot gingerbread – Fats will bring the musical dynamite.

Don’t matter whether the bar is in South Dakota, Fujiyama, Hunstanton or Nagasaki, Fats is going to set the place alight!

I’m calling on each of you to supply your own vocal here ….

Funnily enough when I played back my own vocal to Fats’ incomparable piano pyrotechnics I found that ol’ Cab Calloway took exactly the same approach as me.

You want a Soda?

Fine, I’ve been drinking something far stronger and it sure does wonders for your ability to remember lyrics and the precision of your enunciation.

Time to chew more of that tobaccky and seek out that wicky-wacky-woo!

In the same way that Fats Waller could drop all jaws playing the 88 Keys no one astonished 6 string afficianados more than Django Reinhardt.

Genius is a term to be used sparingly but Django fully merits the accolade.

Freddie Taylor supplies the vocal to the guitar wizardry.

However many cents I have to shake down to get a Jukebox fired up to play this one is a pure bargain.

To conclude let’s put ourselves in the very capable hands of Rickie Lee Jones.

Rickie, an official Jukebox favourite, is as Hep as you can get and don’t she prove it with her joyful jive take on Nagasaki.

No one needs to teach Rickie anything about that old Wicky-Wacky- Woo!

That’ll do just nicely!

Just before we left for our trip I read an article which provided sage advice on how to ensure you had a happy and heartening holiday.

But you don’t want to hear those hoary homilies.

No, just follow the tried and tested recipe :

Hot gingerbread and dynamite …

Nothing like that tobaccky and wicky-wacky-woo to revive the spirit!

Madeleine Peyroux sings Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen & Hank Williams

Charisma is hard to define but easy to recognise.

It’s nothing to do with how loud you shout or how sharp you dress.

No. If present it surrounds the possessor like a solar corona that exerts invisible influence on distant objects.

Madeleine Peyroux has a charisma that is insistently present in her recordings and in performance.

When Madeleine sings she doesn’t come at you like a full force gale. Rather, standing still and singing softly she invites you to still yourself, lean in and listen closely.

She selects songs that have emotional depth; songs that resonate with our lived experience and our dreamscapes, songs that never let us go, songs that no matter how many times heard always retain a core of unfathomable mystery.

Songs a true singer can sing over and over again because they continue to engage the person and the performer.

Madeleine had a peripatetic bohemian childhood and adolescence taking in Canada, France, England and the USA.

Her parents were radical academics who had a record collection which exposed her to Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller, Hank Williams, Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen.

As she was beginningto play guitar she was struck by the self possessed quiet authority of Tracy Chapman.

While living and busking in Paris as a teenager she encountered the Chanson tradition through the works of Josephine Baker and Edith Piaf.

All very good preparation for taking on songs by the greatest songwriters of the 20th  century!

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Let’s start with her languorously hypnotic take on Leonard Cohen’s, ‘Dance Me To The End of Love’.

 

Now, it’s immediately obvious that Madeleine swings.

She feels where the beat is and chooses when and how to engage with it.

She’s both above and within the song slyly pausing and eliding notes to emphasise the ritual cadences of Leonard’s lyric.

She’s barefoot dancing through the song, her voice burning incandescently as like the homeward dove she leads us safely through the suppressed panic till we’re safely gathered in.

Safely gathered in.

In a sense every song Madeleine sings becomes a tent of shelter against the cruelties of the world both for herself and through her singing for her audience.

For the duration of the spell cast no matter how threadbare our spiritual and emotional raiment we are given glimpses of wholeness and redemptive hope.

You can bet that Leonard laboured long and hard to write, ‘Dance Me To The End of Love’ juts as you can safely assume that Bob Dylan received, ‘You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go’ as a more or less direct transmission from his extravagant Muses.

The miraculous flow of the song is Bob at his Olympian best entrancing us with his sensuous mastery of language.

The song is a tapestry of images strartling in their freshness, beauty and tenderness.

It would be idle to pick out individual lines in a song which has such imaginative, lyrical and musical unity.

Madeleine gives the song  a highly attentive reading so that time seems to meander and eddy as we listen.

 

Perhaps the gretest Songwriting Forefather for both Bob and Leonard was the one and only Hank WIlliams.

Hank is dead for 60 years now.

But, of course though Hank is dead he will never be gone.

For Hank wrote songs that speak with shocking intimacy to the bare forked animal inside every one of us.

The snow falls round the window and dream worlds fall apart.

Fall apart.

Oh God forgive us if we cry.

Forgive us if we cry.

Madeleine knows that with a Hank Williams song only minimal ornamentation is required. Hank has put so much feeling in the song that to sing it truly is to become a Medium channeling his spirit.

 

 

I’m going to leave you with a grand cadeu for the New Year.

Madeleine paying homage to Josephine Baker and the Chanson tradition with a song from 1930 written by Vincent Scotto, Henri Varna and Geo Koger.

Now wasn’t that pure pleasure!

Madeleine has had an erratic recording career. It’s clear from my choices above that I have  a particular fondness for her, ‘Careless Love’ album.

Yet, every record she has made will surely repay your interest as she illuminates a treasury of great songs within Jazz, Blues, Country, Folk and Chanson.

Load up your Jukeboxes!