Verse and Chorus

My knowledge of popular music, especially that of the first few decades of the 20th century, is hardly encyclopedic. I’m at best an amateur crooner, armed with a ukulele and a guitar I can strum in time to whatever it is I’m playing (or trying to play). I’m not the world’s most gifted musician (I do have a mighty fine singing voice, however), and I accept my limits.

When I taught myself to play the ukulele in late 2010 (it was my Christmas gift to myself that year), I decided to learn a bunch of older popular tunes. I scoured a few websites, downloaded a few songs, and have been working on the ever since. Some are relatively easy to play — “Tonight You Belong to Me” by Rose & Lee, or “Paper Moon” by Arlen & Harburg are examples of that — but most have stretched me. Which is good.

Along the way, I have learned that popular songs, as they are initially published, and then as they are eventually popularized, are often very, very different.

Let’s take, as an example, “Carolina in the Morning” by Kahn and Donaldson (1922). Here’s Al Jolson singing this during his comeback in the late 1940s:

What Jolson is singing here are only the choruses. None of the verses, nor their melodies, that Kahn & Donaldson wrote, are sung here. And mostly, when this song is sung, some version of what Jolson is singing here is what is sung. It’s what everyone knows.

But there are two verses, with very distinct (more or less) melodies, and here’s a very early recorded version of the complete song by Van and Schenck from 1923:

A lot of songs have this structure. Whether it was a Tin Pan Alley requirement or not, I do not know. For example, “On Moonlight Bay” by Madden & Wenrich has two verses that hardly anyone ever sings, in part because they’re dark (the first chord is an E minor) in a way the chorus is not, and so many arrangers and singers decided they didn’t fit.

Here’s The American Quartet singing the whole song in a 1911 recording (probably the first):

And here’s Doris Day singing “On Moonlight Bay.” Not a minor chord to be found in this version. Because honestly, Doris Day was not a minor chord kind of girl.

Which gets me to “I Found a Million Dollar Baby,” the song I asked about recently. It has the same structure — verse, chorus, verse, chorus. And the verses are generally not sung, though Bing Crosby takes the first verse and turns it into something akin to a middle eight (or bridge, or whatever — I just play music, I haven’t studied it).

Bing starts with the chorus here, and eventually gets around to sing the first verse — “Love comes along like a popular song…” and so forth. But there is a second verse — I know, because years I recorded a very bad version of the whole song — and I have most of that second verse, but not all of it. Here’s what I have:

Love used to be quite a stranger to me
Didn’t know a sentimental word
Thoughts of kissing seemed absurd
Then came a change, and you may think it quite strange
But the world became a happy place
[And this very last line is what I do not have…]

Now, you’re reading this and thinking — well, idiot, just go listen to that old recording. Yes, THAT is indeed the answer, but it is on a cassette (I have no way of playing those now) in the bottom of a a box far away. I suppose I could just make something up, since no one would know anyway…

I don’t do this with all the old songs I play. For example, I came across some sheet music for “That’s My Weakness Now” and fiddled with the verse a bit (I believe there is a second one), but honestly, I’m not sure what the verse adds to this song.

So, here are two different versions of this song, one done by Helen Kane (the voice of Betty Boop) and the other by ukulele player Cliff Edwards (Yeah, I know, who?), who sings it this as it was actually written. (I always liked the “park and play” line…) Proving, as if we needed any, that cute girls singing suggestively about sex has *always* been a thing. And will always be more interesting than whatever any mere boy is doing.

And now really, I have work to do…

3 thoughts on “Verse and Chorus

  1. Dang, I thought Bing would have been early enough. But I know what you mean. I’ve recently been trying to learn an old Cockney-pop song from 1910 called “Henery the 8th I Am”. It was popularized in the mid-1960s British Invasion by Herman’s Hermits, but the song was written in 1910 and was first recorded, I think, by Harry Champion. In the original song, there are 4 verses, each followed by the chorus. The Hermits only sang the Chorus. In fact, after the first pass, someone on the recording says “Second verse: same as the first!” Then there’s a rock instrumental section, and then a 3rd go round of the chorus. Now, I’m not criticizing Herman et al. They did a really good job of taking an old song probably no one would publicly perform anymore and turned it into a hit. Their changes in rhythm, and the added responses from the rest of the band and even the twangy 60’s rock guitar all somehow work to put more life in the song. I expect I will always sing the chorus pretty much the way they recorded it.

    But … I was also interested in the verses. Numbers 2 & 3 are probably too obscure for anyone to understand these days, at least in the US, but verses 1 & 4 add substance to the story. And it’s not nearly as obscure as another great Harry Champion song, “Any Old Iron”, which could hardly be comprehended by anyone outside old London even if the words weren’t spit out at a furious pace. And yet it was recorded by Roger Daltrey of ‘The Who’ in 1992 at a live event in Belfast with the Chieftains. Daltrey’s rationale was that, appearing with a folk-traditional group, he had to try to come up with an English ‘folk song’ (where living traditions died out earlier than in other parts of the British Isles) and moreover a London ‘folk song’. I don’t remember if he only sang the verses.

    Do you know the song “Mr. Moon Man, Turn Off Your Light”? It was recorded by Nora Bayes and Jack Norworth as a follow-up to “Shine On, Harvest Moon”. It might work well as a uke song, though a lot of the charm comes from the silly patter-counterpoint they throw into the last chorus. I somehow got it stuck in my head as I was going in to take a 2-hour freshman calculus final. And yet I still like it.

  2. OK, how about this version:

    I Found A Million Dollar Baby (1931)
    (w) Billy Rose, Mort Dixon (m) Harry Warren. (I) Revue: Billy Rose’s Crazy Quilt by Fanny Brice, Ted Healy, Phil Baker, and Lew Brice. (P) Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians. No. 1 Chart Record. (CR) Bing Crosby. (CR) The Boswell Sisters

    Love comes along like a popular song
    Any time or anywhere at all
    Rain or sunshine, spring or fall
    You never know when it may say hello
    In a very unexpected place. For example, take my case

    It was a lucky April shower
    It was the most convenient door
    I found a million dollar baby in a five and ten cent store
    The rain continued for an hour, I hung around for three or four
    Around a million dollar baby in a five` and ten cent store
    She was selling china and when she made those eyes
    I kept buying china until the crowd got wise
    Incidentally, if you should run into a shower
    Just step inside my cottage door and meet the million dollar baby
    From the five and ten cent store

    Love used to be quite a stranger to me
    Didn’t know a sentimental word
    Thoughts of kissing seemed absurd
    Then came a change and you may think it strange
    But the world became a happy tune since that April afternoon


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