The Life and Music of
Hoagy Carmichael

Richard M. Sudhalter
Some of us are unfortunate enough to have a 24-hour Muzak machine going on in our heads, grinding out songs left about in the dust-bin of our brains from thirty or forty-five or even sixty years ago.

I once made a list of some of those melodies that turn up when I am driving, or picking at the beans at the local Piggly-Wiggly, or most aggravating of all, at three AM when I (and my mind)(and my internal melody hard drive) know that I should be off in the arms of Mr. Sandman.

The most persistent, and most obnoxious of the musical selections that come and go without permission, gumming up my days and most of my nights, include
  • Peg o' My Heart (I Love You);
  • The Four Winds and the Seven Seas

      ("A train came to town
      And a stranger stepped down
      A-smilin' for my love to see;
      She answered his smile
      And after awhile
      The only stranger there was me...")
  • The Hut-Sut Song (a genuine dumb antique --- probably 1945);
  • I Surrender, Dear;
  • That's America to Me (Frank Sinatra version);
  • Comin' in on a Wing and a Prayer (WWII patriotic song);
  • Milkman, Keep Those Bottles Quiet (ditto);
  • Up We Go/Into the Wild Blue Yonder (ditto);
  • Oh Come to the Church in the Wildwood/Oh Come to the Church in the Vale; and certainly the most consistently irritating of them all:
  • Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

There is one compensation for this noisy, non-stop internal CD player, and that is while I was reading Stardust Melody, I was able to avail myself of instant accompaniment to Sudhalter's descriptions and listings of many if not all of Hoagy Carmichael's songs.

For instance, when the author describes the genesis of "Hong Kong Blues," immediately my songmeister strikes up the complete lyrics, as sung by Carmichael himself, along with the piano accompaniment:

    It's the story of a very unfortunate colored man,
    Who got 'rested down in old Hong Kong;
    He got twenty years taken away from him,
    'Cause he kicked old Buddha's Gong.
    And now he's boppin' the piano
    Just to pay the price
    For a ticket to the land of the freeeee.
    Oh he says his home's in 'Frisco where they ship the rice,
    But it's really in Tennessee.

I mean it's not everyday that you can pick up a book, open it, and find yourself in the complete Sensor-round™ theatre: music along with chorus and orchestra (or in this case --- voice and piano); even visualize the cigarette smoke curling around the composer's face as he intones:

    I need someone to love me,
    Need somebod-eeee to carry me home
    To San Francisco
    And bury my body there.

Besides giving those of us with internal musical drives complete performances from fifty years ago, Stardust Melody gives us not a few surprises about Carmichael --- someone we very much admired back in our salad days:

  • That Carmichael's great and lasting inspiration was Bix Beiderbecke --- a jazz musician who drank himself to death at age twenty-eight;
  • That Carmichael was a life-long hater of Franklin D. Roosevelt, even blamed the president for the fact that he couldn't see over the dashboard of his Lincoln Continental (the fact that Hoagy was only a little over five feet tall apparently didn't apply);
  • That he once almost got into a fist-fight with Bogart over his --- Bogart's --- "pink" politics;
  • That Carmichael published almost six hundred songs, of which about ten are, even now are still favorites of mine, and are welcome to the 3 AM music service anytime they want --- including "Baltimore Oriole," "Georgia on My Mind," "In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening," "In the Still of the Night," "The Nearness of You," (It's not the pale moon that delights me/That thrills or delights me/Oh no, it's just the neeeeaarrrness of you!), "Skylark," "Two Sleepy People" (I can still hear Bob Hope and Francis Langford intoning this one) and, of course, "Stardust."

Sudhalter is chock-full of information about Carmichael and his songs. For instance, the lyric about "the very unfortunate colored man ... kicking old Buddha's gong" is an indirect reference to being strung out on opium; that many of the songs went through many incarnations: if one was sent out to the world, and didn't take off, then it was pulled back in and recycled, sometimes succeeding the second or third time around.

There is a great deal made of Carmichael's Oh-Shucks Indiana ways, but evidently he carefully cultivated this, along with his sleepy, casual way of playing and singing which, for those of us who were in love with music and musicians, was his most endearing characteristic: him hunched over the klunky old upright, in some rinky-dinky bar, cigarette dangling, smoke getting in his eyes, and just casually, oh so casually, pushing out the song and words, with his raspy, careless voice, someone who made you feel the effortlessness of it, someone who was the kind of person you'd want to have over to your Saturday night party, the guy who didn't look like much, didn't even look all that smart, but then he sat down at the piano, and casually started stroking the keys, and then, equally as casually, started in to singing,

    O buttermilk sky,
    I'm keepin' my eyes peeled on you,
    What's the good word tonight?
    Is there gonna be somethin' tonight?

--- L. W. Milam

Acts of Love
On Indigo Road

Jonis Agee
(Coffee House Press)
When you and I think of the middle west, we think of wheat fields going on forever, the autumn moon over Indiana, great refreshing thunderstorms, Mom in the kitchen and Pop out on the north forty, combines moving gracefully over the fields, horses in their stalls, children growing up rangy and wholesome, life at the barbershop and town hall, simple country folk, pious Sunday mornings in the simple church, roast chicken and apple-pie for lunch, evenings around the kitchen table with Granny tatting, Gramps puffing on his pipe, Dad reading the newspaper, and the kids on the floor reading the comics.

Good luck. For Jonis Agee it is the FedEx guy running off with the wife of the latest champion stock car driver, drivers who run into walls and can no longer walk, old people moveless in bed drooling on the sheets, meth, heroin, the girl at the café spilling too-wet grits on your table and burning the toast, kids dismantling cars parked back of the house, angry wives throwing their mans' stuff out the second story window, the girl from the Lutheran Home for Girls up the way freezing to death in the deserted cabin because her boyfriend failed to arrive, lawyers robbing their clients, handy-men who sleep with the lady of the house and leave the fix-up incomplete because they get kicked out of bed.

Now all this might be sensation-mongering if it weren't for one thing. And that is: Agee is more than competent in the construct and delivery of the short story. She can cram in a dozen details in the first page of a five-page story so that you know all the characters as if you lived in town, right next door to them, and you are right in the middle of the gossip about Duwayne who lost the front end of his Crown Vic to a Southern Pacific train ("Women just happen to Duwayne") and Fiona the Mary Kay lady ("flamingo colored blouse and slacks, her lips and cheeks matching") meeting at the Mildred Pierce Café where Nancy the owner ("sharp eyes and a mean mouth") is a terrible cook, the grits all runny, the toast burnt, and the new girl runs into the chairs and tables "like a poorly played pinball."

Turns out that once Duwayne and Fiona got the play thing going, "drinking a lot of sweet wine" so she stripped him down and painted him all over with the Mary Kay cosmetics and then took some pictures of him, which she delivers to him at the Mildred Pierce as she is taking her leave of him:

    He doesn't quite remember the photo-taking part, but there he is, his head turned defiantly to the camera, a fierce, pouty expression on his face, like an oddly beautiful girl he feels attracted to.

This is strong stuff and Agee is a strong writer and of the seventy stories here, ranging in length from a half-a-page to ten pages, I would say that more than half are interesting and five are some of the best short-short fiction I've come across, right up there with Shirley Jackson or Donald Barthelme.

I've been studying these for a week or so --- coming back to them again and again, riffling through --- still not so sure how one writer can pack so much information onto a page and still make it work. Even the lesser stories are interesting as experiments, and in some, the conceits are so delicious you want to weep: the "Tire Man" and his lady who thought "my flesh was a good disguise, but Ray found me anyway:"

    There were nights naked in the shallow water of the Platte River in those early days in Nebraska before we started following the dirt track wonders. August when the water was syrup-thick and warm as melted butter, we'd splash and crash around alone there in the moonlight until we finally lay down, believing the warm muddy water would keep me safe as he sloshed in and out, always pulling away at the last moment when my fat thighs tried to lock him down and my back buoyed up. But the brown water took what he spilled on my chest and sometimes when he's working late at the track of the garage these nights, I think about going back there and maybe finding those halfhuman fish soaking away the hot nights, waiting patiently for someone to come claim them.

--- Beverly Justice

§     §     §

I Go Back to
May 1937

I see them standing at the formal gates of their colleges,
I see my father strolling out
under the ochre sandstone arch, the
red tiles glinting like bent
plates of blood behind his head, I
see my mother with a few light books at her hip
standing at the pillar made of tiny bricks with the
wrought-iron gate still open behind her, its
sword-tips black in the May air,
they are about to graduate, they are about to get married,
they are kids, they are dumb, all they know is they are
innocent, they would never hurt anybody.
I want to go up to them and say Stop,
don't do it --- she's the wrong woman,
he's the wrong man, you are going to do things
you cannot imagine you would ever do,
you are going to do bad things to children,
you are going to suffer in ways you never heard of,
you are going to want to die. I want to go
up to them there in the late May sunlight and say it,
her hungry pretty blank face turning to me,
her pitiful beautiful untouched body,
his arrogant handsome blind face turning to me,
his pitiful beautiful untouched body,
but I don't do it. I want to live. I
take them up like the male and female
paper dolls and bang them together
at the hips like chips of flint as if to
strike sparks from them, I say
Do what you are going to do, and I will tell about it.

--- From The Gold Cell
©2000 Sharon Olds
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