Of Lamplighters

Having finally gotten 'round to reading Niven Busch's 1948 novel, The Furies (my copy of which came with
Criterion's DVD release of the film by the same title, starring the great Barbara Stanwyck and Walter Huston), a few days ago, as I neared the book's conclusion, I happened upon an especially pleasing paragraph:

In the street the lamplighter was going from pole to pole, turning on the gaslights; fog rolled in from the harbor, shrouding each light in a soiled halo and wrapping the home-going crowds in mystery.

In reading Busch's painterly passage, I was instantly reminded of Paul Francis Webster's poignant lyrics for "The Lamplighter's Serenade," which were set to Hoagy Carmichael's wistful melody.

The Lamplighter's Serenade
Music by Hoagy Carmichael,
Words by Paul Francis Webster

My, how times goes flying back;
It's eighteen ninety-three.
As from a one-horse open hack,
There steps a grand old memory.

A moment after dark, around the park,
An old-fashioned gent comes parading.
Dressed in funny clothes, but singing as he goes
"The Lamplighter's Serenade."

The old boy loves to talk with couples on the walk;
But when it's half after love time,
He reaches for his sticks and from his bag of tricks,
He lights ev'ry star in the sky.

And if a lady or a beau should answer, "No,"

He sprinkles their hearts with his magic.
Then he steals away to sing another day,
"The Lamplighter's Serenade."

This morning, remembering that today, this first day of March, is the one hundred and fifth anniversary of the birth of bandleader, arranger and trombonist Glenn Miller, I thought again of the beautifully nostalgic Carmichael-Webster collaboration; the Glenn Miller Orchestra, that Swing Era aggregation which, perhaps more than any other, brings to vivid life, through its recordings, a somewhat distant past, produced my favorite version of "The Lamplighter's Serenade." The appropriately slow and dreamy side ranks easily among my favorites by Miller. In my travels, upon printed page and through cyberspace, I haven't been able to locate an arranger credit, but I want to attribute this lovely chart to Bill Finegan, an immensely talented chap who did his painting with black dots. I love the Ray Eberle and Modernaires vocals; particularly nifty, I think, is the way in which, in the introduction and coda, the quartet, anticipating doo-wop, echoes the trombone choir's figure.

In one way, Glenn Miller, like the lamplighter, is part of a time capsule, someone enclosed and suspended in an irretrievable past. In another, he is – again through his recordings – a part of a perpetual now.

Speaking of the continuing relevance and power of popular music recordings of one period in the 20th century, the ever-opinionated Artie Shaw had this to say, in an interview for George Simon's
The Big Bands:

[...] But then, take the energy and ferocity of what was going on in the late thirties and early forties. That's hard to beat. It's hard to top what a Basie does or an Ellington does at his peak. It's hard to top what I was doing at my peak, or what Benny [Goodman] was doing at his peak, or Tommy [Dorsey] at his. You see, I didn't mention Glenn [Miller], because Glenn, too, was the recipient of an enormous amount of mass publicity—the fact that he died in the mysterious circumstances that he died in, and all that. But musically, his was essentially ground-out music—ground-out like so many sausages. [...]

Sausages. Hmmm ... Well, that's one way of looking at it. If this were so, however, I don't believe we'd be talking today about Miller's late '30's-early '40's recordings any more than we would about last Thursday's pot roast. When I hear Glenn Miller's music, I think not of sausages, to be ingested, digested and forgotten, but both of lamplighters and their gas lights, icons illuminating the past – and the timelessness of the romantic emotions that this music stirs.