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The Lyrics They Are 'A Changing: Lyrical Liberties In "Lover, Come Back To Me" And "Softly, As In A Morning Sunrise"

The Lyrics They Are 'A Changing: Lyrical Liberties In "Lover, Come Back To Me" And "Softly, As In A Morning Sunrise"

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Frank Sinatra's greatness is evident in his making the songs he sang his own. And his doing this is connected to his, on occasion, changing the lyric of a song—even a very good lyric. But according to good anecdotal evidence, Cole Porter and Ira Gershwin—suppliers of some of the best lyrics Sinatra sang—did not take kindly to his changing their words, no matter how much they may have appreciated his greatness.

Probably most commentators side with the lyricists. Singer-scholar Michael Feinstein and biographer John Lahr (who both provide or relay the relevant anecdotal evidence) would I think agree with composer and writer Andrew Ford that Sinatra's adding the word "much" to "A Foggy Day (in London Town)" shows the folly of trying to improve on Ira Gershwin's lyric. 1

But Mark Steyn argues that this singer "knows better" than this lyricist—even suggesting that in general singers know better than lyricists.2 To address this debate, I focus here on verbal changes to composer Sigmund Romberg's two best-known songs: "Lover, Come Back to Me" and "Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise."

The lyrics, by Oscar Hammerstein II, smack of the songs' original context—a hokum 1928 operetta, The New Moon (twice filmed by Hollywood with the title New Moon), a context in which the songs are quasi-arias. But as the earliest recordings indicate, these songs were never confined to the world of operetta.3 They quickly became Great American Songbook standards, sung by many singers—male and female, classical and non-classical, sopranos, tenors and baritones—with diverse approaches. Somewhat surprisingly perhaps, given the rather old-fashioned lyrics, the songs have been particularly attractive to and have become particularly associated with jazz singers, who have I think provided the greatest sung versions—so much so that it may come as a surprise to listeners today to learn that the songs were originally intended for classically trained singers. The diversity of approach, although connected to the range of singers, pertains particularly to pop and jazz singers, who, more inclined to express their individuality, are less bound by the original text and score. Tempo provides a striking example: to sing the refrain of "Lover, Come Back to Me" once, Gogi Grant takes 2 minutes 30 seconds; Barbra Streisand, in a live recording of November 5, 1962, takes just 57 seconds. And non-classical singers more often change the words, particularly with the more frequently sung of the songs, "Lover, Come Back to Me."

This song's being sung by both classical and non-classical singers is connected to an unusual feature: it has no single original lyric. The sheet music lyric—reprinted in Reading Lyrics, ed. Robert Gottlieb and Robert Kimball, New York, 2000—looks like this:

You went away, I let you,
We broke the ties that bind; I wanted to forget you
And leave the past behind.
Still, the magic of the night I met you
Seems to stay forever in my mind.

The sky was blue,
And high above
The moon was new,
And so was love.
This eager heart of mine was singing:
"Lover, where can you be?"

You came at last,
Love had its day,
That day is past.
You've gone away.
This aching heart of mine is singing:
"Lover, come back to me."

When I remember
Ev'ry little thing you used to do, I'm so lonely.
Ev'ry road I walk along I've walked along with you,
No wonder I am lonely.

The sky is blue
The night is cold,
The moon is new,
But love is old,
And while I'm waiting here
This heart of mine is singing:
"Lover, come back to me!"

(Note: Stanza divisions have been inserted for ease of reference.)

This is the lyric sung, in 1928 and 1929, by some of the song's earliest recorded performers: vocal quartet Rent Party Revellers (with Victor Arden and Phil Ohman and their Orchestra); torch song singer Annette Hanshaw; operatic tenor John McCormack; and Big Band singers Sam Browne (with Jack Hylton and his Orchestra), Jack Fulton (with Paul Whiteman and his Orchestra) and Pauline Oliveros/Roscoe Mitchell/John Tilbury/Wadada Leo Smith (with Louis Katzman and the Brunswick Orchestra). (Except for Hanshaw and McCormack, these performers omit the verse—common practice for non-classical performers of this song.)

But in the operetta score, stanza 3 begins differently. Listen to sopranos who have played Marianne, on stage, on film, or just on record. Evelyn Laye, London's first Marianne in 1929; Jeanette MacDonald, the 1940 movie Marianne; Dorothy Kirsten, EMI's Marianne in 1960; Jeanette Scovotti, the 1963 Reader's Digest Marianne; Leigh Munro and Christiane Noll, Mariannes in the 1986 and 2003 New York revivals—they all sing: "Rememb'ring ev'ry little thing / You used to say and do." The operetta score version is daintier, the sheet music version more robust: both versions are, I think, fine. (The original Marianne, Evelyn Herbert, recorded in 1929, sings "say or do," which is, I think, a less idiomatic version of what the other Mariannes sing.)

The verse is rarely sung and, when sung, rarely altered. So it gets little attention in this essay. But all these Mariannes sing it; and Evelyn Laye alters it. Her substituting "But the memory of the day I met you" for "Still, the magic of the night I met you" slightly diminishes the magic. It could evoke, for stanza 1, a daytime moon rather than the more romantic nighttime moon. And unlike the word "But," the original "Still" here faintly and appropriately connotes, through subtle wordplay, endurance and stillness.

Earlier I mentioned a variation that is not in itself a matter of singers changing the lyric. Another kind of variation that is not in itself a matter of lyric change—although it affects the lyric—pertains to repetition of the refrain or parts of it. More evident in Tin Pan Alley singing than operetta singing, such variation is surprisingly evident when operetta singers sing "Lover, Come Back to Me." Christiane Noll does not repeat anything. Evelyn Herbert and Jeanette Macdonald repeat the last three lines: "And while I'm waiting here / This heart of mine is singing: 'Lover, come back to me!.'" Leigh Munro repeats everything from "Ev'ry road I walk along" onwards—that is, the second half of the third stanza and all the fourth stanza. Jeanette Scovotti repeats both the last two stanzas in full. Dorothy Kirsten (1960) repeats everything from "This eager heart of mine was singing"—that is, the end of the first stanza, and all the second, third and fourth stanzas. Evelyn Laye repeats the first, third and fourth stanzas. The diversity here—a diversity not nearly so evident when operetta singers sing Marianne's other aria, "One Kiss"—suggests the way that "Lover, Come Back to Me" exceeds the world of operetta.

Although not itself a departure from the lyric, repeating the refrain or parts of it perhaps comes close to such departure if it breaks continuity—as when Evelyn Laye's repetition moves straight from the first stanza to the third. Here the resulting narrative gap could be experienced as a fragmentariness in keeping with Laye's dreamy delivery. Also worth noting is that in repeating the refrain, singers are more likely to change the words than when they first sing it. Evelyn Laye initially sings stanza 1 as it is written; in repeating it, she changes its tense from past to present; and changes its ending from "Lover, where can you be" to "Lover, come back to me!" Later I explain why these are detrimental changes, albeit they may be less so in the context of Laye's dreamy delivery.

Some surprising repetition in a recent recording, Atlantic Crossings Gramola, 2020) is the more surprising for occurring in a performance by a classical vocalist—albeit a performance which involves an encounter with a jazz orchestra. Soprano Amel Brahim-Djelloul begins to repeat the lyric from the beginning before she has sung it through once. And the beginning she returns to is the beginning before the refrain—she returns to the beginning of the verse. Usually, if a singer has already sung the verse (as happens here), then to repeat from "the beginning" they return to the beginning of the refrain. Being relatively close to speech and relatively unmelodic, the verse lends itself to repetition less than does the refrain. And in the repetition, this singer's move from verse to refrain is not to the refrain's beginning but to its final stanza—which has so far been left out. The move looks like this:

Still, the magic of the night I met you
Seems to stay forever in my mind.
The sky is blue,
The night is cold,
The moon is new,
But love is old,
And while this heart of mine is singing:
"Lover, come back to me!"

The association here of the lovers' first meeting with old love is odd in itself and at odds with the earlier association of this meeting with new love. If in its surprising treatment of the lyrics, this performance seeks to undermine linearity, in a way that relates to its juxtaposition of classical music and jazz, I think its doing so is not interesting enough to offset the incoherence.

Pertaining to the stanza 3 beginning is another variation that is more than just an isolated change of lyric. Omission of the word "When" perhaps dates to the December 1937 record of singer Pha Terrell, with Andy Kirk. From January 1938 till well into the 1940s, Mildred Bailey repeats this omission in all her recordings of the song. The omission occurs also in the 1954 MGM Romberg biopic Deep in My Heart. Baritone Tony Martin's performance in the movie seems to be the model for more recent baritones Thomas Allen and Julian Ovenden. Other singers who omit the "When" are Diane Courtney, Frank Sinatra, Frances Greer and Anita O'Day (all pre-1954); and Helen Forrest, Nat King Cole, Mario Lanza, Eileen Barton, Ernie Andrews, Dorothy Collins, Irene Kral, David Lambert}, Brenda Lee Eager, Aretha Franklin, Helen Merrill, Bryan Ferry, Cassandra Wilson, Mel Torme, Carol Sloane, Connie Evingson, Anita Huntley, Ne-Yo and Melba Joyce (all post-1954). Diane Schuur omits it when she first sings stanza 3 but not when she repeats it; Dinah Shore and Claramae Turner do the reverse. Although omitting "When" renders implicit the connection between adjacent ideas that are included in a single melodic arc, I think implicitness suffices here; and "remember" as a main verb rather than a subordinate verb adds immediacy. So this common change is, I think, fine, albeit I don't see it as an improvement—and many singers continue to include the "When."

Another variation to the stanza 3 beginning, this one uncommon, rates a mention: replacing "When" with another word or words. Dinah Washington, in her jam session of 1954, uses "Well!"; Peggy Lee (in one of her recordings of the song), uses "Oh!" In the abstract, these additions—particularly Dinah Washington's—would seem to have little value. But with such iconic singers, they become expressions of individuality. The interpolated "Well!" is a signature of Dinah's singing—indeed in her 1960 TV performance, she inserts it at the beginning of stanza 2, as well as the beginning of stanza 3. And for what Peggy Lee can do with an added "Oh!"—or perhaps "Oo!"—just listen to (and watch) her duet, with Frank Sinatra, of the Gershwins' "Nice Work If You Can Get It" ("The Frank Sinatra Show," 8 November 1957).

Now that we have seen the lyric, it is worth returning to the issue of tempo. Ted Gioia argues that using the song to demonstrate "speed and virtuosity," thereby testifying to its "adaptability," works for jazz instrumentalists but "categorically not" for a vocalist. "Perhaps if someone came up with new words—'Lover, Let's Go on a Rollercoaster,' or 'Lover, Press that Pedal to the Metal'—singers could perform this song with the same verve and gusto that animate the horns. Until that day arrives, this song remains the property of instrumentalists, or those rare vocalists who are willing to slow it down and resuscitate lyrics that lose their meaning when presented at warp speed" (The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire, Oxford, 2021, p. 272). It is true that the lyric is intended for a slower performance than that which pop and jazz singers often give it. But the lyric is, I think, more adaptable than Gioia allows. Urgency can mark calling a lover to come back—one could insert "Hurry back to me" into the lyric. So a fast singing of the song has its own logic. The singers who sing it fast—for example, Barbra Streisand, Peggy Lee, Dinah Washington, Ella Fitzgerald, Anita O'Day—know what they're about. Arguably some of these performances work because they inject into the song the kind of playfulness suggested by Gioia's new words, "Lover, Press that Pedal to the Metal." But the brilliant Peggy Lee recording that I have seen ascribed to June 1950 takes the song very seriously—and takes it very fast. (I suspect that this recording may in fact be more recent than 1950.)

To some extent singers who want to sing the song fast and playfully have, as Gioia suggests they do, come up with new words (and it is no surprise that singers have wanted to have fun with such a well-known, oft-recorded, somewhat old-fashioned, lushly romantic song). Ella Fitzgerald, in a 1955 studio recording and live in 1961, subverts the lushness by inserting: "You laid some spiel, / I thought it was real / You cooled on me and I'm drugged as can be / And while this eager heart of mine was singing, / 'Cool one, where can you be?' "

In a 1958 studio recording, accompanied by a swinging big band with male chorus, Patti Page first sings a somewhat speeded up but lyrically and melodically faithful version. Then the chorus accurately reprises most of the first two stanzas with Page singing the last two lines of each—but changing them to: "This eager heart of mine was singing, / 'Brother, this part is a little low for me' " (for the first stanza) and "This aching heart of mine is singing / 'It's still too low for me' ," putting a new spin on the phrase "aching heart."

Page's recording involves another kind of lyrical change: she ends her reprise of the last stanza by singing "Lover, lover, lover, come back to me!" This change is experienced as expressive more than playful; and in pop and jazz, is so common and unexceptional it barely counts as lyrical change, any more than does repeating a whole refrain lyric or a section or two of it, albeit, as I have already mentioned, in such reprises lyrical departures may be more likely. Bobby Darin, after first singing the song melodically and lyrically straight as it were, reprises the last two sections (a common practice in the case of AABA songs). In his reprise of the third section, he inserts "Honey, I get oh so lonely" and "Ain't no wonder I am lonely"; and he ends his reprise of the fourth with more interpolations and an extreme verbal repetition that constitutes a lyrical flight—a flight in which expressiveness and playfulness converge:

Lover, come back,
Lover, come back,
Lover, come back, to me.
Lover, come back,
Lover, come back,
Lover, come back, to me.
Lover, come on back,
Lover, come on back,
Lover, come back, to me.
Come on back to me girl, come on back girl,
Lover, come back to me.

Linguistically less formal than the original (as are the insertions in the reprise of the third stanza), this colloquial yet highly patterned lyrical departure fits perfectly Darin's splendid melodic departure. The exuberance and swagger more than make up for any loss of elegant economy.

Another exuberant, fast early 1960s pop recording is Brenda Lee's. It begins with a chorus singing "Little lover, lover come back to me" three times, then Brenda speaking the words "Little lover won't you come on back to me?" She then sings the song more or less straight—though in a bubbly pop manner—until she reaches the end where she substitutes "Lover, come on home to me" for "Lover, come back to me." She then reprises the last two lines but changing the last line again, this time to "Lover, get yourself on home." She then reprises the last two lines again but this time returning to the words "Lover, come on home to me." She then reprises the whole of the last two sections, ending with "Lover come on home to me, I say lover come on home to me, I'm not going to tell you but one more time to get your little old self on home to me." Perhaps even more than with Darin's recording, Brenda Lee's repetitions are playful, oscillating between expressiveness and jokiness. And in both recordings, there is a sense of oscillation between the classic and the colloquial, the universal and the personal, the romantic and the cheeky.

Playful changes to the original lyric present themselves as changes: only if they are recognised can we fully enjoy the singer's playfulness. Moreover, the playfulness of these performances involves change to the title words. As we have seen, Fitzgerald replaces the word "Lover" with "Cool one"; Paige, at one point, replaces the title words with "It's still too low for me"; Darin throws in "Come on back to me, girl" and Brenda Lee, amongst other things, speaks the words, "Little lover won't you come on back to me?" And changes to title words, usually the song's most well-known words, are more likely than other changes to be recognised as changes, including perhaps when they are non-playful. The frequent replacement of "come back" with "come on back" is probably a recognised change. And when Barbra Streisand sings "Lover come to me"—a stripping down that suits her fast delivery—there is I think a sense of surprise that reinvigorates the song.

But often, changes are not thus recognised—including by singers. For singers sometimes forget the exact lyric; and sometimes they learn a song not from the sheet music but by listening to other singers. Mildred Bailey is, as I have mentioned, particularly associated with this song and she made several recordings of it from 1938 to 1947. I suspect that except for her first recording, that of January 1938, she did not have the sheet music lyric in front of her—such are the changes to the lyric that occur in her later recordings.

And I suspect that some other singers have learnt the song from one or other of Bailey's recordings. With a single exception, all the numerous verbal changes in her October 1939 live radio broadcast recur in Bryan Ferry's 1999 studio recording.

Perhaps the part of the lyric that is most often changed—in ways that are not, and do not need to be, recognised as changes—is "Ev'ry road I walk along / I've walked along with you." The quite common change to "Ev'ry road I walked along / I walked along with you" probably dates to Bailey's 1939 radio broadcast (although Pha Terrell had already introduced a similar but less effective change: "Ev'ry road I walked along / I've walked along with you"). Bailey's 1939 change recurs in her subsequent recordings, and in recordings by Jilla Webb, Ernie Andrews, Frankie Laine, Chiemi Eri, Chris Connor (in one of her recordings), Brenda Lee, Frankie Lymon, Bryan Ferry, Cassandra Wilson, Carol Sloane, Diane Landry, Roberta Gambarini, Fulton Champian and the Ray Conniff singers. Although I don't see this change as an improvement, I think it works well enough. It is true that it loses the polyptoton ("walk" / "walked") and the past/present contrast, a contrast that structures the whole lyric. But in simplifying the words, it perhaps makes them bolder and more singable. Moreover, and more importantly, the replacement still explains the depth of the present loneliness. It does so in terms of the speaker's having once done everything with the now absent lover. The individual way that Brook Benton (1960) makes the change to past tense—he sings "Ev'ry road I walked along / I walked arm in arms with you"—intensifies and embellishes the explanatory force of the words and accords with his extraordinarily warm delivery.

In some of her later performances, Dinah Washington, another jazz singer who left her mark on this song, sings "Ev'ry road I walked along / I was with you" or "Ev'ry road I walked along / Was with you." This change, similar in meaning to the change introduced by Bailey, also makes sense in the context of the whole lyric. And its economy goes with Dinah's sharp delivery. But independently of this delivery, I prefer the original's polyptonic repetition.

Besides Bailey and Washington, the jazz singer most associated with "Lover, Come Back to Me" is perhaps the greatest of all jazz singers, Billie Holiday. In her July 27, 1952 studio recording and her October 29, 1951 live recording, she converts the statement to present tense—perhaps for the sake of immediacy: "Ev'ry road I walk along / I walk along with you." But this makes sense only if it is interpreted as meaning "Ev'ry road I walk along / I walk along with you on my mind," an interpretation so far-fetched that the change to present tense, paradoxically, undermines immediacy. This regrettable change occurs also in performances by Chris Connor, Sam Cooke, Connie Evingson, Karina Corradini, Monica Borrfors and Lily Frost. Fortunately, in her 1944 studio recording, Holiday sings words very close to the original that require no contrived interpretation: "Ev'ry road I walk along / I walked along with you."

Tense contrast, as I have mentioned, marks the whole lyric, with its shift from happy past to sad present. Even at the macro level, some changes to the tenses of verbs work. If the whole first stanza is changed to present tense and the last stanza remains in present tense—as happens in Al Bowlly's recording—then, in the light of the second stanza, the first stanza can retrospectively be seen as referring to the past, preserving the past/present contrast yet rendering more immediate the joy of the past. Even so, this alternative is a little less clear than the original and weakens the impact of the last stanza's shift to present tense. Other singers make more bewildering tense changes—that involve loss without gain. Here are a few one-offs. Marilyn Moore (1959) retains all the last stanza's present tense except for "is singing," which she changes to "was singing"; Chiemi Eri (1955) changes half of the last stanza to past tense: "The sky was blue, / The night is cold, / The moon was new, / But love is old, / And while I'm waiting here / This heart of mine was singing ..."; in the 1930 movie, soprano Grace Moore changes all the first stanza's past tense to present tense and all the last stanza's present tense to past. (This is a rare instance of a classical singer changing the original lyric.)

Seldom is the whole first stanza converted to present tense. A more common change—introduced probably by Mildred Bailey and repeated by Dinah Washington, Ernie Andrews, David Lambert, Bryan Ferry, Jazzmeia Horn and Melba Joyce—is changing to present tense only one stanza 1 verb: "was singing" becomes "is singing." This present tense can be experienced as rendering a past event more immediate, conveying increasing identification with one's past self. Sometimes—as in recordings by Marilyn Moore (1959), Chris Connor (1993) and Barbara Cook (1997)—the second stanza's "is singing" becomes "was singing." This past tense conveys the pain felt in the past when the lover went away. But it undoes the surprise of the original's sudden shift to present tense. And each of these changes, in undoing the contrast of the first stanza's past tense ending and the second's present tense ending, weakens the sense of temporal transformation. This transformation, and indeed the lyric's clarity, is further weakened if stanza 1's past tense is retained but stanza 4's present tense becomes past tense: "The sky was blue, / The night was cold, / The moon was new, / But love was old." This change, perhaps introduced by Bailey and used in most of her recordings, recurs in performances by Jilla Webb, Bryan Ferry, Helen Merrill (her live recording), Cassandra Wilson, Mel Tormé, Jazzmeia Horn, Veronica Swift and Champian Fulton. Also problematic is Monica Borrfors replacing stanza 4 with a mix of mostly stanza 1 and a little bit of stanza 4: "The sky was blue, / And high above, / The moon was new, / And so was love / This eager heart of mine is singing, / 'Lover come back to me' ." In reprising stanza 4, Borrfors uses a different mix—but that does not make it any clearer. Lesley Lambert also replaces each of stanza 1 and stanza 4 with a confusing mix of both stanzas; and she replaces stanza 2 with a confusing mix of stanza 2 and stanza 4.

It is not just tense that evokes temporal change. The three A section stanzas each end with an expression of yearning. The yearning of the first stanza's "Lover, where can you be?" is for the anticipated arrival of a yet to be experienced love; that of the latter stanzas' "Lover, come back to me," for the return of an already-experienced past love—a return that seems not at all certain. In ending all these stanzas with the imperative, Peggy Lee (1946), Mel Tormé (1957 and 1992), Jilla Webb (with Harry James), Irene Kral (1959), Jimmy Witherspoon (1961), Carol Sloane (live 1990) and Melba Joyce (2006) emphasize the song's title but weaken the sense of the passage of time.

This weakening is even greater in Peggy King's 1956 recording with Harry James. She replaces the stanza 1 question "Lover, where can you be?" with the imperative and reverses this in the case of stanzas 2 and 4. In every case, she repeats the word "lover," singing "Lover, lover, lover"—this is the kind of common change we have already considered with respect to Page's and Darin's recordings. In reprising the final stanza, King builds on these reversals, ending it like this:

Lover, lover, lover come back to me!
Lover, lover, lover where can you be?
Lover, come back to me!

This has punch. The lyrical departure supports Harry James' big band arrangement, with its melodic departure. And although in the original lyric, "Lover where can you be?" expresses yearning for the arrival of future love, it can also be used as it is here: to express yearning for the return of past love. In the shift from "Lover, lover, lover" to just "Lover" there is a homing in on a target—and the title words are emphasised precisely because they occur unembellished only once, at the very end. If the question and the imperative become more or less equivalent at the end, then earlier in the lyric they cannot be kept as distinct as they are in the original. And in a way which is difficult to analyse, the earlier substitutions—of the imperative for the question and vice versa—seem to accord with the ending's oscillation between the two. So King's departure, albeit not an improvement on the original, works well. The musical force it enables offsets its temporal blurring.

Parallels and contrasts also mark the three A stanzas' penultimate lines: "This eager heart of mine was singing" (stanza 1) becomes "This aching heart of mine is singing" (stanza 2) which becomes "This heart of mine is singing" (stanza 4). "Eager" evokes the joy of looking forward to a desired future event; "aching," the pain of regretfully yearning for a happy past that may not return; and the absence of a parallel adjective in the final iteration evokes something more universal yet also more personal, it emphasising the phrase "this heart of mine" (my italics). This carefully set up structure is jettisoned in performances by Mildred Bailey (1947), Jewel Brown, Veronica Swift, Champian Fulton and Melba Joyce.

The shift from the joyful harmony of the first stanza's "The moon was new, / And so was love," a joy situated in the past, to the pain of the last stanza's "The moon is new, / But love is old," a pain situated in the present, is weakened if the disjunction "But" is replaced by the conjunction "And"—as happens in performances by Anita O'Day (1952), Ray Conniff Singers (1968) and Roberta Gambarini (2006). And the disjunction, with its twist, better points some subtle wordplay: "new" is a little more tightly attached to the noun in the phrase "new moon" than it is in the phrase "new love"; and the way that moon is new differs from the way that love is new, the opposites being "full moon" and "old love."

There are other ways to lose wordplay. Rudy Vallee's replacing "its day" with "its way" loses a contrast pertaining to the word "day." In the line "Love had its day," the phrase "had its day" means to enjoy success. In the next line, "That day is past," "day" refers to a period—the period when the lovers were together. This wordplay is lost also in performances by Dinah Washington that replace "That day is past" by "It couldn't last"—but as is so often the case, Washington's stripping a lyric of some of its ornament make for a plain speaking directness.

Julie Andrews, Jilla Webb and Grace Knight replace the stanza 2 and 4 occurrences of "is singing" with "keeps singing." This loses not just the original's elegant simplicity but a contrast pertaining to the word "is": in the phrase "is singing," it is an auxiliary verb but not in the case of its other stanza 2 occurrence, nor in the cases of its four other stanza 4 occurrences. And because "was" and "keeps," unlike "was" and "is," are not tenses of the same verb, "keeps singing" weakens the contrast between past tense phrase and present tense phrase. Jewell Brown and Mel Tormé use "keeps singing" not just for stanzas 2 and 4 but stanza 1 as well. But "keeps" fits the rhythmic emphasis of their performances—particularly Tormé's—in which musical values trump literary values better than it fits Julie Andrews' performance.

Sometimes a performance takes little account of the lyric's niceties yet seems none the worse for that. Aretha Franklin changes the question at the end of stanza 1 to the imperative that ends stanzas 2 and 4 (to be precise, she sings "Lover come on back to me!"). She reverses the order of the phrases "eager heart" and "aching heart." And she messes with the tenses of verbs. But such is the extraordinary spontaneity of her singing that what would be flaws in another singer's performance no longer matter. At issue is not a singer who "knows better" than the lyricist but a singer who is so unique as not to be bound by the usual considerations.

To end my consideration of departures from the "Lover, Come Back to Me" lyric, I return to Dinah Washington, Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. Dinah (in a couple of television performances, circa 1960), Ella (in her 1955 studio recording and 1960 live recording) and Billie (in an October 29, 1951 live recording and at the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival) each omits the words of an entire stanza, while preserving the song's AABA melodic structure (albeit Ella plays with this structure by interpolating the humorous material referred to earlier).

Holiday omits stanza 2—and changes the order of the stanzas that she does sing. She begins with stanza 1, which she converts to present tense; then sings stanza 4, then stanza 3, then stanza 4 again. (In 1951 but not 1957, she ends by repeating stanzas 3 and 4.) She ends stanza 1 not with the words "Lover, where can you be?" but with "Lover, Come Back to Me." When she first sings stanza 4 (in the place where stanza 2 would have usually been sung), she ends it not with "Lover, come back to me" but with "Lover, where can you be?" and she inserts the phrase "aching heart"—a vestige of stanza 2—instead of the phrase "this heart of mine."

The omission of the original stanza 2 lyric, with its past-to-present narrative, together with the elimination of past tense, increases the proportion of the song that conveys a current, melancholy state of mind. It yields more similar lyrics for the sections set to the same melody—melody A. For the original stanza 2 lyric contrasts with the lyrics of the other melody A stanzas. The similarity is intensified by the conversion to present tense of stanza 1. The fact that the first two stanzas now begin with the same words—"The sky is blue"—involves a hint of obsessiveness, which intensifies the melancholy. It is true that the revised lyric is less lucid. For the statements "love is new" and "love is old," being no longer temporally differentiated, risk opening the lyric to incoherence. But it is possible to read this contradiction as a paradox that conveys the painfulness of loss of love or perhaps as a matter of looking at the same thing from two different perspectives, the second darker than the first. And there is the possibility, albeit fairly slight, that the audience will bring to Holiday's version its knowledge of the original lyric, and thus will distinguish the time referred to in Holiday's stanza 1 from the time referred to in her stanza 2.

Whereas Holiday's revision of the lyric eliminates stanza 2 and doubles the time devoted to stanza 4, Fitzgerald and Washington do the reverse, eliminating stanza 4 and doubling the time devoted to stanza 2. First they sing stanza 1, then stanza 2, then stanza 3 and then they sing the words of stanza 2 again, this iteration of stanza 2 becoming the new stanza 4. For her reprise Washington repeats stanza 3 and stanza 2. More so than Holiday, Washington and Fitzgerald preserve the song's narrative and its temporal structure, telling a story that begins in the past and ends in the present.

By eliminating 25% of the lyric, Washington and Holiday could be seen as reducing the song to its essence as it were, evincing a "less is more" aesthetic which eschews wordiness, thereby making the song seem more modern. Because there is some loss of grandeur and sweep, I don't see either revision as an improvement on the original. But I am glad that these reimaginings of the song exist, glad that these performances depart radically from the original lyric. And in the case of Fitzgerald, her reduction of the romantic part of the lyric arguably creates space for the unromantic tough-talking interpolation. Again I am grateful for her reimagining.

Let's now consider departures from the lyric of "Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise." Here is what the lyric looks like (I include the rarely sung verse, a verse which when sung is virtually never changed):

Love came to me, gay and tender.
Love came to me, sweet surrender.
Love came to me In bright romantic splendor.
Fickle was she, faithful never.
Fickle was she, and clever.
So will it be, forever, forever—

Softly, as in a morning sunrise, The light of love comes stealing Into a newborn day. O!

Flaming with all the glow of sunrise,
A burning kiss is sealing
The vow that all betray.

For the passions that thrill love
And lift you high to heaven,
Are the passions that kill love
And let you fall to hell!
So ends each story.

Softly, as in an evening sunset,
The light that gave you glory
Will take it all away.

Bobby Darin is the one singer I know of who has had fun with this song. After reprising the last stanza, more loudly than before, a reprise involving repetition that emphasises the word "softly" ("Softly, softly as in an evening sunset, sunset"), he addresses the conductor (breaking the fourth wall as it were): "Say Richard, I don't want to be a drag or anything, but the title of this tune is 'Softly.' So could we do it that way please?" Which leads into his reprising the last stanza again, with the same repetitions—even more loudly. The joke here—a playing with the lyric more than a departing from it—exudes Darin's exuberance and verve.

It may be a little more than this. Given the song—or at least its ending and its whole third section—invites the kind of full-voiced performance that Mario Lanza offers, the incongruity that Darin plays with may already be there in a serious performance, perhaps adding to what makes the song ripe for debunking. Ring Lardner famously mocked this lyric by pointing out that a morning sunrise is distinct from a late afternoon sunrise or an evening sunrise. Moreover, the imagery is schematic, and the language remote from how people actually talk. But although the lyric is hardly a great poem, its melodrama and artifice work well in the case of words set to music. And as we shall see, it does display some literary nuance.

In the case of this lyric there are not quasi-canonical alternative versions. But some of its lines are fairly frequently altered with little consequence. The line "So ends each story" becomes "So ends the story" (in performances by Brandon Jovanovich, Anna Khrebtova, Bryan Hymel) and "So ends our story" (Gordon MacRae).

Like "Lover, Come Back to Me," this lyric evokes the passage of time. It does so through a shift from stanza 1 and 2 references to the morning sunrise to the stanza 4 reference to the evening sunset, a reference which evokes imminent darkness. The terms "morning" and "evening"—here pleonasms—underscore the passage of time, the span of a day becoming a metaphor for the life of a love affair. So I think it regrettable that some singers—Abbey Lincoln, Dianne Reeves (in both her studio recording and her live recording), Andrea Motis, Hila Hutmacher, Tami Kelly, Hetty Loxston, Doreen Shaffer, Gunhild Carling—replace the reference, at the end of the song, to a sunset with yet another reference to a sunrise. I suspect that the influence of Abbey Lincoln's wonderful recording may explain the prevalence of this practice.

I suggested that some changes to the lyric of "Lover, Come Back to Me" detract from its wordplay. Although the "Softly" lyric has less wordplay, a complexity pertains to its first verb, "comes stealing," which denotes not theft, not taking away, but quiet, surreptitious movement—movement here involved in an arrival. Nevertheless, the spectre of theft hangs over it—retrospectively at least. Before we reach the lyric's last verb, "will take," a verb that denotes something very much like theft, the lyric ties the coming of love to the destruction of love. Therefore, the use of the theft-evoking first verb—even its primary meaning here has negative connotations—to describe the coming of love has force, force lost if "comes stealing" is replaced by the phrase "comes sealing"—a phrase which moreover seems quite unclear.

Joanna Majoko makes this replacement—perhaps to set up a repetition across the first and second stanzas, a repetition which involves changing also the second stanza. But both changes are less clear than the original. Here is what Majoko's second stanza looks like:

Flaming with all the glow of sunrise,
The light of love comes sealing
The vow that all betray.

I find it hard to see how the light of love can seal a vow. Majoko may be the only singer to replace "stealing" with "sealing." But several singers—Helen Merrill, Roseanna Vitro, Allan Harris, Cyrille Aimée, Jenny Evans, Denise Jarrah, Magali Datzira, Doreen Shaffer, Hilary Kole—do the reverse: they sing of a burning kiss that "is stealing"—not sealing—the vow.

Perhaps they think that if the vow is betrayed it could not have been sealed. But this misses the point that the sealing of the vow makes the betrayal all the greater. And in any case, the idea of stealing a vow with a kiss makes no sense.

It is in the third stanza that love, with its joy, is tied most explicitly to the destruction of love; to jealousy, with its misery, and to the hate associated with jealousy. This paradox, this intermingling of contrarieties—the crux of the lyric—is lost by Tierney Sutton's dividing a single set of passions into two different sets:

For the passions that thrill love
They take you high to heaven,
But the passions that kill love
Can let you fall to hell!

Perhaps replacing a statement spanning four lines with two statements each of which spans only two lines enhances accessibility. But the loss of the paradox makes for a stanza that is weaker in itself than is the original and that coheres less well with the adjacent stanzas. T

The penultimate line of stanza 3 is sometimes changed. It becomes "And let you fall once more" (Nelson Eddy); "And let you fall again" (Bing Crosby); "And let you fall away" (Helen Merrill and Allan Harris); and "And let it flow away" (Cyrille Aimée). In the case of the two earliest of the singers (Eddy and Crosby) the omission of the word "hell" is just possibly connected to something like a religious sensibility. But I would hazard a guess that if the more recent singers deliberately omit the word "hell," as opposed to just mimicking what a predecessor has done, then they do so in order to avoid melodrama. This is what I think is going on when June Christy sings "And let you fall to earth."

Speaking in general terms, I think the drama, even the melodrama, of the term "hell" accords well with the song as a whole—just listen to Mario Lanza to hear how right a highly dramatic interpretation of this song sounds. So I think that generally speaking, omitting the word "hell" weakens the song. But in Christy's case at least, so inward and probing is her singing that her departure from the original feels right to me. Sometimes a singer's departing from the lyric is thought to display egotism. But there is no hint of that here.

Here is a brief summing up. The extent to which singers change the original lyrics of these famous songs is very great—perhaps surprisingly so. But we should not assume that the treatment of these songs—songs unusual in the way they straddle "high culture" and "popular culture"—is typical of the treatment of the Great American Songbook repertoire. Some changes are detrimental—detrimental in the context of almost any performance. And some such changes occur even in the performances of the finest singers—for example, Billie Holiday's singing "Ev'ry road I walk along I walk along with you." I find it difficult to point to changes that are improvements on the original—changes that would constitute improvements in the context of all, or almost all, performances. But there are changes which work well in the context of a particular singer's approach. This is perhaps most obviously so in the playful treatments of "Lover, Come Back to Me." But it also applies to "hell" being replaced by "earth" in June Christy's utterly serious treatment of "Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise." So I think that Andrew Ford is overly censorious about changing the lyric of a good song—there are reasons for changing a lyric that do not involve improving it—but also that Mark Steyn overstates the case for placing more trust in the instinct of a great singer than in the craft of a good lyricist.



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