Sunday, November 06, 2005

Yes, I Cantor

I've always liked the recordings of Eddie Cantor, and in some ways I think his taste in songs was better than that of his rival, Al Jolson; Jolson's megalomania meant he had to be more important than the song, whereas Cantor introduced or popularized quite a few songs that still hold up on their own as classics ("Makin' Whoopee," "Margie," "If You Knew Susie," "You'd Be Surprised," "My Baby Just Cares For Me").

What I find odd about Cantor's taste in songs is that the majority of his songs are set up in such a way as to be about someone other than him. We now expect a popular singer to sing songs that express what he or she is feeling: I love you, I hate you, I'm glad, I'm sad. That's what Jolson usually did; he picked and sang songs about missing his mammy or being down on his knee, sonny boy. But Cantor's songs are often "story" songs, where he is telling you the story of someone else ("Makin' Whoopee" is about other people's marriages, sung from the perspective of a happy bachelor). And where they're not stories, they're often put into the mouth of someone other than himself: the verse will tell us what someone else -- not him -- said, and the refrain will be quoting that someone else.

To show you what I mean, here are some introductory verses from songs that Cantor either introduced or popularized:

You can talk about your love affairs,
Here's one I must tell to you;
All night long they sit upon the stairs,
He holds her close and starts to coo:

I know a couple of newlyweds,
They've been newlyweds for years,
Just a pair of spooners,
Sunny honeymooners.
This happy couple lives next to me
And it's music to my ears
When after ev'ry kiss
I hear him saying this:
("Okay, Toots")

I was strolling out one evening
By the silvery moon,
I could hear somebody singing
A familiar tune.
So I stopped a while to listen,
Not a word I wanted to miss.
It was just somebody serenading
Something like this:

What's the greatest problem now throughout the land?
What's the only problem needs a helping hand?
It isn't Prohibition or farm relief, I find;
It's something more important now on ev'rybody's mind.
Just walk into any home today,
It's ten to one you'll hear each husband say:
("My Wife is on a Diet")

I realize that framing devices and story songs were very common in popular music in Cantor's time, but still, his reticence -- his apparent unwillingness to pick songs where he would express a feeling directly, rather than framing it as the words of somebody else -- seems unusual for a popular singer. It might explain why he doesn't have the same profile Jolson does; Jolson had his problems as a singer, but emotional reticence wasn't one of them.

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