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"My Favorite Song"

Guest contributors select one song that has a special, personal meaning for them, sharing specific reasons about why they find the music and lyrics irresistible, and choosing a performance that they feel ideally captures the spirit of that song.

Archive of Past Selections


"My Favorite Song"
February, 2014

Welcome to the monthly feature of the Vocal Arts DC web site in which guest contributors select one song that has a special, personal meaning for them, sharing specific reasons about why they find the music and lyrics irresistible, and choosing a performance that they feel ideally captures the spirit of that song.

Murray Horwitz is a Tony Award-winning playwright and lyricist (Ain't Misbehavin'), who wrote the popular song lyrics for John Harbison's opera, The Great Gatsby at the Metropolitan and Chicago Lyric Operas. In addition to writing, he is currently Director of Special Projects for the Washington Performing Arts Society.

George and Ira Gershwin: "They Can't Take That Away From Me"

Maybe my way of listening to music and lyrics is what qualified me to be a songwriter. For as long as I can remember (my listening memories begin at age three, with some 78 r.p.m. children's versions of Gilbert & Sullivan tunes), my response to both instrumental and vocal music has been more intellectual than emotional - something I later learned put me squarely in the minority of music listeners. In any case, the ideas and craft in George and Ira Gershwin's "They Can't Take That Away From Me" are what make it a favorite, even more than the beautiful, bittersweet feelings it perfectly expresses.

The song inspires me. When I think about what composer George and lyricist Ira accomplished in this...well, this perfect song, I get renewed energy. If I'm stuck on a lyric, or if I'm just trying to motivate myself to write, this song will do the trick. It represents an ideal that I try to shoot for - not that I'll ever achieve anything close to it.

In this post-Hammerstein/Sondheim era, we often forget how much character, plot, and setting informed the great contributions to the American Popular Songbook of so many others: the Gershwins, Andy Razaf, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Johnny Mercer, Fats Waller, Dorothy Fields, and dozens of other songwriters. To appreciate the achievement of "They Can't Take That Away From Me," you really have to start with its first appearance, in the movie Shall We Dance (1937), sung by Fred Astaire in a scene with Ginger Rogers. The plot requires them to get a quick divorce in New Jersey, as planned when they had a quick wedding in New York. But Fred loves Ginger, and he proves it in this poignant but unsentimental, heartfelt but hip song, sung on the ferry from Hoboken.

As my songwriting partner John Harbison points out, repeated notes are kind of a no-no in songwriting. You're trying to write great arching melodies (think "Star Dust" or almost any Schubert lied), not "C Jam Blues". In this song, though, Astaire is wooing Rogers, and (following a very angular, wide-ranging melody in the verse) Gershwin's one note-based melody is relentless in pushing itself forward. It's ceaselessly insistent: one-two/one-two/one-two: "The way/you wear/your hat." He keeps playing with that two-note phrase throughout the song.

That insistent melody leaves it to Ira, the lyricist, to make the real emotional build of the song. In the first eight bars, he uses almost trivial images - things Ginger's character probably never noticed: the way she wears her hat and sips her tea. In the second eight, he talks about her real personal attributes: her smile, and - in a lovely joke - her off-key singing that have endeared her to him ("the way you haunt my dreams"). In the bridge, he picks up George's playing with the idea of two: "never, never" and "always, always". (In his autobiographical Lyrics On Several Occasions, Ira second-guessed himself, and rewrote the bridge, only to end by triple-guessing himself, deciding the repeated words were stronger, and marking it "stet".) Then - and this is what puts me away every time I hear it - in the final eight bars, he recapitulates the first sixteen by mentioning first a trivial detail ("the way you hold your knife") and second the fondness they've shared ("the way we danced 'til three"), finally ending with the most profound declaration of love, "the way you've changed my life". Wow. Suddenly, all bets are off. Who could resist?

You'll hear the musicians play with that notion of two in Billie Holiday's great recording of the song. Remarkably, it was recorded a month before the movie opened, but it's as if everyone on the record had already recognized the song's greatness - or at least its singularity. Listen especially to Eddie Tompkins's trumpet introduction, and Buster Bailey's clarinet solo (which starts with the two-note repeated phrase, and then explodes into a gorgeous melodic improvisation). To me, it's Lady Day at her youthful best, paying close attention to the lyric, and making musical choices that enhance and burnish the song.

A story I've heard a couple of times - but have never seen confirmed - is that of Ira's bringing a disk of the soundtrack recording of "They Can't Take That Away From Me" home from the studio, so that George - in his final illness, too feeble to attend the session - could hear the song. The story goes that he wept upon hearing it, and when Ira asked him why, he replied, "It's just so beautiful."

I agree with George.


Fred Astaire in Shall We Dance

Billie Holiday: MP3

Click here to view previous month's submission.


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"My Favorite Song"

Archive of Past Selections