THE SONG IS OURS-----Richard Rodgers Versus The People

by Ian Whitcomb


Ian Whitcomb is a highly respected performer, composer, and music historian. You can find all of his CD's, DVD's, Books, and Songbooks by clicking here,
or by going to




       Like “Take Me Out to The Ball Game” and “Happy Birthday To You” many of Richard Rodgers’ songs have been appropriated by The People, in the true democratic manner, and re-styled to suit their spiritual needs so that the originals, ripped from roots in rarefied theatre air, have eventually come to rest in the great outdoors as virtual folksong. In Rodgers’ case his carefully crafted melodies have been transmogrified into everything ranging from anthems, sing-along, doowop, progressive jazz, latin, to, most recently, rap.

       He never cared for this process. Hot, repetitive rhythm—the all-syncopated heartbeat of American music—whether called ragtime, jazz, swing or rock’n’roll-- was never to his liking: he was basically a 19th century romantic without wheels. But he couldn’t help but write incredibly infectious tunes and he couldn’t stop folks catching them and going out to play ball with them-- dancing up a storm, singing in the bathtub, maybe adjusting a note or two. Once a song is published anyone can do what they like with it, providing royalties are duly paid.

 Clive Davis, the hotshot record executive who championed hippie rock in the heady atmosphere of the late 1960s, once trapped Rodgers in a Columbia Records office and made him listen to Janis Joplin’s rendition of  “Little Girl Blue”, a song he’d written with Larry Hart for “Jumbo” back in 1935, a song that had deeply moved his wife Dorothy (his chief song tester) when she first heard it.

Rodgers was horrified by Joplin’s Texas tearaway habit of breaking syllables into a flurry of notes like an old-time hot gospeller or a modern soul singer—melismatics gone crazy—and fled the room.

The democratization, and to a certain extent the ruination, of Rodgers’ songs as art-work, as music woven into the fabric of the play, had been bothering the composer ever since the dance band days of the 1920s: Paul Whiteman, King Of Jazz, had over- decorated “Manhattan”, making it into a jazzy wobble-walk rather than the witty but stately-smooth schottische that the composer had intended. Like Jerome Kern, who favored the old-fashioned term “burthen” rather than “chorus or “refrain”, Rodgers used the quaint word “schottische”, referring to an early 19th century ballroom dance in slow polka time, an ancestor of the modern foxtrot.

“Mountain Greenery”(1926) is as close to a rhythm number as Rodgers ever got and Hart supplied some pretty stunning lyrics so Rodgers must have been dismayed by Frank Crumit’s hit recording on Victor in which he renders both wrong notes and chords. Nevertheless the disc is a charmer due to Crumit’s warm personality and pleasing ukulele strumming.

But in the late 1930s things grew unpleasant with the coming of Swing. The Big Bands liked to smother theatre delicacies with thick sauce, a mixture of riffs and blue notes. In a 1938 “Time” cover story Rodgers opened up: “He hates swing”, reported the magazine.” And so does Hart.’ It’s old stuff. Benny Goodman is only doing better what Ted Lewis did years ago’. Both Rodgers & Hart hate having swing bands play their stuff—Hart because the subtlety, and even the grammar, of his lyrics is apt to be outraged; Rodgers because his melodies get buried”.

Next year, in “Too Many Girls”, (1939) the songsters got even with the swingsters: “A well known drummer plays the drums like thunder/ But the melody is six feet under” wrote Hart in “I Like To Recognize The Tune” to appropriate notes by Rodgers. They were not alone in their displeasure and dismay with the way the music business was going:  elder statesman Jerome Kern had awful trouble trying to write in the new fashion for “Swing Time”, reverting to the old 2/4 of the ragtime era and smarting when Fred Astaire’s pianist opined that Kern’s syncopation was corny and simply didn’t swing; Cole Porter ordered Frank Sinatra not to sing his songs if he was going to mess with the words; Irving Berlin tried to prevent radio stations from playing Elvis Presley’s version of “White Christmas”, believing it to be sacrilege.

The 1950s, when rock’n’roll arrived and refused to go away, was crisis time for the makers and guardians of the well-made song. To a man, they failed to catch the Big Beat. They thought the sky had fallen in, destroying all their precious roses and rainbows and Junes spent under a moon. Speaking of moons, the above-mentioned Elvis, bete noir of the old-timers, cut a version of Rodgers & Hart’s 1934 “Blue Moon”, stamping his hallmark firmly on it.  I imagine Rodgers must have gurgled if he ever listened: Elvis sounds like he’s in a giant Sargasso goldfish bowl being chased by exploding bubbles; the bridge section of the original, with its satisfying key change and stunning return, is omitted—probably because the guys couldn’t master it. But the main theme harmonic progression, a 1-VI-II-V ostinato vamp already employed in “Mountain Greenery”, is pretty much left intact—although rockers shy away from the II chord in favor of the IV (or subdominant), a friendlier sound)

In complete contrast a doowop group called The Marcels hit number #1 with their version of “Blue Moon” in 1960. Here we have a frenzied romp rolled along encouragingly by a deep-voiced fellow speaking of dip-di-dips and bomp-di-dongs in the grand nonsense tradition of the songs of William Shakespeare. Just like Elvis, though, they avoided the swell progressions in the bridge. But how those doowoppers adored that main chord sequence!  They went on using it ad nauseam; they even gave it a name: “Ice Cream Changes”.

The British Invasion may have brought Beatle originality and freshness but it also brought Gerry & The Pacemakers with their take on “You’ll Never Walk Alone”, an inspirational hymn from “Carousel” which fits perfectly in its dramatic setting but when torn from the play has a tendency to teeter on the brink of religioso preachiness. However, the song has great power for the People: over the years it has become the anthem of not only Liverpool Football Club supporters but also their Scottish rivals, Glasgow Celtic, as well as soccer teams in Austria and Bulgaria—the list keeps growing. Thousands of fans bellowing in unison is a ritual you mock at your peril. And I remember, in my student days, witnessing a legless man in a Dublin bar doing his tuneless version and quite moving it was too. At that time, in what were called “Singing Lounges”, were local cowboys who were under the impression that “Oh, What A Beautiful Morning” was a folk song from some far western trail. Actually, the contours of the main strain can be traced to a 1900 gospel song called “I’m A Moonbeam” by one Edwin O. Excell.

All this is to say that you can’t corral a hit song, a musical emotion zinging the heart and providing comfort. In the confines of the theatre Rodgers was still in control and could be a martinet, making sure that his performers—he never liked to work with stars because they weren’t malleable—did it his way. Martha Wright, who took over from Mary Martin in “South Pacific” describes the composer as a real hands-on “tough guy”: “He knew exactly how he wanted his music sung, and you had to adhere strictly to that”. Lyric emphasis, intonation, delivery—he was a real stickler. My old friend David Raksin, no mean composer himself, got into hot water for daring to suggest that maybe Rodgers had got a couple of chords in the wrong order. They never worked together again.

Rock has in fact been kind to Rodgers. We might even dub him “The Rockin’ Mr. Rodgers”: the many hot versions of “Blue Moon” have shot it up to being the most popular of all his songs; Dion & The Belmonts made a creditable “Where Or When” with stripped-down harmonies, while Jay & The Americans applied a touch of Phil Spector baion beat to “Some Enchanted Evening” and the Mama and the Papas, bang in the middle of the psychedelic age, delivered an almost pizza parlor “Sing For Your Supper”  (from “The Boys From Syracuse, 1938).

And in our new century the composer’s songs, freed from show shackles, have been subjected to high-tech synth and sampled bopping beats for dance club acceptance-- “Happy Talk” by Captain Sensible, for example-- and even fashioned as rap vehicles: a 2004 version of the same song by Dizzee Rascal. “The Sound Of Music”, scorned by the counterculture of the later 1960s, recently enjoyed a revival thanks to a cult movement initiated by London’s gay community who turned it into a sing-along event with an audience dressed as nuns accompanied by Ray, A Drop Of Golden Sun, in his body costume. Another victory for the People against the Guardians of Culture.

What would Richard Rodgers make of all this appropriation of his work? I hope he’d be proud of having been an artist for us urban folk, tapping into the beauty that lies within and without us. We who write and perform are simply signifiers showing the way to a better place, providing a little solace on the way. “All I really want to do”, said Rodgers, anticipating Bob Dylan, “is to provide a hard-worked man in the blouse business with a method of expressing himself. If he likes a tune, he can whistle it, and it will make his life happier”.


Ian Whitcomb is a highly respected performer, composer, and music historian. You can find all of his CD's, DVD's, Books, and Songbooks by clicking here,
or by going to