Haunting Melodies


In a year of plague, election tension, and fascism fears, I re-discovered – along with Single-Malt Whisky — the American Songbook. These standards, written from the 1920s to early 1960s, were mostly composed for movies, musical theatre or sheet music sales, but achieved their best realization in concerts, clubs and recording studios. They were performed by Bing Crosby, Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Nelson Riddle, and many others, and still form the basis of many jazz and blues arrangements and improvisations.

This music was for me an escape. Through it, I experienced a “Night in Tunisia” “Autumn in New York” “April in Paris” “Moonlight in Vermont” and “A Foggy Day in London Town”. In this hazy world of Standard Songs, love was always in bloom and every moon was blue. But the more I listened during the months leading up to the election and then inauguration, the less escape I actually found. Even the most anodyne of songs seemed to me haunted by the pandemic, neo-fascism, the climate crisis, economic inequality, systemic racism, and of course, the evils of Him-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named.

Was it witchcraft? Or was it PTSD arising from four years of news as insistent and percussive as bombs heard in wartime? My psychologist told me I wasn’t alone in my sickness, and that many of his patients (he specializes in treating professors and university students) were also having a hard time. “Even life’s basic pleasures”, he told me, “for example good food, pleasure reading, and the bed [he’s rather discrete about sexual matters], are experienced in a distracted or alienated manner.” He prescribed for me a musical talking cure perfect for academics: listen to my favorite songs, read about them, and write down my thoughts. After that, he offered, I might once again be able to enjoy Sinatra.

So, what follows are edited transcripts of four, self-administered music therapy sessions, conducted over about a week. I can right away attest that some of my worst symptoms have now abated: I can enjoy Sinatra and the others without immediately reflecting upon our still doleful political circumstances. But I don’t know how much to attribute to the therapy, and how much to the image in my mind of Him-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named flying off in his helicopter to the Place-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named.

Session One: January 15, 2020: “As Time Goes By

“As Time Goes By” is a well-known, romantic ballad. Sung by Dooley Wilson in Casablanca in 1942, it’s also an anti-fascist song.

In 1937, Rudy Vallée recorded an excellent version, sung without the pleading sentimentality that was his unfortunate trademark. It also includes the verse — a short, introductory song — that sets the table for the subsequent refrains. In most recordings of “As Time Goes By,” it’s omitted, which is a shame because it includes several clever rhymes:

This day and age we’re living in
Gives cause for apprehension
With speed and new invention
And things like fourth dimension.

Yet we get a trifle weary
With Mr. Einstein’s theory.
So, we must get down to earth at times
Relax relieve the tension

But however good the verse, the song that follows, and Vallée’s rendition, it was the performance by Dooley Wilson in the Academy Award winning film Casablanca (Best Picture, 1942) that made “As Time Goes By” a hit and gave it political punch. (Unfortunately, and too typically, it wasn’t the African American Wilson who got rich on the song, it was Rudy Vallée. A musician’s strike curtailed the number of recordings made between 1942 and ’44, so RCA Victor simply re-released Vallée’s old version.)

In the mid 1930s, Wilson, who was a drummer and actor as well as singer, worked in the Federal Theatre Project, Negro Theatre Unit in Harlem. There he had lead roles in The Conjur Man Dies, by the African-American novelist Rudolph Fisher, as well as Androcles and the Lion by G.B. Shaw, both directed by John Houseman. Additional theatre work for him however, was foreclosed in 1939 when the FTP was defunded by Congress over charges that it supported “racial equality” and “Communist dictatorship and practices.”

There was some truth to the charges. Among other works staged by the FTP in New York and across the country was “It Can’t Happen Here,” based upon Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 novel of the same title. It concerned the rise in the U.S. of a Hitlerian – I’d now say Trumpian — figure named Buzz Windrip. Elected president on a populist platform of economic reform, patriotism, and traditional values, he quickly organized a paramilitary force called the Minute Men, built concentration camps for dissenters, dissolved congress and invaded Mexico. We can be glad Trump settled for a wall.

Dooley’s version of “As Time Goes By”, sung from the piano in “Rick’s Café Américain,” omits the witty opening verse and its theme of speed and modernity, focusing attention instead on the idea that love can be a force of political or even military solidarity: “A fight for love and glory/A case of do or die.” Casablanca, you will recall, concerned the broken-off love affair of Rick and Ilsa, (played by Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman), and their struggle over some “letters of transit” for a Czech resistance fighter named Victor Lazlo (acted by Paul Henreid), who was also Ilsa’s lover. In the end of course, Rick surrenders the documents to Lazlo, and sacrifices his relationship with Ilsa for the greater good — a “case of do or die”:

Casablanca was clearly anti-Nazi, or Antifa. Rick’s staff and patrons held secret meetings, provided mutual aid, staged counter protests (loudly singing the Marseillaise while a group of Nazis sang Watch on the Rhine), deployed physical and verbal harassment, damaged property, doxed (all those real and phony letters of transit), and in only one case used deadly violence — the killing of Nazi Major Strasser in order to protect Ilsa and Lazlo. “As Time Goes By,” sung by Dooley Wilson, is thus an Antifa anthem. And the fact that it’s sung by a Black man in a café frequently raided by the collaborationist Vichy government, reveals it to be critical of systemic American racism as well as Nazi racial violence.

Session Two, January 19, 2020: “We’ll Be Together Again

The song was written in 1945 while World War II was still raging, but the war’s end was clearly in sight. The first chorus is frank but generally reassuring:

No tear, no fear
Remember there’s always tomorrow
So what if we have to part
We’ll be together again

However, the slow tempo and low notes work against that message, as do the lines: “Your kiss/Your smile/Are memories I’ll treasure forever,” suggesting that the lover may never see the beloved again.

The song was a hit in 1947 for Frankie Laine, a crooner in the Sinatra mode, and for Frank himself in 1956. That version, like many of Sinatra’s covers in that period, is often considered definitive, but for me, the performance of the song by Tony Bennet and Bill Evans in 1975 is tops. Bennet’s baritone, thick vibrato and sheer volume are a cry of defiance against loneliness and fear. And Bill Evans’ rhythmic variety and complex harmonies work as counterpoint to the weight of Bennett’s singing. The song and this performance recall to mind the isolation experienced by so many during the Covid pandemic, and the news today that 400,000 have died of the disease – many of them as the result of government inaction and incompetence. Most of us will get through the plague, but the unlucky will have to be remembered through a kiss and smile that survivors will “treasure forever.”

Session Three, January 20, 2020: “Happy Days are Here Again

I can’t think of many sadder songs than “Happy Days are Here Again” (Ager and Yellen). First performed for the finale of the musical film Chasing Rainbows (1930, Charles Resiner, dir.), “Happy Days” is a song about historical transition. Near the end of the movie, the character played by comic actress Marie Dressler introduces the song with the lines: “The armistice is signed! The war is over!” (18:35 sec.) But the joy feels entirely forced, the laughter as artificial as the nearly two minute-long, solo laughter scene performed with Dada exuberance by Bessie Love.

It’s no surprise therefore that the song was deployed by Franklin Roosevelt for his presidential campaign of 1932. Only a song with the lyric: “Let us sing a song of cheer again…” could have so effectively reminded listeners during the Great Depression about the extent of their own suffering and President Hebert Hoover’s failures. (Hoover and his party, like Republicans during the Great Recession, preached budget austerity as a cure for the Depression.) Roosevelt won in a landslide.

But Democrats made a mistake, I think, by adopting “Happy Days” as their semi-official song for decades thereafter. If Hubert Humphrey hadn’t used it so often during his campaign in 1968 (including at the Democratic Nation Convention in Chicago while protesters outside were being clubbed), maybe he would have defeated Nixon. Every time it was played, people thought about dead American soldiers in Vietnam. It became the soundtrack of grief and tears.

Today, “Happy Days are Here Again” is rarely performed. If President Biden’s array of executive orders tonight, countermanding some of the most egregious of Trumps assaults on immigrants and the environment bring us joy, we won’t sing “Happy Days” or the equally depressing “Put on a Happy Face” (1962). Instead, we may listen to the tragi-comic “Smile” (1936), sung with devastating pathos by Judy Garland in 1954, or of course At Last recorded by Etta James in 1961.

Session 4, January 22: “I Can’t Get Started with You

Regardless of the ceremony at the capital this week, the new regime, as far as I’m concerned, was inaugurated on January 6. That’s when Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff (the Black guy and the Jew!), were declared victors in the Georgia Senate races, tipping the balance of the U.S. Senate to the Democrats. The era of Mitch McConnell, the most brilliant and diabolical Majority Leader since Lyndon Johnson, was over, at least for now. 1/6 was also, of course, the date of the failed coup at the Capital. On that day, the sickness that had overtaken the country, fascism and its buttresses – big lies, white supremacy and anti-Semitism – were on full display. But within hours, Congressional and public revulsion at the raid meant that the struggle against fascism could now be waged openly and with zeal. At least one para-military organization, I read yesterday, the Proud Boys, is already in retreat, but these are admittedly early days.

As I watched the Congressional confirmation of Biden’s election on 1/6 following the jacquerie at the Capital, I was especially drawn to Billie Holiday’s performance of Vernon Duke and Ira Gershwin’s great, “I Can’t Get Started with You.” The first chorus is striking for its 1930s topicality:

I’ve flown around the world in a plane
I’ve settled revolutions in Spain
The North Pole I have charted, but I can’t get
Started with you

Gershwin’s line about “revolutions in Spain” was unusual, not least for its reference to the anarcho-socialist revolution in Spain in February 1936. In fact, the Gershwins were enthusiastic, if perhaps unsophisticated anti-fascists. Their musical “Let ‘Em Eat Cake” (1933) was concerned with the successful efforts of the fictional President Wintergreen and Vice President Throttlebottom to reverse their electoral defeat and establish a comically incompetent fascist dictatorship. Along the way, there is an electoral appeal to the Supreme Court, an impeachment, hostage taking and aborted executions of the president and vice president. Everything sounds very He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named, except the aborted executions – the disgraced ex-president managed 13 of them in his last six months.

“I Can’t Get Started” was recorded by trumpeter and vocalist Bunny Berrigan in 1937 — and he scored a big hit with it. His treatment has an easy, New Orleans feel to it. It’s sung behind the beat, with the trumpet licks clearly influenced by Louis Armstrong. In fact, Armstrong refused to record the song himself because “it belongs to my boy Bunny Berrigan.” But good as it is, Berrigan’s version pales beside the one recorded by Billie Holiday two years later. That performance takes full advantage of the singer’s melodic improvisation and legato. The warmth and feeling of her low notes in the minor key bridge, (“You’re so supreme, lyrics I write of you/Scheme”) — can’t be topped, nor can the relaxed accompaniment by the great tenor sax player, Lester Young.

The song is about somebody sitting on top of the world, victorious in every domain except the one that will bring real joy. That sense of hollow pleasure resonates today among the those of us lucky enough to be housed, employed (or financially solvent), while so many others are not. And it reminds me that the election by itself has settled very little, and that unless Biden can force through a progressive program of economic relief, vaccine support, green infrastructure investment and environmental regulation, and police and immigration reform, we may in two years be back to where we were, and a new and more competent Wintergreen running for president.

This week, I told my shrink: “I think I’m doing a bit better, especially since the inauguration. I even bought myself a new set of headphones to better enjoy Frank and the rest.” He was gratified that his treatment had exorcised my demons and that I was enjoying music again. But he cautioned: “We just don’t know how long the relief will last.”


Stephen F. Eisenman is Professor Emeritus of Art History at Northwestern University and the author of Gauguin’s Skirt (Thames and Hudson, 1997), The Abu Ghraib Effect (Reaktion, 2007), The Cry of Nature: Art and the Making of Animal Rights (Reaktion, 2015) and other books. He is also co-founder of the environmental justice non-profit,  Anthropocene Alliance. He and the artist Sue Coe have just published American Fascism, Still for Rotland Press. He can be reached at: s-eisenman@northwestern.edu