Love and Sorrow and Haunted Reveries: Listening to Eddie Lang on the Eve of Schubert’s Birthday
By Stuart Mitchner
Through long, long years I sang my songs. But when I wished to sing of love it turned to sorrow, and when I wanted to sing of sorrow it was transformed for me into love.
— Franz Schubert (1797-1828), from “My Dream”
If the metaphor popularized in the 1934 tune “Zing Went the Strings of My Heart” is on my mind, it isn’t because tomorrow, January 31, is the 222nd birthday of Franz Schubert, it’s because I’ve been listening to a Jazz Age guitarist from Philadelphia named Eddie Lang (1902-1933). What happens when Lang plucks the guitar strings, each note crystal clear, shining and separate, expresses something like the ebb and flow of love and sorrow Schubert muses on in “My Dream,” which was written in 1822 when he was 25 and had only six years to live. Lang was 25 in 1927 and had less than six years to live when he recorded much of the music that’s been haunting me for the past week, thanks to A Handful of Riffs, a CD with liner notes rightly referring to Lang as “one of the great originals,” the first to give the guitar “real soul in jazz.”
The heartstrings metaphor seems less banal when you put it together with a lyric about “a melody that haunted me from the start,” when “something inside of me started a symphony,” and “all nature seemed to be in perfect harmony.” And surely there’s nothing to be ashamed of in a line like “Your eyes made skies seem blue again,” especially when sung on YouTube by a glowing sixteen-year-old Judy Garland a year before The Wizard of Oz.
After being transported 80 years in an instant to a luminous moment from a forgotten film, you feel like saying, along with filmmaker Jonas Mekas, “Have you ever thought about how amazing, really amazing, life is?” James Leland quotes the line twice in his Sunday New York Times story about Mekas, who died January 23.
And if you grew up in Bloomington, Indiana, “how amazing, really amazing” to find that “Zing Went the Strings of My Heart” was composed, both words and music, by a fellow Hoosier named Jimmy Hanley (1892-1942), who also gave us “Indiana,” the unofficial state song popularly known as “Back home again in Indiana” where “the candlelight is still burning bright.”
The Stardust of a Song
Growing up in Hoagy Carmichael’s hometown meant living in the afterglow of “Stardust,” the song that made him famous. True to Mitchell Parrish’s lyric about dreaming of a song whose “melody haunts my reverie,” Hoagy haunted Bloomington. His piano was on display at the same campus hang-out where legend has it he discovered “the stardust of a song.” On my way home from school, I often walked past his boyhood home a few blocks from where I lived. He and Eddie Lang were bandmates, by the way. That’s Hoagy playing piano with Lang’s Orchestra on A Handful of Riffs, and while life’s amazingness has its limits, I can imagine a touch of Hoagy in the occasional eerie intimations of ragtime in Schubert’s songs, for example “In Spring,” when the pianist takes a stroll after the second verse, and “The Youth at the Well,” with its “how-dry-I-am” proto Jazz Age postlude.
Bing’s Best Friend
Schubert’s dream of love turning to sorrow and sorrow to love could caption the story of Eddie Lang, born Salvatore Massaro in the Little Italy of South Philly, where October 23 is Eddie Lang Day. Near his birthplace at 7th and Fitzwater is a memorial marker and a stunning mural that shows him seated, guitar in hand, among the jazz and blues luminaries he performed with, including Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong, Lonnie Johnson, and Joe Venuti. Smiling behind him is Bing Crosby, whose name comes up whenever the subject turns to the love Lang inspired, as a person and a player. Gary Giddins makes the point in A Pocketful of Dreams, the first volume of his biography of Crosby: “Lang was quiet, thoughtful, responsible” and “one of the few people in Bing’s life to get beyond the role of a jester or playmate and become a genuine confidant. He was Bing’s most intimate friend, almost certainly the closest he would ever have.” In the newly published second volume, The War Years, Giddins give a terse, telling impression of the lasting lifelong impact Lang’s untimely death had on Crosby: “no one got too close; no one got all of him.” What particularly tormented Crosby was that he’d advised his friend to have the operation, a seemingly routine tonsillectomy, that proved fatal when Lang, in Bing’s words, “developed an embolism and died without regaining consciousness.”
For a long time I didn’t bother to look up the title of the piece of music that first made me want to write about Eddie Lang. I liked not knowing what it was called or where it came from. I figured Lang must be the composer, since he played it with such an intimate, personal depth of feeling. I found myself thinking it, whistling it, humming it, as if the melody were unbound in time and space and I was a human aeolian harp picking up something that might date all the way back to Schubert. Actually, the sound of Viennese zithers can be heard in Lang’s “April Kisses” and “Rainbow Dreams.” As for the mystery song, given only as “Jeannine” on the CD’s track list, the full title is “Jeannine, I Dream of Lilac Time.” The music was composed by Nathaniel Shilkret, and featured in the score of one of Gary Cooper’s first mainstream features, Lilac Time (1928).
Vic Bellerby’s liner notes for A Handful of Riffs refer to “the wonderful rapport” between Lang and “the great guitarist-blues singer” Lonnie Johnson, with whom Lang played under the pseudonym Blind Willie Dunn. The epitome of rapport, of “being there” in the best sense, is evident whether Lang is accompanying Bessie Smith or the torch singer Ruth Etting in a film clip from a 1932 short A Regular Trouper. The scene takes place on a train. Etting is in her compartment feeling low when someone tells her, “I’ll bring Eddie in. He’ll cheer you up. Hey Eddie, come on in and bring that music box along.” Lang strolls into the compartment playing his “music box,” and sits down across from Etting, who cheers up as soon as she sees him. As she sings “Without That Man,” there’s a sense of musical compatibility beyond sympathy, much of the sequence being shot over his shoulder, she’s looking at him, he’s become the man in the song, and after strumming the concluding chord, he walks out of the compartment in the manner of an enlightened servant who has provided a moment of happiness to someone in need.
The same phenomenon is writ large in a scene between Crosby and Lang in The Big Broadcast of 1932. As Eddie sits impassively playing in the foreground, Bing leans on the piano rehearsing “Please,” a new song he’s been learning. Telling Eddie “I think I know it,” Bing does some ebullient scatting as he prepares to go out. A hint of the rapport, the comfort level, between the the singer and the player is in the way Crosby fumbles slightly, naturally, humanly, as he slips on a vest and then a jacket, singing the song again, loving it, loving the moment, looking at Lang as he sings, “Your eyes reveal that you have the soul of an angel white as snow,” which he follows with a burst of virtuoso whistling before finishing the song. Bing says, “Well I’ll see ya tonight,” and Eddie says, “Okay.” I would imagine Crosby found scenes like that one hard to look at after March 26, 1933.
Love, Death, and Sorrow
Schubert “sang continuously” during the last days of his life, according to the baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s biographical study, Schubert’s Songs (Knopf 1997). The songs the dying composer was singing would have been from his song cycle Winterreise since he was working on the proof of the second part in November 1828. Like the dream he wrote down in his journal six years before, his theme was love and sorrow. Although there is still scholarly disagreement about whether or not Schubert owned or played a guitar, I’d like to think he had one handy in that closet of a room above Frau von Bogner’s coffee house in Vienna, something he could play while singing the last lines of “The Hurdy-Gurdy Man”: “Strange old man, shall I go with you?/Will you grind your organ to my songs?”
“My Dream” can be found in Franz Schubert’s Letters and Other Writings (Books for Libraries Press 1970).