"I follow Winchell and read every line. . ." [by David Lehman]
"That's why the lady is a tramp." Of all the classic American popular songs, the one I am most often asked to explain is "The Lady is a Tramp," my favorite Rodgers & Hart uptempo song.
You know, she goes to Coney -- the beach is divine; she goes to ballgames -- the bleachers are fine; she follows Winchell -- and reads every line. "That's why the lady is a tramp." At the opera she stays wide awake because people expect you to snooze; she gets to the theater on time, not fashionably late, because she doesn't give a hoot about fashion. And snobbism is for the birds if your budget leads you to the bleachers, Coney Island, and Cantral Park lake rather than a box seat and a summer share in the Hamptons. She's genuine, baby, as independent of mind as Emerson recommends, and as natural. "I like the free, fresh wind in my hair, / Life without care. / I'm broke. / It's oke." So the title is flat-out ironic, and "tramp" is a word of abuse redeemed into a term of praise. A list song, "The Lady is a Tramp" is, by implication, a kind of dictionary of receved ideas. . .Flaubert wrote a "dictionary of received ideas." He names a subject and gives you the proper response to make if said subject comes up at a soiree or the latter day equivalent, a cocktail party. What would be a good example today? Let's see. How about "Congress: They should be ashamed of themselves" or "The Sequester: I thought that was something that happened to juries" . .It's like a game of unfree association.. .Who is Winchell, you ask, and why is it a big deal to "read every line"? Walter Winchell was the nation's most popular gossip columnist, though evidently the smart set affected indifference to his columns. . . which consisted of sundry items juxtaposed with triple dots as here. The subjects could vary widely, weirdly, and with no logic, no unity either except for the cigar-smoking voice of Mr. Winchell firing off his telegrams. Winchell, a Roosevelt fan who vehemently opposed isolationism in the late 1930s, liked to say "I usually get my stuff from people who promised somebody else that they would keep it a secret". . .If you've seen Sweet Smell of Success with Burt Lancaster you've seen a satire on Winchell and the power he wielded. . .He also had a radio show that topped the charts in the year of my birth and I think there too he leaped from one subject to another with the abandon of a street fighter leaping across air shafts on rooftops in movies about growing up in the Bronx. . .In the year of my birth three teams played in New York City and none of them were the Mets. . .What was the worst trade or free agent signing in Mets' history? Jeepers (creepers), there's a lot of competition. Trading Tom Seaver to the Reds for four nice guys in 1977 takes the cake, I guess, though they also traded Nolan Ryan before he was Nolan Ryan. . .The best trade they ever made was undoubtedly the one that brought Mike Piazza to New York from the Dodgers via the Florida Marlins
two decades later . . . There is a good chance that Seaver knows a bunch of Rodgers & Hart songs. There is almost no chance that Piazza does. . . The woman who played the organ in Shea Stadium back in the day was a very talented jazz pianist named Jane Jarvis. . .She favored "The Surrey with the Fringe on Top" between the top and bottom half of an early inning. Rodgers wote that song with Hammerstein, not Hart, . . With Hart he wrote "Ten Cents a Dance," which Ruth Etting introduced in, I think, 1930. . . You know Ruth Etting, don't you? If not, drop everything, listen to her sing and then rent the movie about her starring Doris Day, "Love Me or Leave Me." Extra points if you name the authors of the film's title song and no, they're not Dick and Larry, pictured above. That's Ruth to the left and Doris playing Ruth on the right . . .
Playing Ruth's rendition of "It All Depends on You" followed by Sinatra's of the same number is something I would do on my first day as a disc jockey in tandem with Jamie Katz who will punctuate my Ella and Torme with Art Tatum or Tommy Flanagan or the Modern Jazz Quartet. . . .But I'm not going to tell you the point of the exercise, the reason for the particular conjunction of, say, Bud Powell's "Just One of Those Things" with a Sinatra take on that Cole Porter standard. . There's a sign on a Brooklyn building as you approach the Williamsburg Bridge: What's the Point in all caps but no question mark, from which I deduce that the author of the line in question has read Ashbery. And Jim, if you're listening. . . Dude, there are some pretty sick tags in my street. . .Or maybe it said There's no point but I prefer the more open-ended version, which is the starting point of a poem I wrote for Ron Horning . . .
What I like about this escape from poetic form is that it lets you name some of your favorite things and dwell on them as a frog dwells on a rock before leaping onto another rock and then refreshing himself in a pool covered with lily pads while a Japanese poet listens for the splash, watches, and imagines being somewhere else recalling this moment. . . In his notebook he writes, "even in Kyoto, I miss Kyoto," which was not necessarily on Cole Porter's mind when he wrote "I Love Paris". . .I was listening to "The Lady is a Tramp" on Ella's Rodgers and Hart Songbook driving to Bennington in June 1996. It turned out that Ella died that day and was reading my mind in heaven. . . I guess hers is my favorite cover of the song. . . Once at a reading I recited "The Lady is a Tramp" as poetry but when I got to the release I couldn't help myself and everyone and I started singing. . .