Poem: Listening to Miss Peggy Lee
When Peggy Lee recorded “The Folks Who Live on the Hill” in 1957, the song — with music by Jerome Kern and words by Oscar Hammerstein II — was already 20 years old. Arranged by Nelson Riddle, conducted by Frank Sinatra, the recording became a Lee classic. I saw her perform it on The Perry Como Show, broadcast weekly by the BBC in the days when there were only two TV channels. On the surface, Lee and Riddle turned the song into a reassuring vision of the white-picket-fence America of the Eisenhower era. I heard that, too, but I found myself, young as I was then, responding to something deeper, more ambiguous, containing both optimism for adulthood and a hint of anxieties to come. The poet Roy Kelly seems to have experienced a similar reaction. Roy writes for The Bridge, the Bob Dylan magazine; his long piece on the ‘Mondo Scripto’ exhibition is in the next issue. His book Bob Dylan Dream: My Life with Bob was published in 2015. I’m grateful for his permission to publish this new poem, and I hope you like it as much as I do. RW
ON LISTENING TO MISS PEGGY LEE SING
THE FOLKS WHO LIVE ON THE HILL
By Roy Kelly
The song I heard as a child
and ever since, beautiful Fifties America
art song, popular and commonplace
in anyone’s Sunday kitchen,
coming out of radios as if it never
could end, that time, that childhood.
An arranged figure lifting
and repeating, horns and strings
in melancholy grandeur;
not the tune but inextricable
precursor to its unfolding,
to the appearance of her voice,
small and clear, steadfast, intimate,
close as a whisper rising into
the narrative of melody,
the story of a union to come,
Darby and Joan who used to be
Jack and Jill, woven and layered
in the resonance of words and music,
the grief at the core of happiness,
tears in the heart of all things,
so that for years I never hear it
but my eyes brim, my throat swells to closing.
Genius art song of Fifties America
informing me of a life that might have been
and the future I have now,
the family I am blessed with now,
in a story we need to tell each other
of how it is loving and being loved,
as she loved and was loved, wishing
on a world that lives in songs,
memory and imagination a focused vision,
childhood and old age meeting
in her voice, her eternal clarity,
the unison that moved me to tears
and will again though I forget she is dead,
the uplifting splendour of the everyday
coming alive on anyone’s radio
as if these moments never will end.
Who knows where or when?
Love this song. Love this poem. Now I will find Peggy Lee’s version on YouTube and listen myself… Thank you for sharing!
Thanks for sharing the poem, Richard. I’ve always loved this song, too, since hearing it regularly in my childhood in late 50s/early 60s Northampton. And yes, it was never reassuring for me, or merely about nostalgia, but tinged with a quietly melancholy anxiety – something Terence Davies picked up on to brilliant effect when he included it in the soundtrack of Of Time and the City.
File alongside “One for my Baby”, as the greatest orchestration of an American popular song. “Love Story” by Randy Newman, moves me in a similar way, as I approach my checkers board years.
Lovely, both song and poem. A couple of questions, if I may: Any idea why she changes the ‘Darby & Joan’ line? Also, is it really true that Sinatra was the conductor?
1. I think it’s a good change. “Darby and Joan” was an English coinage, originating in the 18th century. It must have had some currency in the USA, otherwise Hammerstein wouldn’t have used it. But “Baby and Joe” sounds more like suburban 1950s America to me.
2. That’s the credit on the original front cover of the album (The Man I Love) from which the track comes, and there’s a line drawing of them together in the studio on the back — Peggy singing, Frank conducting. He was serious enough about music not to have wanted a spurious credit. He also conducted an album of some Alec Wilder pieces in 1946 and another LP called Tone Poems of Colour in 1956, featuring pieces by various composers, including Wilder, Riddle and Gordon Jenkins. Here’s Peggy, reminiscing about the album in Peter J. Levinson’s excellent biography of Riddle: “Frank is an excellent conductor and, I’d say, more sensitive to a singer than most.” And from the same book, here’s Lou Levy, who played piano on the date: “The Man I Love was a lovely project. Frank was very easy to follow, Nelson did a great job, and Peggy sounded wonderful.” So I guess he did.
Thanks, Richard – very interesting.
Rob -this one might possibly Come to the Island with me. A really lovely and evocative poem. Thank you xx Maureen
Brilliant. Roy Kelly is hugely underrated. A collection of his Dylan stuff would go straight into the Top 5 of best Dylan books (your own tome being in there too of course). And this poem is terrific. I went straight to the music and shed a tear too.
Maybe I’ve got it wrong, but I always took Randy Newman’s “Love Story” (on his first LP) to be a parody of The Folks etc”.