Carolina in the Morning

When I was growing up there were certain songs that were much more than words and music.  They seemed be part of the fabric of existence.  They were as much a natural part of American life as a street or a house or a tree. What made that unusual was they were not from my generation, or my parent’s generation, but were from my grandparent’s generation. Some were even much older, from the previous century. Some were instrumentals, melodies I had no idea of the name of, repeatedly used as accompaniment for dance acts on TV.   Later I found a couple of those songs were named “Fine and Dandy” and “Poppin’ the Cork”. The melody for “Poppin’” was written by James F. Hanley, with never-heard lyrics by Benny Davis. Mr. Hanley and Mr. Davis were born in the 1890’s. “Fine and Dandy,” from the 1930 Broadway Musical Fine and Dandy, was written by Kay Swift, with occasionally heard lyrics by Paul James. Paul James was a pseudonym for James Paul Warburg, who was the husband of Kay Swift. At the time Kay was having an affair with George Gershwin, that had started in 1925. George wrote the 1926 Broadway musical Oh, Kay! for her. Mr. Warburg divorced Kay in 1934.

Kay’s affair with George ended with his death in 1937. A couple of years later she married a cowboy, who took her to Oregon to live on his ranch. She wrote the book Who Could Ask For Anything More? about her life on the ranch. It was made into the 1950 movie Never a Dull Moment. The movie starred Fred MacMurray as the cowboy and Irene Dunne as Kay.

When I noticed there was no obituary for her in the Seattle Times when she died in 1993, it inspired me to write and produce the musical show Can’t We Be Friends? at the Pike St. Cinema. It was about Kay, and many other women, who had written popular songs in the Tin Pan Alley days. The show featured the singer Nora Michaels, with a three piece band led by pianist Jack Brownlow. The show inspired the American Masters PBS special Yours for a Song, about women featured in my show, that aired nationally in 1999.

Some of the songs were of greater antiquity such as “Betsy from Pike,” My Darling Clementine,” and “Camptown Races.” Those we sang in singing class in grade school. There were other tunes from Tin Pan Alley that lodged in the minds of the multitudes such as “I’m Looking Over A Four Leaf Clover,”   “Button Up Your Overcoat,” and “When the Red Red Robin Comes Bob Bob Bobbin Along,”   Everyone knew them, without ever realizing just how. Maybe not knowing all of the lyric, always recognizing the tune and probably being able to sing the opening bars and hum the rest.

One song deserves further comment.  That is “Carolina In the Morning” which was composed by Walter Donaldson in 1922 with lyrics by Gus Kahn.  It falls into a sub-genre of these songs in that everyone knew the melody but only a few knew the lyrics. What set it apart was many knew alternative lyrics, of the obscene kind. I had a good friend in high school named Mike Brech who was both a talented visual artist and a good singer.  He had a band called The Electric Link that played around the area and once was the opening act for The Box Tops at some venue in Cannon Beach, Oregon.  He told me The Box Tops could barely play their instruments. I cannot repeat here the lyrics to “Carolina in the Morning” that Mike would sing.

In college at the University of Washington in Seattle I got involved with a group of people who were into jazz music of the Twenties and Thirties.  Many of them played in the big band “Swingland Express” and in a smaller group called “The Salmon City Seven.”  For fun we would have jam sessions.  Some of the best were after hours at a bar called Skippers Tavern on Eastlake East.  The bartender there was a bass player. Musicians would show up at closing time and after the front door was locked the fun and music would begin.  To give you an idea of just how old the songs were that were played. here is a story.  One night a reeds player showed up named Mike Edwards, aka Abe Snake.  He was talented on both clarinet and soprano sax.  That night, after an hour or two of music, there was a longish pause between songs. The piano player Buck Evans asked “What should we play?”   Mike said “How about ‘Girl From Ipanema,’” a bossa nova song that was an international hit in 1964.  Buck replied “OK.”

The longish pause continued for a few more minutes.  Then Buck again asked “What should we play?”  Mike replied “I thought we were going to play ‘Girl From Ipanema’?”  Buck replied “I thought you were kidding.” Eventually they played “You’re Driving me Crazy,” written by, both words and music, Walter Donaldson.

Before the piano player Ross Harrison moved to New York there were many jam sessions at his house not far from Skippers Tavern.  The party was always in the daylight basement, which being on the down hill side,  had a nice view of Lake Union.  It was still early in the evening when Buck asked the singer Odessa Swan if she knew the song “Carolina in the Morning.”  She replied “Sure, but with lyrics not fit for mixed company.”   Instead she sang “Did I Remember,” written by Walter Donaldson.  A little later an attractive young woman, high as a kite, attracted by the music, wearing nothing but a string of pearls, wandered in.

I decided to finally learn the full melody and lyrics to “Carolina in the Morning.”  They are more complicated than you’d guess.  Mike Brech’s alternate lyrics just covered the first 16 bars. That was all I knew, with the bridge and what followed a mystery. It is a more complicated song than one would think. It is really fun to sing. It has been recorded by hundreds of people and sold millions of both sheet music and records. There are dozens of different versions on YouTube. It really is a wonderful song, something that I had realized before I was ten years old.

Categories History

Dennis Nyback is a legendary independent film archivist and historian. Formerly of Seattle, he now resides in Portland, OR with his 13,000 film collection and a clear conscience.

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