When I took a ballet class, that Ruthanna Boris taught at the University of Washington, there were a set of twin ballerinas from Kalama, Washington.  Their names were Chloe and Camille.  That was before I knew the song “Chloe.” A couple of years ago, when I was knocking on doors for Oregon Public Broadcasting, I was asked into a house by a young woman who was a caretaker for a woman a hundred years old.  I was introduced to the centenarian.  Her name was Chloe.  I sang her a little of the song “Chloe.”  She said to me.  “The college boys would sing it to me when I was in college.”  I was glad to meet her.

I recently learned all the lyrics to the song.  It was written by Neil Moret, with lyrics by Gus Kahn.  There was no “Neil Moret.” It was a pseudonym for the composer Charles N Daniels. It was written in 1927.  It is one of the few songs  from the Tin Pan Alley that always seems to be recorded with its verse.  That could be that the verse is the only place in the song that mentions the name Chloe. It also is essential for setting the mood for the song.

The story is about a man who is searching for his girlfriend, although it is not per se a “stalker” song.  The verse, which is in the third person, states that someone is calling for Chloe, and there is no reply.  The next lyric is in the first person, “Through the black of night, I’ve gotta go where you are.”  That is followed by “Though, wrong or right, I gotta go where you go.  That might imply a stalker song, but in this case the lyric is for the direction of the search, not about the search itself.

The title of the song Chole includes the subtitle “Song of the Swamp.”  The second set of lyrics gets into that.  The man is searching “the dismal swamp lands.”  It concludes with “If you’re lost there, I’ll be lost there, too.” So, Chloe is lost, not fleeing from a maniac.

The next to last set of lyrics starts with “Ain’t no chains can bind you.”  Now we know that Chloe was probably taken away against her will, and that she could be in danger. It concludes that the man is committed to keep searching, no matter how far it might take.

The last set states “If you live, I’ll find you.”  That implies the man has been searching a long time, possibly for years, and that the situation of Chloe, might be tragic.  The song concludes “Love keeps calling me, I’ve gotta go where you are.”

The melody of the song differs from most Tin Pan Alley songs. The Tin Pan Alley era began early in the Twentieth Century and continued into the sixties. By far most of the songs were in a standard 32 bar format in AABA form. The A sections were 8 bars each and all contained the same melody. The B part, called the bridge, was 8 bars of a different melody. The song also started with separate verse, often 16 bars, with its own melody. Many performers felt the verses of songs were superfluous and dropped them completely when performing or the songs. As in the verse of Cole Porter’s song “It’s Delovely”:

I feel a sudden urge to sing the kind of ditty that invokes the spring
So, control your desire to curse while I crucify the verse
This verse I’ve started seems to me the “tin pan-tithesis” of melody
So to spare you all the pain, I’ll skip the darn thing and sing the refrain

The sad thing is, there are many very good verses, but even the best were usually thown out with all the rest. My favorite verse is from the song “You Took Advantage of Me” (Rodgers and Hart) :

In the Spring when the season was chronic
My desire was to leave you flat
I should have held onto that tonic
Before you told me that
Mentally deficient you rate me
I gave you plenty of data
You came, you saw, you slayed me
And that-a was that-a

I dare you to find those lyrics online. Oh, one thing, to sing it correctly, the word data is pronounced with a short a, not as it now is common, with a long a.

The oddness of “Chloe” starts with the verse, which is really nothing special, but seems to never be dropped in performances or recordings. I would suggest it meshes so well with the refrain that can’t be easly excised. The common inclusion of it, differs from almost all other Tin Pan Alley songs.
The melody of “Chloe” is also not in a AABA form. It is 32 bars long but instead of having four 8 bar parts, it 6 four bar parts, and one 8 bar part. Its form is most likely A/A1/B/A/A2/C,A3. With the B section being a sort of bridge of 8 bars. All of the parts have their own individual melody, except for the two A parts that are almost the same. (If anyone out there can improve on that description, I am very willing to have them correct me.) The only other song I have found in this odd form is George Gershwin’s “Fascinatin’ Rhythm.” The sheet music does include the tip to play it “in a tragic manner.”
The song was recorded by many performers, both as an instrumental, or with singing. It was written for the Broadway musical Africana, which opened June 11, 1927. Africana was the Broadway debut of Ethel Waters. Several recordings of it were issued in 1927, both with and without singing. The 1928 recording by Paul Whiteman made it a hit.

There are many more instrumental versions than with vocals. One of the best instrumentals was recorded in 1940 by Duke Ellington. The Ellington band can be heard playing it in the famous live recording from 1940 in Fargo, North Dakota, that was unearthed in the 70’s and won a Grammy for best big band record of 1980. The Fargo recording was from a Presto portable turntable that cut the recording into 16-inch, 33 1⁄3-rpm acetate-covered aluminum disks. The recording turntable was set up near Ellington’s piano.

There were not many recordings of it in the early thirties, Oh, there weren’t many recordings in the early thirties at all. It was commonly heard on the radio, probably due to its “tragic” sound fitting the general gloomy feeling of the time. A motion picture, Chloe, Love is Calling, was made in 1934, filmed in the Everglades, and starring Olive Borden.  It was also used as a gag in the 1942 Warner Bros. cartoon “The Impatient Patient” that begins with Daffy Duck delivering a telegram, in a swamp, shouting out the name Chloe.  Its best selling recording was made by Spike Jones, who turned it into a comedy song. You can see the Spike Jones version, in Technicolor, from the 1945 movie Bring On the Girls.

The sad thing about Spike Jones parody recordings, is that all of them, including “Cocktails for Two,” and “Laura,” as well as “Chloe,” made them laughing stocks for many people, obscuring just how great the songs are. 

“Chloe, Song of the Swamp,” is a great song. 

Categories Music

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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