The behind-the-scenes "making of" documentary essay series about preparing songs for performance.
Wait Till the Sun Shines, Nellie
-- (1905; Music by Harry von Tilzer, Words by Andrew B. Sterling)
From the script for “An Indiana Bicentennial Celebration”:
Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, and thank you for joining us in this bicentennial celebration of the Hoosier State’s enduring musical history. Indiana celebrated its two-hundredth birthday last year, and so we begin tonight all the way back at the turn of the last century.
Harold Gumm was born in Detroit but grew up with his family in Indianapolis. At age fourteen, however, he literally ran away to join the circus, performing as a singing acrobat as well as playing piano and calliope. Seeking a more impressive moniker, he took his mother’s maiden name, “Tilzer”, and stuck “von” in front to make it sound even classier. Harry von Tilzer slowly worked his way from the circus to New York City vaudeville to founding a Tin Pan Alley publishing company, playing piano and writing songs all the way. (He may have even originated the term “Tin Pan Alley” itself!)
Over his career, von Tilzer wrote and co-wrote dozens of successful songs in the early 1900s, including the famous melodies “A Bird in a Gilded Cage,” “I Want a Girl (Just Like the Girl that Married Dear Old Dad),” and this...
As I explained at the start of the Notes on Notes series back in October, the Sounds of Indiana barbershop chorus presented what we call ‘The Indiana Show’ in 2017, one year late in celebrating the state’s bicentennial anniversary. This was the official premier of what has become our “standard documentary format” concert: a mix of chorus and quartet songs set around a particular theme, interspersed with slides or short video clips each paired with Ken Burns-style voice-over narration to introduce and sometimes close out each song. This style was repeated the following year for ‘The Travel Show’ and ‘The 2018 Holiday Show’ as well.
As the narrations above indicate, ‘The Indiana Show’ (or, officially, An Indiana Bicentennial Celebration) explored songs by composers or performers born in, or groups formed in, our home state, ranging from the 1890s to more recent decades. The concert began with a song well-known to all barbershoppers, which I can say confidently because it’s what we call a “polecat.”
The Barberpole Cat Program began in 1971 “to encourage as many Barbershoppers as possible to become involved in quartet singing.” This goal was to be achieved by promoting a collection of twelve “classic barbershop” songs (voted on by Society members in 1987) that all singers could/would/should learn at least one part to, and therefore they could sing these pieces in a quartet with any other barbershoppers around the country or world. The name of the program led to the songs themselves becoming popularly referred to as “polecats,” and each new Society member receives a copy of the book in which they’re collected (the source of the paragraph-opening quote).
Many of these songs, largely for ease of memorization, are only one page, but Wait Till the Sun Shines, Nellie is one of the longer ones. First written in 1905, it consists of a slower, more conversational verse followed by a quick, rhythmic chorus. Here are the lyrics from our 1986 arrangement:
On a Sunday morn sat a maid forlorn
With her sweetheart by her side;
Thru the window pane she looked at the rain,
“We must stay home, Joe,” she cried (she cried).
“There’s a picnic too, at the Old Point View;
It’s a shame it rained today, today.”
Then the boy drew near, kissed away each tear,
And she heard him softly say:
“Wait till the sun shines, Nellie,
When the clouds go drifting by (my honey).
We will be happy, Nellie,
Don’t you cry (Don’t you cry; for we’ll go)
Down Lover’s lane we’ll wander,
Sweethearts, you and I.
Wait till the sun shines, Nellie,
Bye and bye,
Bye and, bye. (Yes, bye and bye.)”
This piece was fairly straightforward to prepare for performance, since it very clearly lays out a descriptive and self-contained narrative story. We began with our 1/2/3 technique to decide who was telling the story of the song, or what the point of view is for each part. The verse is 3rd-person, with an outside narrator describing and commenting on the scene. For Nellie’s dialogue, however, we had to portray her downtrodden mood in our bodies and voices. The chorus section, on the other hand, is 1st-person from Joe’s perspective, as shown above by the entire section being enclosed in quotation marks. Here, we had to present ourselves as loving and encouraging, seeking to cheer up our pessimistic sweetheart.
Nellie was first on the program for ‘The Indiana Show’ for a number of reasons. First, it seemed quite appropriate to open a barbershop concert with such a recognizable barbershop song. Second, it was important for us to emphasize early on that many well-known tunes actually have an Indiana connection. Third, I wrote the script to segue smoothly from one of these Indiana connections to the next, and I had a way to cleanly get us out of Harry von Tilzer but not in.
Fourth, Nellie sets up the beginning of a narrative arc that spans the entire show. In my Note a couple weeks ago on Come Fly with Me, I made a passing reference to this: “For [‘The Indiana Show’], even though it wasn’t evident from the documentary-style script, we had more of an overarching storyline to the song order that focused our interpretation on the storyteller and addressee of the song.” I hadn’t planned for this when I created the show order and script; again, I was only focused on maintaining smooth segues from one piece to the next, always teasing the audience with “How are they going to connect that song to Indiana?”
About five or six months into our preparation, however, the chorus realized that the subject or theme of each song in the progression actually, and completely accidentally, traced the trajectory of Joe and Nellie’s relationship! This discovery thus shaped the tone of our presentation of each piece.
Here, the two have probably just recently begun dating. Nellie had been looking forward to going to a community picnic with her new beau, but is dejected at having to remain indoors due to the weather. Maybe this was even supposed to be their first date, and she’s taking the stormy sky as a negative omen for the future! (Incidentally, “Old Point View,” as far as I’ve been able to find out, is not a reference to a real-life place, but probably indicated to the audience of the time a generic hilltop overlook popular for these sorts of special events.) Joe, on the other hand, comforts her with a hug and kiss and encourages her to hold out for sunnier times to come, implying both today and later in their relationship.
Andrew Sterling’s second verse, not included in our Barberpole Cat arrangement, confirms that Joe’s optimism won out:
“How I long,” she sighed, “for a trolley ride,
Just to show my brand new gown.”
Then she gazed on high, with a gladsome cry,
For the sun was shining down.
And she looked so sweet, on the big front seat,
As the car sped on its way.
And she whispered low, “Say, you’re alright, Joe.
You just won my heart today.”
Yay for happy endings! And yay for happy beginnings, too, as we launch into the next season of the Notes on Notes series.
February 3, 2019