The behind-the-scenes "making of" documentary essay series about preparing songs for performance.
Meet Me in St. Louis, Louis
-- (1904; Music by Kerry Mills; Words by Andrew Sterling)
From the script for “A Little Travelin' Music”:
In 1904, St. Louis, Missouri, hosted the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in a one-year-delayed centennial celebration of the United States’ acquisition of the Louisiana Territory from France. Informally known as the St Louis World’s Fair, the Exposition featured exhibitions by 43 of the 45 states at the time as well as 60 foreign countries, was attended by nearly 19.7 million people, and was celebrated by a popular song of the time.
The song, as sung by Judy Garland, and the fair were both focal points of the 1944 film Meet Me in St. Louis, but it was the soundtrack of 1941’s Strawberry Blonde, featuring this and many other tunes from the turn of the 20th century, that earned a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Scoring of a Musical Picture.
Recap: The Sounds of Indiana barbershop chorus presented what we call ‘The Travel Show’ in 2018, following the same “standard documentary format” that had been so enthusiastically received for the previous year’s ‘The Indiana Show.’ As before, this concert format presents a mix of chorus and quartet songs set around a particular theme, interspersed with slides of short video clips each paired with a Ken Burns-style voice-over narration to introduce and sometimes close out each song. The song order for The Travel Show was determined roughly by the geography of each song.. From Louisiana and New Orleans last week, we now head up the Mississippi River to Missouri.
The St. Louis World’s Fair is similar to the Sounds of Indiana in that it was held one year later than the anniversary it was intended to celebrate. The same situation happened to our chorus for two recent shows, despite their titles: 100 Years of Sinatra was held in 2016, the 101st anniversary of Frank Sinatra’s birth, and An Indiana Bicentennial Celebration was held in 2017, the 201st anniversary of the state’s statehood. (The same also happened to the World’s Columbian Exposition, better known now as the Chicago World’s Fair, about a decade before St. Louis; in 1893, it commemorated the 401st anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the New World.) So, as you can see, we’re plainly just continuing a precedent!
In any case, the song Meet Me in St. Louis, Louis was published in 1904, the same year as the fair itself, and was soon recorded by several popular and prolific singers of the time (but whose names are now too obscure to mention). Composer Kerry Mills likewise produced few songs that are still known today, but lyricist Andrew Sterling had several hits, especially those written in collaboration Harry von Tilzer, including the barbershop classic Wait Till the Sun Shines, Nellie (1905).
St Louis was enough of a barbershop classic itself that it was included for some time on the Barbershop Harmony Society’s “Free ‘n’ Easy” sheet music webpage, along with other tunes in the “Barbershop Classic” category, birthday/holiday selections, and US patriotic songs. The majority of these pieces either are old enough to be in the public domain or were given to the Society for singers to print freely. Sadly, however, this page seems to have been renovated fairly recently and many pieces, including this one, have been removed from the list. (The sheet music is still available, but must now be purchased instead.)
The lyrics take the form of a limerick (in which the lines rhyme AABBA, uncommon for a song), and use the Francophone pronunciation of “Louis” (i.e. LOO-ee) rather than the Anglophone version (LOO-iss) used almost everywhere else:
When Louis came home to his flat,
He hung up his coat and his hat.
He gazed all around,
And no one could be found.
So, he said, “Where can my love be at? (Where’s she at?)”
A note on the table he spied.
He read it just once, then he cried (how he cried!).
It read, “Louie, dear,
It’s too slow for me here,
So I think I will go for a ride (for a ride).”
Then, it said,
“Meet me in St. Louis, Louis. Meet me at the fair.
Don’t tell me the lights are shining anyplace but there.
We will dance the Hoochie-Koochie.
I will be your tootsie-wootsie,
If you will meet me in St. Louis, Louis. Meet me at the fair.
If you will meet me in St. Louis, Louis,
Meet (please meet) me at (meet me at) the fair (at the fair).
Meet me, honey, bring lotsa money. I’ll be right there!”
In my opinion, this song’s structure, harmonies, and emotional tone are very similar to its step-sibling Wait Till the Sun Shines, Nellie. (Same lyricist, different composter, you remember.) Both have a pessimistic verse followed by an optimistic chorus, with chords that firmly ensconce them in the harmonic realm of “barbershop classics.”
Additionally, both feature a clear narrative arc. Compare this to last week’s discussion on New Orleans, in which the narrator is in the song, expressing the story by speaking to different people around him, as well as himself. Here, on the other hand, the point of view, the storyteller, is a third-person narrator looking in from outside the action of the story itself, like the narrator of a book. The performers’ job here, then, is not so much to embody the emotion of the words as to paint a picture of the action. To go against a popular phrase of advice, this song is more “Tell, don’t show.”
That said, the performers have to all be on board with what story they’re telling! Fortunately for us, this wasn’t difficult. Nellie had previously been featured in The Indiana Show, so we all had a pretty good idea of what to convey. The trickiest part, at least for me, was actually learning the music! As commonly happens, our director Joe wanted to spice up the old SPEBSQSA arrangement that we had acquired online. He modified some chords, added rhythm to the chorus, and created a new tag. Although initially confusing, I admit these modifications did bring some pep to another old piece on our program.
Before wrapping up, I want to add one historical note on the text of the song. The lyrics are all a straightforward narrative progression using language we still understand today, except for “We will dance the hoochie-coochie.” This is an umbrella term for several similar actions that we would now compare to a “belly dance.” The basic movements were brought to widest American attention by Middle Eastern performers at the Columbian Exposition in 1893, and were particularly associated with dancer “Little Egypt” and the music “The Streets of Cairo, or The Poor Little Country Maid” (aka “the snake charmer song”.) The dance’s popularity meant that quickly replaced the can-can as the go-to risqué dance move in big city music halls and vaudeville stages. The etymology of the name, though, is unclear, and still a subject of speculation; one path traces from a supposedly-Indian name for the dance “Kouta-Kouta” through “coochie choochie” finally to “hoochie coochie.” Whatever it was called, the movement retained enough popularity for at least ten years to be mentioned in St Louis (and I’m sure you can imagine the insinuation of Louis and his love dancing it together), but had all but faded away by World War II.
And speaking of fading away… the Notes on Notes series is not doing that! (Gotcha? Haha? Maybe? ;) ) Anyway. Even though the chorus will soon begin our annual Winter Hiatus until January, I’ll still be here writing for you on Sunday evenings. After one more week, our travel itinerary jumps us over to the West Coast! Until then,
December 16, 2018