Thursday, December 10, 2009

Deconstructing Moonbeams

It all started with Andy Williams. He was on the Diane Rehm show this morning, promoting his new memoir with the nifty title, "Moon River and Me." They were talking about how he moved out to LA in the forties with his three brothers, a singing act. Whereupon Diane played a clip of "Swingin' on a Star": the familiar Bing Crosby version with a smooth male quartet harmonizing on chorus ("Or would you like to swing on a star...?") Was this just to capture the era? Nope, it turned out that the male quartet on the song was Andy Williams (at age 17) and his brothers. Who knew? Which got me thinking, for hours, about "Swingin' on a Star."

It was one of those crooners' celestial wisdom songs that came out of the forties and fifties from time to time, and which I always fell into deeply. There was "When You Wish Upon a Star" in Cliff Edwards' vaulting cornpone ("Like a bolt out of the blue/Fate steps in and sees you throoooooooough") And later, Perry Como admonishing "Don't let the stars get in your eyes, don't let the moon take your heart" which has been a touchstone since I heard it one summer night, age seven, waiting in our '54 Pontiac near Atlantic City and looking up at the stars while my dad checked us into a motel. And Perry again with another piece of advice: "Catch a falling star and put it in your pocket, never let it fade away."

But the oldest and maybe the best celestial wisdom song was "Swingin' on a Star." It had this Zen, elliptical quality, holding out this illusive reward--swingin' on a star, carrying moonbeams home in a jar--which seemed the opposite of what going to school usually brings. On the other hand, this was Bing Crosby, the God of crooners, which made it almost Biblical. True, selling going to school was a little unusual. It seemed to stand for something else. Something you knew if you lived in Hollywood in the forties, a blend of the romantic and the practical: carrying moonbeams and being better off than you are. (There was a war on. People were used to getting encouragement from the stars.)

So I Googled the song. Found out that songwriter Jimmy van Heusen was over at Bing's one night to come up with a song for the film "Going My Way." And one of Bing's sons was complaining about going to school, which prompted Bing to say, "If you don't , you'll grow up to be a mule." Nice tidy little story, though it's not the kind of song you really want demystified.

Then I went looking for various renditions on YouTube. Didn't much care for the clip from "Going My Way", with the song as an object lesson, Bing at the piano, a chorus of boys going ooh in the background and certain lads doing the animal verses. Much better was hearing the song as a ukulele lesson delivered by an avuncular guy named Michael Lynch.

But the one that came closest to getting it was a Little Lulu animated short from 1947, which I think I saw as a kid. ( In it, Lulu (playing hookey, going fishing, and seeing stars after bonking into a tree) imagines herself swinging on a swing from a big five-pointed star; confronts a mule in a book of ABCs; turns into a pig; turns into a fish; is lectured by a monkey; does a conga up a stairway to the stars made of schoolbooks, and gets a cap and gown and diploma from the moon. The only part I remembered from before is the faces of Bing, Bob Hope, and Jerry Colonna ("and be betterrr off than you arrre") appearing in a row of stars. Stars in stars. I believed it. It's that loony trusting in fantasy to get you through reality, which I subscribed to. And still do, at least in a wishful kind of way.

I know. Too much time on my hands. But it's about a star, which is a nice strong December icon. So that'll be the window today. A big five-pointer with Bing in the middle and Little Lulu swinging on her swing. Here's to jarsful of moonbeams in 2010.

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