The Friday Fillip: Words to Start With

There’s the old joke about how you recognize an intellectual: it’s someone who can hear Rossini’s William Tell Overture without thinking about the Lone Ranger. Putting aside the problem of whether anyone still knows about the Lone Ranger and his TV theme music, I’d say that the real intellectual is someone who knows that the William Tell Overture begins with a glorious four-minute slow movement featuring five solo cellos. (It occurs to me: might this not be a good time for a new Lone Ranger movie? But I digress . . . )

Such is the fate of introductions. They’re often swept away by the vigor of the main course. Which is a shame, I think, for even amuses bouches (or “amuses gueules” the phrase I prefer) are worthy of notice and respect, and often what we most admire wouldn’t be so fine without a well-crafted set-up — a diamond in the rough, to adapt a phrase, instead of one sitting proud in a lovely setting.

The sort of introduction I’m particularly thinking of here is the musical lead-in to old standards, or, to be a little more technical, the “introductory sectional verse . . . that typically has a free musical structure, speech-like rhythms, and rubato delivery.” Perhaps the most well-known of these seeming throw-away compositions is the intro to “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” In fact, the intro has almost as many lines as the heart of the song:

The loveliness of Paris
Seems somehow sadly gay
The glory that was Rome
Is of another day
I’ve been terribly alone
And forgotten in Manhattan
I’m going home to my city by the bay. . .

Song writers don’t write these intros anymore. It seems they may have originated as a means of leading from spoken lines in a Broadway musical into a song. Whatever their origin, many of the preliminary lyrics of the songs in the “Great American Songbook” deserve our attention and affection. They are too many to list, so I can only point you to a very few, but feel free to add your suggestions as coments to this fillip. (The links are to YouTube, so you can hear the intro sung.)

I’d start with Stardust:

And now the purple dusk of twilight time
Steals across the meadows of my heart
High up in the sky the little stars climb
Always reminding me that we’re apart
You wander down the lane and far away
Leaving me a song that will not die
Love is now the stardust
Of yesterday
The music
Of the years
Gone by

Then there’s My Blue Heaven, for which, amazingly, the Smashing Pumpkins brought back the intro verse:

Day is ending
Birds are wending
Back to their shelter of
Each little nest they love

Nightshade’s falling
Lovebirds calling
What makes the world go round
Nothing but love . . .

The sombre introduction to Pennies From Heaven gives the whole song a different twist:

A long time ago, a million years BC
The best things in life were absolutely free
But no one appreciated the sky that was always blue
And no one congratulated a moon that was always new
So it was planned that they would vanish now and then
And you must pay before you get them back again
That’s what storms were made for, and you shouldn’t be afraid, for . . .

They Can’t Take That Away From Me has an intro that explains why in the rest of the song Fred Astaire has to be satisfied with the way she wears her hat:

Our romance won’t end on a sorrowful note,
Though by tomorrow you’re gone;
The song is ended, but as the songwriter wrote,
The melody lingers on.
They may take you from me, I’ll miss your fond caress.
But though they take you from me, I’ll still possess . . .

A White Christmas is set up by a contrast with the colour of L.A.:

The sun is shining, the grass is green,
The orange and palm trees sway.
There’s never been such a day
in Beverly Hills, L.A.
But it’s December the twenty-fourth,—
And I am longing to be up North— . . .

And so it goes. Or, rather, went.


  1. Musical lead ins are like recitals for recitals.

  2. Not only do a few of us know about the Lone Ranger’s theme music, Simon, we remember hearing it on that quaint communication medium, RADIO. You being a youngster, you might well have heard it only on TV.