In and Out of Context by Carolyn Bacon
I love the American Songbook. These are the songs, many originating in early American musicals and Hollywood films, that form a staple popular repertoire for jazz musicians. The greatest jazz artists constantly demonstrate infinite creativity in reinterpreting these songs.
Sometimes a song remains closely related to its original context. Not always. Sometimes, we barely remember it. Take “My Funny Valentine”. The song comes from Rodgers and Hart’s 1937 musical Babes in Arms, but who thinks of that context when they hear it? “Valentine” has been heard and performed out of context far more often than in.
Out of context, a song can be almost completely transformed. The gender of the performer can change or the gender of the subject. Changing (or not changing) pronouns in jazz and popular songs about love has a long history. The singer can stretch as far as creatively possible - but only to the furthest boundary that the text allows. The writer dictates what story is told, whose story, how it is told, and which words are used to tell it.
That’s one reason why I’m drawn to female lyricists, especially in the male-domintated American Songbook.
Consider Carolyn Leigh’s famous song “Witchcraft”, written for Frank Sinatra by Leigh and composer Cy Coleman in 1957. Leigh is an American lyricist best known for her songs in the musical Peter Pan and the pop standards she wrote like “The Best Is Yet To Come” and “Young at Heart”. Despite being one of the best known female contributors to the American Songbook, there is still no official biography of Leigh.
“Witchcraft” is a rather unique find in the established canon of jazz standards: a vision of female seduction crafted through the eyes of a woman for a man to say. Observe the “wicked” power of a woman according to Carolyn Leigh:
Those fingers in my hair
That sly come-hither stare
That strips my conscience bare
And I've got no defense for it
The heat is too intense for it
What good would common sense for it do?
'Cause it's witchcraft, wicked witchcraft
And although I know it's strictly taboo
When you arouse the need in me
My heart says "Yes, indeed" in me
"Proceed with what you're leadin' me to”
It's such an ancient pitch
But one I wouldn't switch
'Cause there's no nicer witch than you
At first, maybe you picture it like I did. A mysterious woman is holding a drink, eyeing her target. She’s close enough - bold enough! - to casually run her fingers through Frank’s hair. She urges him closer with a “come-hither” stare, a funny idiomatic phrase first used in 1895 that has always implied sexual desire. This seduction is an attack, for which he has no “defense”. Figuratively and literally, it’s hot.
The woman’s physical appearance is never mentioned in the lyrics, though. The two things that make her attractive are her touch and her gaze, especially because it implies sexual desire. And Leigh’s lyrics also don’t specify pronouns. The mental images we bring to the song about what this woman looks like and how she behaves come from the text in more subtle ways. The word “witch” implies femininity in most of its definitions. So do our long established patterns of American courtship, which dictate that despite all the power the “witch” seems to possess, she still must wait for her man to make his move.
But what I read in this text is that Leigh does shift the power dynamic. Far from placing a female subject in the position of being ogled by a man, Leigh creates an electric relationship between two individuals, one charged with sexual desire and the other caught in the magnetic pull. And the fact that Leigh doesn’t specify much about her “witch” is proof, in my mind, that Leigh wanted many listeners to be able to imagine themselves in her story. That openness to interpretation is inherent to the song because it is embedded in Leigh’s words.
There is no definitive list of “standards” except the ones we choose to study, learn, practice, and perform. These songs continue to influence singers and audiences alike - in what we expect to hear, what we expect to see, how we expect to present ourselves. We must keep looking at these songs in new ways: by going back to the lyrics, seeing what’s there, what’s missing, and what can be imagined.
Even - especially - if it’s “strictly taboo."
Carolyn Bacon is a singer and writer based in Brooklyn. Learn more at www.carolynannebacon.com.