FRIDAY SONG: Fred Astaire, LET’S FACE THE MUSIC AND DANCE (Irving Berlin, 1936)
Here is a song that has been part of our lives for so long that it has become easy to forget how odd and unusual it is. That problem has been compounded by the countless woeful interpretations down the years – Frank Sinatra and Robbie Williams top a long list of singers who have robbed the song of its essential danger.
It takes a moment like this, when there is menace and fear in the air, to remind us how perfectly and economically Irving Berlin’s ‘Let’s Face the Music and Dance’ captures the fragility of our world and we puny humans who inhabit it.
Written in 1935 and published the following year when it was part of the score for the film Follow the Fleet, starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, it is widely thought to be a song which picked up on the sound of the distant drums of war.
The truth, I suspect, is that it was more a reflection of the years that had just passed. In the mid-1930s, there was a growing sense that the frothy escapism of the Busby Berkeley style of entertainment was wearing thin in those hard times. Follow the Fleet is still pretty frothy but there are the lightest of hints at seriousness.
The song, and the wonderful dance which follows it, occur in a play-within-a -play scene set in gambling casino. The character played by Ginger is about to jump off a bridge after losing a fortune when she meets the Fred Astaire character who is carrying a gun with the same suicidal intent. Then Fred starts singing…
‘There may be trouble ahead…’
Has there even been a greater first line of a popular song? The tune is irresistibly singable but has its melancholy musical roots in traditional East European cantorial music. As Barry Singer put in a 1998 New York Times piece on Yiddish music:
‘Wistful ambivalence undercuts exultation at every turn in the songs of Israel Baline (Irving Berlin), Hyman Arluck (Harold Arlen), Jacob Gershwine (George Gershwin) and so many other immigrant Jewish songwriters, darkening the attainment of happiness with the profundity of loss. ‘
The emphasis in the song, musically and lyrically, all falls on that on key word.
The lyrics of second verse add a specific – and slightly weird – reality to the general threat. We may be dancing now, they say, but soon the orchestra will take to its heels and all we’ll have left is the bill.
‘Before the fiddlers have fled
Before they ask us to pay the bill
And while we still have the chance
Let’s face the music and dance.’
The second part of the tune moves into a sunnier major key but, whereas in most songs of the time, the lyrics would follow with a bit of on-the-other-hand cheerfulness, Berlin makes it darker.
‘Soon, we’ll be without the moon
Humming a different tune, and then
There may be teardrops to shed
So while there’s moonlight and music
And love and romance
Let’s face the music and dance.’
It’s not often that the words ‘brooding menace’ and ‘Fred Astaire’ appear in the same sentence, but here, in that effortless way of his, he conveys the sadness of love at a time of danger.
Extraordinarily few of the many cover versions have managed that trick, although Willie Nelson’s treatment, taking a few liberties with the tempo and tune, is really moving and heartfelt.
In a rather good edition of BBC Radio 4’s Soul Music, Morris Dickstein, the author of Dancing in the Dark: a Cultural History of the Great Depression, uses the expression ‘unsentimental dryness’ to describe Fred Astaire’s style of singing, and compares the tone and message of the song he sings to the words of President Roosevelt.
‘This is exactly what FDR was saying in his fireside chats and in his wonderful second inaugural address, which is to say, “Separately, we fail. Separately, we were at each other’s throats. Separately, we were in despair. Together, we may have a chance. Together, we may make beautiful music together”.’
What better message, what better song, could there be for today? The fiddlers are about to flee, the bill is on its way and, as it happens, today we can’t even dance, except with our isolated selves.
Together, though, we have a chance.