June 6, 2015

Notes on "Nancy"

Mark Steyn's latest Sinatra Century feature is "Nancy (With The Laughing Face)." The story behind it is interesting in many ways, but this part might give you a lump in your throat:

In June 1945, the USO sent Frank on a European tour for all those GIs who'd just liberated a continent. And, that being so, the singer thought they ought to have a say in the programme. So he asked for requests and, as Phil Silvers recalled, "the first scream from 2,000 men was for 'Nancy (with the laughing face)'". They knew the song from the V-disc, and, like "White Christmas", it had been enlarged by the times: Frank's ode to his little girl made hundreds of thousands of US soldiers think of their own daughters far away - maybe not Nancys, but Bettys and Marys and Janes and Joans. For their fathers, Phil Silvers' first line - "If I don't see her each day I miss her" - brought a real jolt of pain. "Nancy" remains the only standard song introduced to the world by V-disc, beloved by America's men in uniform before most of the planet had even heard it.
That changes my experience of the song.

Mark confesses to past doubts about this couplet, which happens to be my favorite part of the song:
She takes the winter and makes it summer
Summer could take some lessons from her...

"Summer"/"from 'er"? I once had an argument with Gene Lees (lyricist of "Quiet Night Of Quiet Stars" and other Sinatra bossa novas) over that couplet, Lees insisting it was a false rhyme that disfigured the song and me objecting that it was a somewhat ungainly rhyme, especially for Van Heusen's almost Kern-like melody, but it was not, technically, false. Lees said Shakespeare had used the same rhyme, although where I can't recall. But that was an ancient dispute, and these days I'm not sure I'd even say it was "ungainly". It's precisely because Johnny Burke would have eschewed such a rhyme that [Phil] Silvers' couplet is so distinctive and particular.
It's lovely. Who knew Sgt. Bilko had it in him?

But what really gave me pause was this:
Most name songs don't really flesh out their eponymous subject matter much beyond the rhyme: "Rosie (You are my posy)", "Ida (Sweet as apple cider)", "My three o'clock thrill/Is a girl named Jill", etc.
Hold the phone! Why have I never heard of this song before? A quick visit to YouTube answered that: because it's terrible. Oh well. I guess I'm stuck with "Jack and Jill," the bane of my childhood existence. If only I had a nickel for every time I was asked, "Where's Jack?"

MsEBL features both of Sinatra's Nancys with some great photos and videos. Check it out, along with Bob Belvedere's latest offerings, here.

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