Saturday, March 21, 2009
Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most
When I was a very young woman, I bought, one Sunday, a homemade cassette tape of the great jazz singer Betty Carter at the now-defunct Canal Street flea market. This tape helped me through a long, difficult period of heartbreak, in particular Carter's idiosyncratic interpretation of the Landesman-Wolf standard "Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most" (from her 1964 album Inside Betty Carter), which you can hear here. The lyrics convey the louche, wised-up attitude of most 1950s standards, and yet they are also resigned and truly poignant.
Morning's kiss wakes trees and flowers
And to them I'd like to drink a toast;
I walk in the park just to kill the lonely hours.
Spring can really hang you up the most.
The sparse arrangement and the understated playing of Carter's trio, suggestive of wide-open spaces not yet warmed by the sun or populated with blossoms, combined with her restrained, intellectual, and yet deeply affecting read of the lyrics, give this song a kind of verisimillitude, a true-to-life musical depiction of loneliness as the modern condition.
The funny thing is that I have always felt, no matter how hard the winter has been, that spring has come too soon. I am never ready for it. By the time March rolls around, I feel as if I've allied myself completely, inside and out, with wintriness, the essence and substance of winter, and that winter is the only state in which I will ever feel comfortable. In spite of the universal longing for spring, I feel that I should hang back (as the song says, "like a horse that never left the post"), and I would like to delay the warmth, the fecundity, the light-heartedness, of the new season.
The cold, gray days of early spring are, however, especially evocative and nostalgic for me, and in my mind I have always associated them with certain pieces of French Impressionist music that I had the great good fortune to study as an undergraduate. These pieces have always been a kind of balm for loneliness to me, not because they counteract it, but because they so marvelously depict and deepen solitude. These are pieces that (like "Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most") convey a sense of wind-swept openness, and also of rushing movement, of forward motion without resolution. Whenever I hear Debussy's string quartet, I'm taken back in memory to New York. It is early March, a Sunday, and I am walking up Riverside Drive ("I walk in the park just to kill the lonely hours"); the huge trees are black and bare, with just the merest hint of a grayish-green penumbra shading some boughs to suggest the coming leaves; the air is cold, and the river is gray. To me Debussy's music is gray too, in many varying shades; it is the music of early spring, of hearts that lie dormant. Ravel's quartet, though it too suggests wide-open spaces with sweeping melodic gestures, is for later, much later, after hearts have begun to be awakened by the warmth of spring, awakened to love and pain.