“Calliope Jane.” Composed by Hoagy Carmichael for Road Show (1941). Recorded by Elsie Carlisle with orchestral accompaniment, probably under the musical direction of Jay Wilbur, on June 24, 1941. Rex 10008 mx. R5917-1.
To their credit, The Charioteers lessened the awkwardness of this strange little song by singing the “ploops” in a very high register, so as to make it perfectly clear that they were imitating the sound of a calliope.
Not so Elsie Carlisle. I will concede that Elsie applies her most dulcet delivery to “Calliope Jane” in an arrangement that lets her play both the part of the interested audience (“Johnny”) and that of Calliope Jane herself, who explains that when she plays her calliope, she likes”to give it a dash of that swing.” But Elsie utters her “ploop, ploops” in the same register as the rest of the words, and I had to listen to her recording more than once to realize that the sounds were meant to be onomatopoetic. The overall impression made by her version is one of extreme silliness that verges on being somewhat embarrassing.
Not one of Elsie Carlisle’s finest moments, nor Hoagy Carmichael’s for that matter, and it would appear that few other artists took the bait and recorded “Calliope Jane.” The one exception was Arthur Young and His Swingtette, who had recorded it in London the previous day.
“With My Eyes Wide Open I’m Dreaming.” Words and music composed by Mack Gordon and Harry Revel for the Paramount film Shoot the Works (1934). Recorded by Elsie Carlisle with orchestral accompaniment on August 23, 1934. Decca F. 5173 mx. TB1491-1.
“With My Eyes Wide Open I’m Dreaming” was written by Mack Gordon and Harry Revel for the Paramount film Shoot the Works.1 They had composed “Did You Ever See a Dream Walking?” (which Elsie Carlisle also recorded) the previous year for another Paramount picture, and the two songs have similar conceits: the singer expresses surprise at finding herself in a love relationship so ideal that it seems more like a dream than reality. Elsie’s recording of “With My Eyes Wide Open I’m Dreaming” seems dreamy to me mostly because of Elsie’s dreamy delivery; it lacks the otherworldly introduction that the earlier song has. Its atmosphere is greatly augmented by the short but exceedingly beautiful clarinet and violin interlude. I will admit that Elsie’s voice goes pitchy in the last note of the song; it would stretch credulity if I tried to argue that she did that for effect.
It was released in Britain as Thank Your Stars, presumably because “shoot the works” (referring to the making of a large expenditure or effort) was indecipherable American slang; the expression appears to have faded from use in recent decades. ↩
“When a Woman Loves a Man.” Words by Johnny Mercer, music by Bernard Hanighen and Gordon Jenkins (1934). Recorded by Elsie Carlisle with orchestral accompaniment on June 14, 1934. Decca F. 5071 mx. TB1321-2.
It must first be noted that the song “When a Woman Loves a Man” recorded by Elsie Carlisle for Decca is not the Billy Rose/Ralph Rainger composition that Fanny Brice introduced in the 1930 film Be Yourself, but rather a later composition by prolific American songwriters Johnny Mercer, Bernard Hanighen, and Gordon Jenkins. Both songs describe women in love as being wholly different from their male counterparts and in most ways more admirable in terms of tenacity and loyalty, but the Mercer lyrics have a sentimental quality that poses a special problem for the singer. How can one make such bold generalizations about half of the human population without seeming disingenuous? Fortunately, one of Elsie’s many talents was to add sincerity to her material by way of measured pathos, and in this recording the beauty of her delivery allows us to suspend disbelief.
“Did You Ever See a Dream Walking?” Words by Mack Gordon, music by Harry Revel. Composed for the Paramount film Sitting Pretty (1933). Recorded by Elsie Carlisle with orchestral accompaniment on December 19, 1933. Decca F. 3812 mx. GB6424-1.
“Did You Ever See a Dream Walking?” begins with a suitably dreamy introduction that is full of words such as “strange,” “mystic,” and “weird,” and its music evokes an atmosphere of wonderment. The singer reveals that something unexpected and even perhaps otherworldly has happened to her, and then follows with the question, “Did a thing like this ever happen to you?” The rest of the song is a long series of questions that slowly reveal the nature of the apparently ecstatic experience: the singer has fallen in love with someone that she describes as a “dream,” and even as “heaven.” Elsie Carlisle’s version is an effusive description of the states of entrancement and adoration, and the studio band’s attractive accompaniment matches nicely their performance in the song on the reverse side of the record (“On a Steamer Coming Over”).
“On a Steamer Coming Over (What Could We Do?)” Words by Joe Goodwin and Henry Bergman, music by Lou Handman. Composed for The Cotton Club Parade of 1933. Recorded by Elsie Carlisle with orchestral accompaniment on December 19, 1933. Decca F-3812 mx. GB-6425-2.
“On a Steamer Coming Over” originated in The Cotton Club Parade of 1933 (the same New York stage revue that featured “Stormy Weather”). Introduced by Aida Ward, it was also Lena Horne’s first Manhattan solo at a time when the latter was just a chorus girl and understudy.1 The song dramatizes an encounter between a woman and a man on a presumably trans-Atlantic ocean liner (it does not specify which direction they were going). Their romance grows and thrives because the couple has lots of time and nothing else to do, and they seem destined for marriage. The song thus encapsulates a popular twentieth-century motif in which the confinement of a long ocean journey is taken as as a source of happiness, rather than being understood as a modern nuisance.
Listening to Elsie Carlisle’s recording of “On a Steamer Coming Over,” I am first struck by the sound effects. There is an extraordinarily realistic simulated ship’s horn, as well as sounds of splashing ocean water throughout. We have no idea who the instrumentalists are — that is frequently the case with Elsie’s Decca recordings — but they perform admirably, particularly the pianist, who at the end of the song seems to be mimicking on his instrument the sound of the eddying water. Elsie seems to have fully embraced the song’s almost trance-inducing repetitiveness, which, like an ocean voyage, has the potential to go on indefinitely — and perhaps we might like it to. Her vocals are marked by a special sweetness and earnestness.