“Up the Wooden Hill to Bedfordshire.” Words by Nixon Grey, music by Nixon Grey and Reg Connelly (1936). Recorded by Elsie Carlisle with orchestral accompaniment on January 31, 1936. Decca F. 5877 mx. GB7661-1.
Elsie Carlisle – "Up the Wooden Hill to Bedfordshire" (1936)
“Up the Wooden Hill to Bedfordshire” was composed by the relatively minor British lyricist Nixon Grey and the great songwriter and producer Reg Connelly (of Campbell and Connelly publishing fame). The title alludes to a childhood nickname for bedtime. As the song explains,
The old wooden hill was the old wooden stair,
And Bedfordshire, a cot, where I knelt to say my pray’r.
Climbing up the wooden hill to Bedfordshire,
They were happy, happy days for me.
The lyrics are an adult’s memory of an idyllic childhood, and especially of the joys of riding on “Dad’s” shoulders upstairs to go to sleep; in short, they are perfect treacle, but perhaps suited to the sentimental tastes of their day. One might compare them to “Little Man, You’ve Had a Busy Day,” but that earlier song is more melodically compelling and has the added bonus of possibly not really being about childhood.
Elsie Carlisle recorded “Up the Wooden Hill to Bedfordshire” at this her last session with Decca (she would not begin recording with HMV until late 1937, but is clear that she was more than busy broadcasting during that hiatus). She breathes a fair amount of life into the flawed composition, palliating its saccharinity with the appearance of sincerity. Vera Lynn also recorded this song, but her organ accompaniment makes the whole affair seem unnecessarily solemn. Elsie’s studio band can be applauded for their more playful approach to the melody; the overall effect is sweet and light.
On February 25, 1930, Broadway writer and producer Lew Leslie opened his *International Revue* at the Majestic Theatre in New York City. One would have expected a show backed by the mastermind of the wildly popular *Blackbirds* revues, choreographed by Busby Berkeley, and with music by Dorothy Fields and Jimmy McHugh, to be quite a success, but it had a comparatively short run of 95 performances, the last being on May 17, 1930. The lasting legacy of this well-funded flop consists of two songs: “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” introduced by Harry Richman, and “Exactly Like You,” sung in the revue by Richman and British actress Gertrude Lawrence.
In “Exactly Like You,” the singer describes the joy of having had an ideal preconception of love that has suddenly become realized in the form of the song’s addressee. The lyrics use turns of phrase suited to dramatic interpretation:
You make me feel so grand,
I want to hand the world to you.
You seem to understand
Each foolish little scheme I’m scheming,
Dream I’m dreaming.
The music is extraordinarily catchy but presents the singer with quite a challenge in its range (an octave and a fifth).
Elsie Carlisle was up to the task. A veteran of musical theater, she had, of course, introduced Cole Porter’s “What Is This Thing Called Love?” just the previous year, and it has an identical range. She works her way through the melody’s fourth intervals with dexterity, all the while giving the impression that she is on the verge of faltering. Hers was never a weak voice, but she was an actress who knew the power of the semblance of vulnerability. In the end, while the lyrics argue that we should be impressed by her lover, her overall vocal performance might lead us to admire the character that she has created, some anonymous small person who, prone to sadness, has the sudden opportunity to express great joy. I have argued elsewhere that Elsie did not simply interpret songs; she augmented them by creating comparatively advanced vocal personas that change greatly from song to song.
Elsie’s virtuoso performance is nicely complemented by the memorable instrumental accompaniment put together by Jay Wilbur, a bandleader who was also musical director at Imperial at the time. This was, incidentally, Elsie’s first recording session at Imperial, but she had worked previously with Wilbur at Dominion Records before it went bankrupt. She and the band recorded three different takes of “Exactly Like You” at their session in August 1930. It is worth comparing the slightly different instrumentals of take 2 (above) with take 1:
Elizabeth Carlisle was born on January 28, 18961 in Manchester, England to James Carlisle and Mary Ellen Carlisle (née Cottingham). Elsie was not the only member of her family to show a knack for show business; her brothers James (“Jim”) and Albert (“Tim”) were both singers who worked with the great composer, publisher, and impresario Lawrence Wright. By her own account, Elsie was encouraged to learn singing by her mother, who paid for her to have lessons when she was only a small girl.2 It was her brother Jim who got her her first theatrical role at the age of 12,3 and by the time of her marriage in 1914 she could be described as a “musical hall artiste” on the wedding certificate. By 1919 she was appearing in the West End in a show whose cast included Betty Bolton, and the next year she merited her own show, entitled Elsie Carlisle – With a Different Style, in which she performed as a solo vocalist.
How “different” her style was would quickly be made known to larger and larger audiences. Her stage career grew, only to be eclipsed, starting in 1926, by her broadcasting and recording efforts. Elsie’s 38 recordings made with Ambrose and His Orchestra between 1932 and 1935 are among the best remembered, but one should remember that she made at least 342 recordings between 1926 and 1942 — a prolific output. The British public would have known her better still from her broadcasts on the BBC and Radio Luxembourg. She was often billed as the “Idol of the Radio,” a well-earned epithet. By the mid-1930s she was ranked amongst the top vocalists who could be heard on the British airwaves, and she had film and television credits to her name as well. Her dulcet delivery of themes both comic and plaintive continues to attract listeners over a century after her first performance in a Manchester music hall, and the world is much richer for her having lived in it.
January 28, 1896 is the date that Elsie Carlisle’s mother provided when she registered her daughter’s birth on March 3, 1896. The same birthday appears on Elsie’s baptismal certificate, which is dated April 15, 1896, so the date “21 January 1897” found on Elsie’s death certificate must be erroneous. People are not generally baptized before they are born, and one would assume that Elsie’s mother was a better source of information regarding her own daughter’s birth than Elsie’s son Wilfred, the informant for the death certificate. ↩
Ralph Graves. “Radio Sweetheart No. 1.” Radio Pictorial 251 (November 4, 1938): 8. ↩
According to Richard J. Johnson in “Elsie Carlisle (with a different style).” Memory Lane 174 (2012): 25. ↩
In December 1933, the Daily Herald newspaper announced a holiday season contest for its readers: The Daily Herald Dance Tunes Contest. Readers were to pick out 12 dance songs from a list of 28 as their “best programme of dance music.” A group of “experts” would arrive at their own ideal line-up of tunes, and whoever had mailed in a list closest to that of the experts would win a staggering £2,500 (in the event of a tie, the money would be divided evenly among the winners).
As a commercial tie-in, two records were released with selections from each of the 28 songs, one recorded by George Scott-Wood and His Orchestra (“Dance Parade”; Regal Zonophone M.R. 1170), the other dubbed by Decca from records by its various artists (“The Daily Herald Dance Medley”).
I include the second record on my website because of the dub of Elsie Carlise’s “Snowball” (Decca F. 3696). The titles of all the songs are announced before each selection. The artists are not individually credited by the announcer, but their names are listed in a general sort of way on the label. Jack Hylton, Roy Fox, and Lew Stone are on both sides of the label, with the addition of Elsie Carlisle on side A and of Alfredo Campoli, Olive Groves, and the Britannica Piano-Accordion Band on side B. Members of the Facebook Golden Age of British Dance Bands group were kind enough to help me identify the source of each song excerpt:
Isn’t It Heavenly? – Lew Stone and His Band (Decca F. 3630)
Scorecard: 3-8, 10-21, and 23-28 identified by Terry Brown; 1-2 by John Wright; and 9 by Peter Wallace.
The original £2,500 prize was claimed and split in February 1934 by five winners whose ideal dance band programs matched those of the Daily Herald‘s panel of experts. The winning combination?
3. Night and Day 5. The Wedding of Mister Mickey Mouse 6. Lazybones 9. Reflections in the Water 11. Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf? 12. Dinner at Eight 14. Hold Me 17. We’re in the Money 18. The Last Round-Up 20. Shadow Waltz 22. The Saint Louis Blues 27. Thanks1
The Daily Herald. Friday, February 16, 1934, p. 9. ↩
The song “I Cover the Waterfront” was inspired by a 1932 book of the same name by Max Miller, a San Diego newspaper reporter, which is a collection of factual observations about the noteworthy events and criminal intrigues of that city’s waterfront. A pre-Code film, very loosely based on some events in the book, was released in 1933, and at the last minute the already popular Green-Heyman composition was included in it. Johnny Green and Edward Heyman are, of course, most famous for their collaboration with Robert Sour and Frank Eyton on Body and Soul.
“I Cover the Waterfront” references a book whose details are not really evident in the lyrics. The sentences “I cover the waterfront / I’m watching the sea” do not unequivocally convey to an audience the idea that the singer is impersonating a newspaper reporter (which is the premise of the book). The remainder of the lyrics repeatedly explain that the singer is waiting for a lover to return. The vagueness and repetition of the words create an attractive dreaminess that fits nicely with the atmospheric melody. The overall sound of “I Cover the Waterfront” is very much of its time; the song expresses the musical sensibilities of the early 1930s as well as “Ain’t Misbehavin'” does those of the late 1920s. Elsie Carlisle’s version of “I Cover the Waterfront” is exemplary of her ability to inject sincerity and character into any song, and in this case her plaintive tone makes us feel almost as if we knew its backstory — which we don’t.