“The Clouds Will Soon Roll By.” Words and music by Harry Woods and Billy Hill (the latter using the pseudonym George Brown; 1932). Recorded by Ambrose and His Orchestra (with vocals by Elsie Carlisle) on July 13, 1932. HMV B-6210 mx. OB-3134-1.
Personnel: Bert Ambrose dir. Max Goldberg-Harry Owen-t / Ted Heath-tb / Joe Crossman-Billy Amstell-Joe Jeannete-reeds / Harry Hines-as / Ernie Lewis-Teddy Sinclair-Peter Rush-vn / Bert Read-p / Joe Brannelly-g / Don Stutely-sb / Max Bacon-d-vib
Elsie Carlisle’s recording of “The Clouds Will Soon Roll By” with Ambrose and His Orchestra is fixed in the public’s memory as one of her most representative recordings. It is a perfect example of her ability to project vulnerability, in this case employing optimistic lyrics set to a powerful but somewhat melancholy arrangement. This recording seems to encapsulate our sense of the Great Depression as an era when popular culture offered eloquent expressions of hope amidst global disappointment and despair.
The use of extended meteorological comparisons to encourage an upbeat attitude precedes the Depression, of course. Irving Berlin’s 1926 Blue Skies is another song that similarly combines hopeful lyrics with a rather sad tune. In 1932, the year when Harry Woods and Billy Hill published “The Clouds Will Soon Roll By,” Berlin would write “Let’s Have Another Cup of Coffee,” a much perkier but similarly themed composition, one of whose lines is “And the clouds will soon roll by.” It is as if songwriters had hit upon the perfect metaphorical vehicle — weather, the most pedestrian topic of light chat — as the best way to convey consolation.
The Ambrose arrangement of “The Clouds Will Soon Roll By” would be memorable even if it lacked Elsie’s vocals. The intro seems to churn and roll like the upper atmosphere in a storm, and the music evokes both sadness and confidence. But Elsie is at her best in this piece. She allows her voice to quaver slightly at important points as if crying, all the while comforting both herself and us. It is worth noting that she sings for barely over a minute of the recording, which is not unusual in a dance band arrangement. What is interesting is that we remember her part so well.
The Ambrose recording is undoubtedly one of the most recognizable pieces of British popular music from the interwar period; it is also one of Elsie Carlisle’s best-known songs. There is a peculiar reason for this. The 1978 Dennis Potter television miniseries Pennies from Heaven featured long and frequently bizarre musical interludes based on British dance band recordings, and in many ways it created a canon of recognizable songs. The very first such song in the very first episode is Ambrose’s “The Clouds Will Soon Roll By,” and when Elsie begins to sing, the actor who mimes to her voice is the very masculine Bob Hoskins. The effect is jarring and memorable. Again, in the 1981 miniseries Brideshead Revisited.1 protragonist Charles Ryder puts the Ambrose record on a gramophone at a moment when comfort is needed, but he and his lover leave the room just as Elsie’s voice begins to be audible.
“The Clouds Will Soon Roll By.” Recorded by Elsie Carlisle with piano accompaniment and with Len Fillis on the steel guitar on September 19, 1932 in Chelsea Town Hall, London. Decca F-3146 mx. GB-4844-4.
In her later Decca recording, Elsie Carlisle sings “The Clouds Will Soon Roll By” at a more leisurely pace. The accompaniment is a simple piano and Len Fillis on the steel guitar. The song is still bittersweet, but there is a lazy, dreamy quality to it as well. At one point when Fillis’s guitar is foregrounded, Elsie hums the tune and even begins to engage in a half-hearted attempt at scat. The overall effect is not as powerful as the Ambrose version, but the recording is nevertheless memorable for its playful interpretation of the song.
- Season One, Episode Ten. ↩