“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.
The only American recorded version that I have found is that of the Meyer Davis Orchestra (with vocalist Charlie Palloy). The song was widely recorded by British artists in December 1933, including the BBC Dance Orchestra (under director Henry Hall, with vocalists Phyllis Robins and Les Allen), Roy Fox and His Band (with vocalist Denny Dennis), Billy Cotton and His Band (with Alan Breeze), Ambrose and His Orchestra (with Sam Browne), Ray Noble and His Orchestra (with Al Bowlly), Howard Flynn and His Orchestra (with vocals by Dan Donovan), Jay Wilbur and His Band (with Phyllis Robins and Sam Browne), and Jack Payne and His Band (with Jack Payne singing the lyrics). In January 1934 there were versions recorded by Charlie Kunz and the Casani Club Orchestra (with vocal refrain by Eve Becke), Harry Leader and His Band (with Sam Browne), Harry Roy and His Orchestra (with Ivor Moreton), Peggy Cochrane, and The Three Ginx.
- James Gavin, Stormy Weather, United Kingdom: Atria Books, 2009, 39. ↩