Periodic Poetry: Drake, “Good Morning, Heartache”

Shortly after September 11, 2001 the New York Times cultural correspondents responded in a fashion typical for the New York Times–they picked the art pieces they believed to be most appropriate in light of the tragedy at the World Trade Center. Of course, it was done in the typical superficial manner that  New York Times cultural correspondents generally display. A safe Requiem was picked by the Classical critic. I believe Abbey Lincoln’s “The World is Falling Down” was picked by the Jazz critic. Like the obituary department, the cultural correspondents have their opinions pre-packaged.

(I am not panning Abbey Lincoln in the least. In fact I would have had more to say immediately after her death had I not recently described my appreciation of the most memorable performance of hers that I saw. I will probably have more to say soon, but her career was quite varied and deserves more than the reflexive tributes we’ve seen at, for example, NPR. That said, “The World is Falling Down” is a metaphor for something quite different from a memorial for the World Trade Center tragedy and it’s selection was an example of the laziness of the then jazz critic of the Times. I am passing over how the Times had fallen into the dull habit of responding to things with “best-of” lists; railing against that trend is like trying to erect levees against the general erosion of tastes and sensibilities my generation has inflicted on our society.)

The one jazz standard that would not leave my mind in the weeks following September 11, 2001 was “Good Morning, Heartache.” Written by Ervin Drake (who I believe was the principle lyricist), Irene Higginbotham and Dan Fisher, it was first performed by Billie Holiday in January 1946. To the extent that the lyrics are considered by themselves, the principle virtue lies in the title. The verses are nothing more than poorly expressed, almost inarticulate, descriptions of total despondency. Perhaps it is not possible to be articulate about such a topic, at least in poetry. Higginbotham’s haunting melody greatly improves the impression of the lyrics. But only Billie Holiday could turn this torch song into a work of art.

Holiday first recorded the piece on January 22, 1946. For several years Holiday had been unmoored from her Teddy Wilson backing with Lester Young. In fact, her recording career had been in somewhat of a decline since the 1942 recording ban. The January 22, 1946 recording for Decca was another singer-with-band-accompaniment approach, this time with the Bill Stegmeyer Orchestra. It was a far cry from the innovative small group jazz sessions where Holiday’s voice was another instrument among equals with the Swing Era’s greatest instrumentalists. Decca was less interested in jazz innovators than singers in the style of Judy Garland (who it recorded first when she was 12 shortly before Holiday made her first recording with the Teddy Wilson Orchestra in 1935 for Brunswick). Even though Holiday’s voice was at its peak in 1946, it is not the version I think of when I thought of the song in 2001. The definitive version is her June 7, 1956 version with Tony Scott’s studio band. That version is most often heard mainly because it is owned by Verve and hence has better distribution. But it is simply the better performance.

Billie Holiday at the June 1956 recording session with the Tony Scott Orchestra

The horns are eminently sympathetic with Holiday’s 1950s style. Charlie Shavers was on trumpet and Paul Quinichette played tenor sax. Shavers had recorded in several of the late 1930s groups with Holiday and had also been a regular in the 1950s Verve sessions. Quinichette had the pedigree for the performance. He replaced Lester Young in the Count Basie Orchestra and had become so proficient in the ethereal style of Prez that he became known as the Vice President. Tony Scott, the leader, was a Juilliard-trained clarinetist who was an early convert to bebop, although in an airier style than most bopsters. Holiday evidently was quite comfortable with him, since he recorded fairly frequently with her in the 1950s and even toured Europe with her. Holiday was always particular about guitarists (the father who abandoned her was one, and she never used him), and the superb Kenny Burrell recorded here. Wynton Kelly was her pianist for this two-day session only. Aaron Bell was bassist and Lenny McBrowne was the percussionist.

There is, however only one reason to experience this recording–the reason it the song is elevated beyond the words and music: Billie Holiday. By 1956 Holiday had experienced a second major phase of recordings, owing to her association with Verve. Norman Granz, whatever else can be said about impresarios in general and Granz in particular, was able to retool the new voice and personality of Holiday with small group musicians who were exceptionally congenial to the new Holiday. Holiday in the 1930s had a bubbly, charming, seductive quality. The 1950s were more than a lifetime away from that Holiday. Drugs, racism, two husbands, a farce of a legal proceeding, prison, banishment from New York clubs, and her private demons had begun ravaging her voice. But it only gave her the ability to more profoundly express some dark emotional corners that most people never want to see. It wasn’t despair or loneliness or resignation. It was the knowledge of how the world worked at its core–a mechanism that was profoundly indifferent to human concerns. And it was that feeling that came through the 1956 recording. It was that revelation that haunted the days following September 11, 2001. And while over the years my feelings toward the tragedy gradually and unintentionally changed, the recent spate of hate, xenophobia, and self-centered, irrational ruthlessness that has overtaken a large segment of this country, whose fomenters have tried to concentrate and consecrate in the September 11 memorial evoke the same feeling — this time over what has happened to this country at the hands of its own citizens.

Good Morning Heartache

(first published in recording session January 22, 1946 by Billie Holiday)

by Ervin Drake (Irene Higginbotham and Dan Fisher)

Good morning, heartache,
You old gloomy sight.
Good morning, heartache.
Thought we said goodbye last night.
I turned and tossed until it seems you had gone,
But here you are with the dawn.
Wish I forget you, but you’re here to stay.
It seems I met you
When my love went away.
Now everyday I stop I’m saying to you,
Good morning heartache, what’s new?

Stop haunting me now!
Can’t shake you nohow.
Just leave me alone.
I’ve got those Monday blues
Straight to Sunday blues.
Good morning, heartache.
Here we go again.
Good morning, heartache.
You’re the one
Who knew me when.
Might as well get use to you hanging around.
Good morning, heartache,
Sit down.

Having read the bare words, it’s necessary to listen to the 1956 performance by Holiday.

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