Pick Yourself Up: Dorothy Fields and the American Musical

The moon makes frequent appearances in love lyrics, be it a harvest moon, a blue moon, a desert moon or an old devil moon... Dorothy's lyric [for "Don't Blame Me"] has "doggone moon", suggesting the singer's discomfort, almost irritation, with being in love.  One can speculate that as a woman lyricist, Dorothy was especially careful to avoid the overly sentimental or overly earnest love ballad...  Even the most urbane of lyric writers, such as Cole Porter or Lorenz Hart, had their moments of purple prose, but Dorothy Fields seldom did.
               -- from "Pick Yourself Up"

A fine romance, with no kisses!
A fine romance, my friend, this is!
We should be like a couple of hot tomatoes,
But you're as cold as yesterday's mashed potatoes...
-- Dorothy Fields

In the 20th century American popular music achieved maturity, solidity and universal appeal.  A predominantly European romantic musical culture blended with African-American jazz influences to create a lively and accessable source of melody and rhythm.  Our national trait of outspokenness and the flexibility of American English delivered a strong emotional content to popular tunes of the day, and that day has never ended.  The so-called "great American songbook" is filled with marvelous tunes by musical giants like Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, Fats Waller, Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, Richard Rodgers... and Dorothy Fields.  Fields's lyrics to melodies by Jimmy McHugh, Jerome Kern, Cy Coleman and others means she is one of the few women to make a major contribution to our national songfest.  "She was not the first woman ever to pen the lyric for a popular song," writes Ithaca resident Charlotte Greenspan in her new biography of Fields, "But she was one of the first to write lyrics that were not particularly ladylike."

In "Pick Yourself Up: Dorothy Fields and the American Musical", Greenspan covers the life story and artistic world of a woman at the center of the musical scene on Broadway, in Hollywood and along that mythical musical byway called Tin Pan Alley.  Many among the hundreds of songs she wrote are now "standards" -- popular tunes that were expected to still be sung and played into the 21st century.  Her best known (written with her first collaborator, Jimmy McHugh) include "The Sunny Side of the Street", "I'm in the Mood for Love" and "Exactly Like You", and "I'll Buy You a Star" (music by Arthur Schwartz from the musical "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn").

Dorothy Fields was born in 1904 into a show business family -- her father Lew Fields was half of the great vaudeville comedy team Weber and Fields, and later a theatrical producer -- and she grew up knowing many of the top show people of the time, even growing up with future celebrities, including Oscar Hammerstein II.  She dabbled in acting but from her early 20s it was clear that her great talent was putting words to music.  The story of her personal and professional life includes many of the most famous names and institutions of show business and "Pick Yourself Up" details the conditions under which they worked, including the team efforts at writing scripts and songs for the movies.

This OFF THE PAGE program includes several of Dorothy Fields's songs -- both all-time favorites and a few that are not often heard.  Louis Armstrong sings Dorothy's first big hit, from "Blackbirds of 1928", "I Can't Give You Anything But Love".  k.d. lang sings "Exactly Like You" and we hear Ginger Rogers from the soundtrack of "Swing Time" sing the book's title tune "Pick Yourself Up".  There is also a rendition of "Blue Again" by Dorothy Fields herself.  But the rarest recording is a new one of "Remind Me", from the 1940 film "A Night in the Tropics".  It is sung by WSKG's Crystal Sarakas, accompanied by pianist Mary Kremer-Hartrick.

Charlotte Greenspan is a pianist and musicologist with a Ph.D. from the University of California at Berkeley.  Her writing includes studies of the Hollywood work of Irving Berlin and George Gershwin.  This biography of Dorothy Fields is the first in Oxford University Press's Broadway Legacy series.  She joins Bill Jaker on OFF THE PAGE to speak about researching the life of Dorothy Fields and to share her music.  To join in the conversation call during the live 1:00 PM broadcast to 888/359-9754 or submit a comment by e-mail to OffThePage@ WSKG.ORG.

Guests: 
Charlotte Greenspan