Who is singing the song?


So I’m revisiting some dear old friends, old songs that were the staple of my jazz gigs twenty odd years ago, for a nostalgic get together with Helen and Jamie this weekend. This is as close as I get to discipline, to rehearsal. I drop Jeannie at her samba class and I’m walking by the river and singing to myself. I bubble along through the cool evening air as sultry Brisbane finally starts to sink into this very late Autumn.

We’re going to play ‘Love for Sale’ - 87 years young – so I was just mumbling through a faux instrumental break as I strolled past the ghostly abandoned Souths’ Leagues Club and it occurred to me that actually, I’m not the one singing the song, even if it is my voice laying out the story. I always imagine the narrator of the song is a woman, probably a young woman, an American woman, and she’s located in a romantic past where prostitution is viewed on black and white 35mml stock with an unfiltered cigarette in hand.

Then I thought, who have I met who did sex work? And the first person I recalled was a man, friend of a friend, let’s call him Charlie, and he would tell outrageous stories about his time in the business. And I thought whatever Cole Porter intended for the song on stage (with all its scandals and successes) the only prostitutes he would have been likely to know personally would have been men. Well, I wondered if, after all the performances of the song I’ve popped out, I could change the character of the narrator in my imagination...

By now I was through the form and the coda and moving onto another old favourite: ‘When Malindy Sings’, a really powerful song built from an important 19th century poem by Paul Lawrence Dunbar and set as a great swinging blues song in the early 60s by the genius Oscar Brown Jr. I can see the narrator sitting at the kitchen window, a farmhouse, a valley, the animals and the birds and Malindy singing. And it’s about colour, it’s about being African American, cause when the words were written it was just a scant generation after the abolition of slavery and when the music was written the great civil rights struggle was in full flight.

So there I am, a white middle-aged trainee academic, once was a gigging singer, back where I started all those years ago trying to understand why these wonderful old works of popular art still speak so strongly, still stir me up. And maybe it's because they are still talking to me: those narrators, those stories, the ideas and images that come along with them.

I think it will be great to sing them again.

Photo of Tony Hobbs, Leah Cotterell, Helen Russell at Soup Plus Sydney 1991

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