‘After You’ve Gone’
Music: Turner Layton
Lyrics: Henry Creamer
Sung by Marion Harris
Recorded: October 18, 1918
“After You’ve Gone” represents a turning point. Up until it became a hit, “black” and “white” musics stayed in their respective corners. Bluesy music wasn’t even thought to be fit for recording. When it finally was, it was classified as fit only for “race records,” not for right-thinking Caucasians, who were still awash in sentimental ballads and waltz tunes. After it hit, the mainstream move away from the stilted, pallid songs of the day began in earnest, sparking the collective creation of the Great American Songbook.
The tune was composed by African-American vaudeville partners Layton and Creamer, who supplied many shows and revues around Manhattan with material – the Ziegfield Follies, for one. Though civil rights were still abysmal, finally black artists were finding their work valued. It gave them a toehold in the entertainment world that would lead to other opportunities.
The song is definitely built on a blues lament – it’s a classic you’ll-be-sorry-for-leaving-me song. The cadences are long and loping, with a series of descending chords that make the singer feel as though they’ve stepping down into the phrases. Meanwhile, the poignant runs up and down to the “gone” notes actually convey woefulness. Songwriting is starting not to tell but to show, to embody strong and intense emotion in the music itself, in compact unis, all tied together to reinforce an overarching theme. The architecture of pop is under invention.
The lyrics are direct and conversational, and reflect the growing idea in American songwriting that a song is personal, sung to an imaginary individual, instead of just belted out to the crowd. The song tells a story, and conveys a perspective – a two-minute miracle. This, along with a melody that welcomes harmony and variation, resulted in it being one of the most recorded standards ever.
The delivery of Marion Harris in this recording is stiff and polite. It would take the 1927 recordings made by Last of the Red Hot Mamas, Sophie Tucker (covered earlier her in the series) and Empress of the Blues Bessie Smith to really give the material the swing and heft it deserves. Since then, it’s been recorded countless times, in all kinds of tempi and arrangements. It’s indestructible.
The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Up next: Tiger Rag.