Friday, February 24, 2023

The NRR Project: Hoagy Carmichael and 'Stardust'


Stardust (originally Star Dust)

Hoagy Carmichael and His Pals

Music: Hoagy Carmichael

Lyrics: Mitchell Parish (lyrics added 1929)

Recorded Oct. 31, 1927


It’s the perfect song.

This extraordinary composition sprang from the mind of pianist and composer Hoagy Carmichael, an Indiana boy who became a national figure in songwriting, recording, and film. The lanky, drawling Hoosier was a prolific creator, and he crafted many jazz standards, including such tunes as “Georgia on My Mind,” “Skylark,” “Rockin’ Chair,” “The Nearness of You,” “Two Sleepy People,” and “Heart and Soul.”

He learned the piano at a young age from his mother, and from that point on was largely self-taught. He played intensively at college, where he met and befriended the great cornetist Bix Beiderbecke. His first recorded song, “Riverboat Shuffle,” was written with Beiderbecke in mind, in 1924.

Carmichael owes a huge debt to Black culture. His early music is redolent of the showboat and the minstrel show, a habit of the mainstream culture at the time. Yes, there are “Negro dialect” songs in his catalog. It reads as racist and condescending today, but was not considered as such then. In fact, Hoagy and few other white performers such as Bing Crosby were considered hip to this otherwise disparaged way of processing reality.

In 1927, he was inspired to write “Stardust,” his first really mature work, whistling the opening passage and then working steadily to augment and complete it. The result is a melody whimsical and dreamy, instantly memorable. Interestingly, this first recorded version moves at a relatively fast tempo, and exists purely as an instrumental.

The story of how this tune became a song is more involved. Mills Music published the song, and an arranger at the company suggested that the song be played at a slower tempo, with sentimental feeling. Mills agreed, and assigned Mitchell Parish to write lyrics for it. They are beautiful, and well worth citing. In them, Parish has captured in words the yearning and regret imbedded in the music.

 “And now the purple dusk of twilight time

Steals across the meadows of my heart
High up in the sky the little stars climb
Always reminding me that we're apart

You wander down the lane and far away
Leaving me a song that will not die
Love is now the stardust of yesterday
The music of the years gone by

Sometimes I wonder how I spend
The lonely night
Dreaming of a song
The melody haunts my reverie
And I am once again with you

When our love was new
And each kiss an inspiration
But that was long ago
And now my consolation
Is in the stardust of a song

Besides the garden wall
When stars are bright
You are in my arms
The nightingale tells his fairytale
A paradise where roses grew

Though I dream in vain
In my heart, it will remain
My stardust melody
The memory of love's refrain”

The slower tempo and the addition of lyrics turns this into a song about song, about its comforting properties in the face of heartbreak. It’s like a lyrical version of a blues song – it mourns, but it affirms at the same time.

The best version is one Hoagy himself later did, a simple presentation with piano and a little quiet percussion and his idiosyncratic voice, playing freely with the harmonies and bumping the song along with lazy facility, breaking off for a lovely whistled passage that expresses its creator’s insouciance.

The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Up next: ‘El Manisero (The Peanut Vendor).’


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