Perfect Sound Forever

Dorothy Fields

by Katie Buchanan
(February 2011)

"The words can be poetic, but I wouldn't say poetry in the strictest sense."
-Dorothy Fields, 1972

Songcraft: a distinctly different art than the composition of a poem, in the same way that writing a poem is different from writing journalism or a screenplay. And writing lyrics on Tin Pan Alley, even more different than that.

In those days, duos of well-paired lyricists and melodists cranked out songs like automobiles. With focused restraint, the lyricists were to convey a sentiment cleverly and concisely (usually in just 32 bars), all the while placing the right vowels (open) on the right notes (high) and rhyming not only the ends of lines but also choice words within phrases.

In contrast, the modern multitasking songwriter can simply twist the melodies to fit his less than composed words. The expert lyricist is dead (except on Broadway, but they have a lot of dead arts on life support over on the Great White Way). It's an attention to detail all but lost in the modern era, perhaps because it's so damn difficult. But then, it's not supposed to be easy. In her candid An Evening With Dorothy Fields, the writer addressed the oh-so-happy lyrics of "I Feel a Song Coming On": "The song just doesn't come on. It's hard slave labor. And I love it."

Born in 1905 to a wealthy vaudevillian with a gambling habit, Dorothy Fields lived her childhood steeped in high culture and her beloved entertainment business. Despite her parents' protests, she considered becoming a performer for quite some time. But save a few student productions, the occasion never formally presented itself. Not that this is entirely surprising: according to her biographer Deborah Winer, hers was "not a memorable voice, but one of those songwriter voices that's just right for the song," one of those "songwriter voices" that was unacceptable in a woman until Carole King's Tapestry in 1970. But one summer, a chance encounter with J. Fred Coots, best known for 1934's "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town," inspired the career of the most successful and highly regarded female master of classic American popular song.

In An Evening with Dorothy Fields, a recording released some 26 years after her performance of the 1972 program, the songwriter sneakily/casually recalls the serendipity: "Fred Coots asked me if I'd ever tried to write lyrics. ‘No,' I said. ‘Well try,' he said. So I tried." The duo wrote a handful of tunes together: the music good, "the lyrics terrible." She goes on to describe, with the same twisting wit that marked her lyrics, how her first words were riddled with "quoted" material. She "quoted, never swiped." Too busy emulating (read: imitating), too worried about getting it perfect the first try, she never wrote what came naturally to her. Of course, that is to be expected. Like all things musical, songwriting is a knack to be refined, a process taking time and patience. The truism says it takes 100 duds before the first good song. But Fields was not just another kid learning to write songs, and it didn't take the 23-year-old 100 songs to get it right.

Despite their flops together, the established and respected Coots was utterly convinced of Fields's talent and brought her to publisher after publisher insisting they give her a shot. They didn't. After being rejected by everyone in the biz (an error that should go down next to Decca's brush-off of the Beatles), the pair visited Mills Music where Jimmy McHugh--then a manager, not a writer--would first hear Fields's lyrics for the first time. Jon Aldous, a Londoner who's amassed an impressive stock of Dorothy Fields biography and catalog, described the chance encounter: "If melodies and poems have hearts, then it was love at first sight when Jimmy McHugh's tunes met Dorothy Fields's lyrics." Their first hit was the soon standard "I Can't Give You Anything but Love," which they followed with another 154 songs in just nine years.

Though the McHugh-Fields team fizzled in 1935, the partnership was more fertile than most. Aside from being a period of great commercial success, it was when Fields finally got over her habit of "quoting" and developed her distinctive voice. While she was far from the only female songwriter of the time (Kay Swift, Dana Suesse, and Ann Ronell all found some successes), she was the only one to manage more than a handful of hits and create a catalogue that still remains relevant.

Although she never did shed the female qualifier, she was widely regarded as a great lyricist, gender be damned. But outside of the industry she was, according to Winer, "conventional in lifestyle and her embrace of the establishment" and (to my chagrin) a Republican. In hindsight, it's preferable to regard this as a strategic balancing act to offset her role as a musical feminist. But even when her less than revolutionary views on life snuck into her art, her work was as pioneering--if not more so--as any of her male contemporaries.

Her words were always "too ironic and dead-on to be old-fashioned female: combining her unsentimental jazz age hip with a romantic optimism," crafting compact stories of sincerity that knowingly mocked themselves . She was, by Winer's definition, a "lyricist's lyricist": words woven deftly enough to intrigue her colleagues but never so intricately as to alienate the general public. It wasn't until Stephen Sondheim that her interior rhyming skills had any competition. With her detailed phrasing and layered musing, Fields was better than her male peers, and largely more successful.

After McHugh and Fields parted ways (a split more likely attributable to sheer annoyance with each other rather than any actual artistic disagreement), the lyricist began working with one of her idols: Jerome Kern. Immediately clicking in a way McHugh and Fields never had, they fell into an affectionate rapport that would bind them until his death in 1945. Though 19 years younger, she would cheekily refer to the 5'4'' composer as "junior"--an elbow in Kern's ribs, five inches below her own. But when the laughter subsided, Kern was notoriously finicky and temperamental. He'd write the music and Fields would write the lyrics. And then rewrite the lyrics. And rewrite the lyrics, until he, she, and the bust of Wagner perched on his piano were satisfied.

In 1935 Kern, oft-hailed as America's greatest melodist, pitched a tune so beautiful that Fields had to leave the studio to collect herself. Paired with her lyrics, the melody would become "The Way You Look Tonight," originally featured in the film Swing Time. The first and most famous verse is "a complete sentence, masterfully written, expressing a full thought," flirting with nostalgia and acutely acknowledging the fleeting beauty of love:

Some day, when I'm awfully low
And the world is cold,
I will feel a glow just thinking of you,
And the way you look tonight.
This single stanza could very well sum up Fields's work: clever and sentimental, romantic and cynical, technically perfect and emotionally resonant. She focuses on the moment while glancing at the future like she knows just how good she's got it but that it won't last.

For this, the duo would go on to win the 1935 Academy Award for best song. It was the first time a woman was ever awarded the honor. And even though her music would remain relevant and remembered long after her death in 1974, her name was never as well known as her words. In 1971 the three-year-old Songwriters hall of Fame inducted the "ten giants of American Song" as charter members. Fields was the only woman. She wrote over 400 published songs in her six-decade spanning career. Her music was feature in over 30 films. She was awarded five Tonys and an Oscar and Barack Obama quoted her lyrics in his inauguration speech. Yet up until the day she died, people would still ask her, with both shock and admiration: "You wrote that?"

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