Johnny Mercer was born 100 years ago tomorrow, on November 18, 1909. A statue of the lyricist will be unveiled in his hometown, Savannah Georgia, on his birthday.
Tributes have been going on all year and will continue, including my own show “Blues in the Night,” scheduled for Friday evening, November 20. (I may just have mentioned it before!)
Alice Parker and I named our program “Blues in the Night” after one of Mercer’s best known musical creations.
“Blues” made its debut in a 1941 Warner Bros. film that was named after the song as soon as the producers heard it and realized what a musical hit they had on their hands.
It recounts the adventures of a small group of jazz musicians, including the dour Richard Whorf, the future film director Elia Kazan, and the always over-the-top Jack Carson.
These tunesters roam around the country trying to make a living being true to themselves as artists by playing music that is authentically American and bluesy.
They are inspired while sitting in a jail cell after a fight with a bar patron who wanted them to play less exalted music. As they ponder their future an African-American in a nearby cell (it’s a segregated jail) starts intoning,
My mama done tol’ me, when I was in knee highs,
My mama done tol’ me, “Son,
“A woman’ll sweet talk and give you the big eye,
“But when the sweet talkin’s done, a woman’s a two-face,
“A worrisome thing who’ll leave you to sing
“The Blues in the Night……”
The musicians immediately vow to run out and create the sort of authentic American folk jazz they have just heard.
Of course, one might think they would start by hiring the talented singer to whom they have just listened. Instead, they team up with Priscilla Lane. She’s pretty, but she’s a musical lightweight.
The film continues to defy expectations by throwing in assorted genres (it’s a musical, it’s a romance, it’s a gangster movie) and leaving plot lines dangling.
What looks like an incipient love interested between Lane and Whorf disappears. The rather pale musician who coughs a lot early in the film, who would end up dying of consumption in a normal Hollywood movie, loses his cough with no explanation.
The Bad Girl (Betty Field) who vamps half the male cast has about as much sex appeal as a flounder so the plot twists about her strong hold on men’s hearts and minds are rendered completely unbelievable. And so forth.
What shines in the movie–and haunts the soundtrack–is “Blues in the Night.” Happily, no one expected Priscilla Lane to sing this rather challenging song. It is repeated mostly instrumentally through the film, and it makes the story more moving than it would otherwise be.
Watching the film it was hard for me to believe that before it came out “Blues in the Night” didn’t exist. When they wrote it, Mercer and composer Harold Arlen created that rare thing, a song that sounds as though it has been around forever–as though it has sprung organically from ordinary people’s real lives.
More than the box cars and jail sets in which the actors pose, “Blues” evokes the material conditions of working Americans just coming out of the Great Depression.
And more than any emotions expressed by this not very exciting cast (the best actors are in minor roles) the song expresses love and loss, humor and pathos–the very soul of the blues.
It’s not really in my ideal repertoire. Like Priscilla Lane I’m a lightweight singer. But I can’t resist its siren call.
Please sing it tomorrow in honor of Johnny Mercer’s birthday. If you feel a little lightweight, here’s a recipe to give you some substance.
It was invented by Debra Kozikowski of Chicopee, Massachusetts. Deb is a political activist and blogger who has recently launched her own food blog, The Other Woman Cooks. She won a contest sponsored by the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council with this blueberry barbecue sauce.
Here’s the link to Deb’s original post. As you can see, she is an avid fan of picking your own berries in season, although she did tell me I could use frozen berries for this recipe!
Debby marinated pork or chicken in the sauce and then grilled the meat, basting with the sauce. My grilling season is over so I browned medallions of pork tenderloin and baked them in the barbecue sauce (and just a little water) at 375 degrees for 45 minutes, uncovering them for the last few minutes.
I think you could probably use the sauce interchangeably with regular barbecue sauce. Like “Blues in the Night” it combines sweetness and heat in surprising fashion.
Deb’s “Blues in the Night” Barbecue Sauce
2 cups blueberries, fresh or frozen
1/2 cup cider vinegar
1/2 cup brown sugar
3/4 cup ketchup
1 tablespoon molasses
1 teaspoon chili powder (I made this heaping)
1 teaspoon black pepper (I ground about 15 times)
1/2 teaspoon salt (Deb didn’t include this, but I thought it enhanced the flavors)
1/2 cup water
Bring all the ingredients to a low boil in a saucepan. Reduce heat and simmer until slightly thickened and chunky. Deb said this took 10 to 15 minutes; for me it took about 20 because when my frozen blueberries defrosted they were pretty wet.
Makes about 2 cups of sauce.
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