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Music Reviews

Hoagy CarmichaelMake Mine a Hoagy

If you are of a certain age, it's quite possible your only real knowledge of Hoagy Carmichael was from the television set. During the late 1960s and early '70s, there were countless collections of Big Band music marketed to our parents and grandparents. You'd see a still of a couple swing dancing while a progressive list of songs would climb the screen. Inevitably, Hoagy's Ole Buttermilk Sky would be featured and you'd hear: Oh buttermilk sky / I'm keepin' my eye on you and that's all. We thought it was the most irritating moment on the commercial. You can imagine our surprise when we found out sometime later that there was more to the song, and it was quite good!

It turns out that in addition to being a staple in 1940s films that needed a piano player (as opposed to a pianist), Hoagy Carmichael wrote quite a few standards and novelty numbers. Every kid knows that simplified four-handed version of Heart & Soul, but who knew who wrote it? Well, we did and actually a lot of others, but that's not the point. The point is that Hoagy's songs became so much a part of what is known as American pop, it's hard to imagine that anyone wrote them at all, they just seem to be there. Songs like Stardust, Lazy River and Georgia on my Mind belong in everybody's musical vocabulary. In addition to the standards, Hoagy would write and record little musical portraits of Americana, making him almost the melodic version of Norman Rockwell. Little Old Lady, Washboard Blues, Snowball and Two Sleepy People all paint pictures of simpler, sweeter and sometimes troublesome moments in American life.

The integral racial stereotyping in some of Hoagy's songs is a fact. He managed to cover a lot of bases: Asians (Hong Kong Blues), blacks (Snowball, Rockin' Chair) and even the obese (Huggin' and Chalkin'). It would be easy to blame it on "the times" but none of the other great American songwriters were quite so troubling. Once we thought it might have been because the other writers were writing about loftier things and being even more racist by ignoring these minorities altogether, but the argument is meaningless when you consider Gershwin (Porgy and Bess) and Arlen (St. Louis Woman). All we know is that it's way over our head and if you listen to these Hoagy Carmichael recordings, we think you'll agree the observations are made from love and the seemingly derogatory attitude was unintentional.

So the bottom line is Hoagy was important and you should have at least one, if not several, titles in your collection. His own nasal delivery is great and in most cases hard to beat. As we celebrate his centenary, let's look at what's available on compact disc:

Hoagy Carmichael

Ole Buttermilk Sky
Collector's Choice
This is the classiest and most professional collection we've seen. The tracks include most of the hits and the remastering is beautiful. There are a few new obscurities to keep things interesting.

Sometimes I Wonder
ASV Living Era

Like all ASV Living Era CDs we've come across, the song selection is great, the artwork childish and the sound quality abysmal. Somebody actually gets paid and credited for turning this stuff out! Still, there are many nice novelties unavailable elsewhere. Most of the music is from inferior source material, a fact that becomes apparent when playing some of the duplicated tracks from Collector's Choice's Ole Buttermilk Sky.

Hoagy Carmichael: V Discs
IMC Licensing

These are the discs Hoagy made for our boys overseas during World War II.

Hoagy Sings Carmichael
Pacific Jazz

This is a wonderful session with Hoagy and the top West Coast Jazz musicians of the 1950s. Baltimore Oriole is just about the saddest performance we've ever heard! The band includes Art Pepper and Harry "Sweets" Edison. Our CD is copyrighted 1988 and we hear it's out of print but soon to be re-released sometime this year.



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