A Hoagy Carmichael digression about Christmas, Indiana, Bix, Harlem and Barnacle Bill the Sailor.


This strange holiday digression begins with a social media group devoted to jazz legend Leon Bismark “Bix” Beiderbecke, where this little known Christmas song from 1945 by Hoagy Carmichael was posted: “My Christmas Song For You,” with vocals by Martha Mears.

The reason why an obscure song by Hoagy Carmichael, as recorded 14 years after Beiderbecke’s woefully premature death, would be posted on a Bix fan site is that the two are inextricably linked, so much so that Carmichael chose “Bix” as his son’s middle name.

Furthermore, they met at Indiana University when Bix’s band the Wolverines came through Bloomington in 1924. This passage from a wonderful account at Indiana Public Media sets the scene.

Throughout that spring Carmichael found attending the Wolverines’ gigs difficult, as he was often working a date himself on the nights that Beiderbecke’s group played. On one of those first Saturday afternoons, however, the Wolverines set up at Hoagy’s frat to rehearse, and he finally got a chance to hear Beiderbecke—the newly-advanced Beiderbecke of 1924—play.

Carmichael would recount this scene time and again for the rest of his life. As the Wolverines started to warm up, “Every nerve in my body began to tingle,” he writes in Jazzbanders:

My hands shook… Then I saw Bix get out his cornet and Jimmy told him to take the break in the middle of the chorus… Bix played just four notes that wound up the afternoon party. The notes were beautiful, and perfectly timed. The notes weren’t blown—they were hit, like a mallet hits a chime, and his tone had a richness that can only come from the heart. I rose violently from the piano bench and fell, exhausted, onto a davenport. He had completely ruined me… I’ve heard Wagner’s music and all the rest, but those four notes that Bix played meant more to me than everything else in the books. When Bix opened up his soul to me that day, I learned and experienced one of life’s innermost secrets to happiness—pleasure that it had taken a whole lifetime of living and conduct to achieve.

“Something that he heard in either Bix’s tone or the way he put phrases together affected him very deeply,” Carmichael biographer Richard Sudhalter said in a 2002 interview. “Deeply enough so that when he started to try his own hand at writing music—also the suggestion of Beiderbecke—it was inevitable that his whole approach to phrase-building, to composition, would be based on what he’d heard coming out of Bix’s horn.”

It’s the same Richard Sudhalter whose book Lost Chords: White Musicians and Their Contribution to Jazz, 1915-1945 was reviewed here, earlier this year.

Much later in Carmichael’s life (he died in 1981), the songwriter discussed Beiderbecke’s inventive style; specifically, the way Carmichael once wrote a chorus for four cornets in an arrangement of another of his songs, “Old Man Harlem,” as a tribute of sorts to his friend.

Carmichael composed “Old Man Harlem” in 1933 with pop star Rudy Vallee; on a version recorded during World War II with Carmichael on piano, the drummer is Spike Jones of City Slickers fame. It was easy to find the recording mentioned by Carmichael with the Bix-like chorus.

Now this digression flies even further off the rails with a blog flashback to October 19, 2007.

This weekend: “New Albany to welcome Hoagy Carmichael for one final tour.”

A life-size bronze statue of Hoagy Carmichael at his Steinway Grand Piano will be visiting downtown New Albany, Indiana October 19-20, 2007 at the Speakeasy Jazz Club, 225 State Street, and Indiana University Southeast October 22-25. This visit is part of a statewide tour to re-engage Hoosiers’ knowledge of this creative composer and his enormous contributions to the landscape of American music. At the conclusion of the tour this fall, the statue will be dedicated and permanently installed at Indiana University in Bloomington, where Hoagy was born and received a law degree.

Somewhere I have a photo of the Speakeasy statute placement, but until it turns up, here is the view of the permanent setting in Bloomington.

This stream of consciousness ends with a novelty tune occasioned by a mention in the Bookseller’s blog almost four years ago.

February 8, 2014
Word of the Year Entry: Barnacle (The NewAlbanist)

Barnacle Bill, the Sailor, is a now obscure but once vivid presence in popular culture. Several generations of children learned the song (at least the bowdlerized kiddie version) and it still maintains a commercial presence in various American seaside haunts, including several seafood restaurants.

Here is a raucous 1930 recording with both Hoagy and Bix present.

Bubber Miley, an African-American and sideman for Duke Ellington, plays alongside soon-to-be swing era stalwarts Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman and Gene Krupa in defiance of segregated convention, and violinist Joe Venuti takes certain liberties with the background vocal in the second chorus.

Listen carefully.

My final point has to do with barnacles. They’re eaten as a sort of bar food in Portugal, no doubt accompanied by Super Bock lager beer … and we’ll be there in 48 days.

I’ll drink a toast to Bix, Hoagy and the great musicians of their era before returning to fado.