Digging for Gems in the Music Mines
As someone who now has an iTunes library (my second, the pre-rock one) of almost 3.000 songs, I’m finally starting to develop the mindset you expect to see with dedicated (some say rabid) music collectors. I get both excited and irritated when I run across a song I’ve never heard—or heard of—and want it for my collection.
I generally stick to songs or albums that I really like or consider historically important. I’m not a completist, except for the works of a couple of iconic figures like the Beatles and the composer Jerome Kern. But if I hear a song that grabs me, and it’s by one of the elite composers or composing teams of the 20th century, it’s clearly a must-have for library 2.
Because most of the great songs originated with Broadway productions in the 1920’s (as opposed to Tin Pan Alley songs that went straight to sheet music and, later, recordings) these classics made perfect choices for the first movie musicals in the early 30’s. They were then revived for the colossal, stupendous Technicolor musicals of the 40’s and 50’s. Those movies have been spectacularly reborn in the DVD/Blu-ray/hi-def era, thanks mainly to Warner Home Video and its sibling company Turner Classic Movies (TCM).
I have a large personal library of these films on DVD and now on hard disk as well, thanks to hi-def recordings of TCM broadcasts. Many of the lesser-known films will never be fully restored and available on DVD, so recording them is the only option. And so with my ever-growing audio and video library, it’s getting less frequent that I run across a song I don’t know or have a copy of.
A few days ago when trimming my first digital recording of The Wizard of Oz (I already own it on Blu-Ray) for filing in the Harold Arlen section of my digital library, I noticed that TCM had followed the movie with a musical short titled “We Must Have Music.” The full 10-minute film had made it onto my Oz recording. Often, shorts extend into the next scheduled time period, and their endings get cut if you’re not recording the program that follows.
This was a lucky break. Shorts are usually not part of TCM’s program listings, so I don’t often see them and set them for their own spot on the DVR. We Must Have Music was a particularly desirable short, too, offering a short history of movie musicals and a glimpse into MGM’s music department of the late 30’s and early 40’s with footage of important figures such as the music director and composer Herbert Stothart and the composer Bronislaw Kaper (“On Green Dolphin Street”). I extracted the short film from the video file and saved it.
But I wanted to pursue the title tune and opening number. “We Must Have Music.” A logical choice to open and name the film, it’s a rousing old-school show tune with Judy Garland in marching-band uniform, twirling her baton and, as you can see above, cavorting with dancers who look like 30′s theater ushers. The clip lasts about 30 seconds.
It was clearly a tuneful, important production number from a feature-length film, one that I undoubtedly had in my library or was available to buy, like all of Garland’s peak-period musicals. I had just forgotten the song and what movie it was from. I wanted a complete version of the song, so it was time to call up the search functions, crawl the Net, round up the usual suspects, and make sure this errant lamb was safely in my iTunes flock.
It was easy enough to find the composer, Nacio Herb Brown, the MGM legend who wrote “Singin’ in the Rain,” “Broadway Melody,” “Temptation,” and other classics with his partner Arthur Freed before Freed took over production of MGM’s greatest musicals. But it turned out “We Must Have Music” was written for the 1941 film Ziegfeld Girl, and Brown wrote it with lyricist Gus Kahn, with Freed producing.
So far, so good. Now that I had more search info, I could simply find a full version of the song at the usual outlets. I might be able to get the full video clip on YouTube, download it and extract the music, or I could extract the clip from my digital copy of Ziegfeld Girl. I could also take the long way around the block—rip my DVD copy of the movie and extract the music. (Getting into the digital weeds of that process is for another column.)
There was just one problem: The full-on production number “We Must Have Music” never made it into Ziegfeld Girl. Originally part of the film’s finale, it was cut in favor of a reprise of the film’s opening number “You Never Looked So Beautiful Before “ (uncredited in the movie, but written by Walter Donaldson and Harold Adamson).
Ziegfeld Girl has a lot to recommend it—Busby Berkley (too bad we can’t ask him about the dancing ushers), Lana Turner (if you don’t know why she drove men wild in the 40’s, you can see why here), James Stewart’s last movie before becoming a fighter pilot in World War II (his first film upon his return to Hollywood was It’s a Wonderful Life), and Garland’s first role as a young adult two years after her somewhat-too-old casting in Wizard of Oz. But of the film’s charms, “We Must Have Music” was deemed to be lacking. And the outtake is not included in the DVD’s extras. There would be no extracting from my copy or disc ripping to serve my library.
We must have music, yes, but whither? My initial Web search for a full-length audio-only version had been fruitless, as had a YouTube search for a longer video clip. Not even the 30-second clip from the short I’d recorded was on the site. I began to think that the song had only been intended as a lead-in to a medley that made up the cut production number, and that a longer version didn’t exist. Nevertheless, I tenaciously doubled down on my search efforts.
Finally, some success. I found a listing for a 2-minute, 15-second version of “We Must Have Music” on The Sound Of The Movies: Judy Garland Vol. 1 at Discogs, an established and thoroughly populated music-info site (I like its mostly complete list of my New York engineering and songwriting credits). But this Garland compilation was not for sale anywhere I could find. And I already had many of its songs in my library.
The future looked bleak for this Brown-Kahn gem, even though I knew if it could speak it would say “we must have not only music, but a place in your library.” And then, almost out of nowhere, it stepped out of a dream, to quote another Brown-Kahn classic. There it was on a buried Amazon page, an album that had everything I was looking for—the right song, the original Garland voice, and amazingly, individual MP3 downloads. To top it off, there was that fetching face on the cover—just not Judy Garland’s.
Yes, for reasons known only to their staff, a record company called Mocking Bird (perfect!) had compiled an album called Meet Me In St. Louis: Movie Songs By Judy Garland, and through the workings of the company’s keen marketing minds had placed a photo of Maureen O’Hara on the cover.
This bothered me not one iota as I gazed wide-eyed and triumphant at the “Buy MP3” button next to the song “We Must Have Music.” Finally, my diligent (and obsessive) research would pay off. I clicked the preview play button and listened to the sample, confirming that the song was from the original production and that it featured, as I had discovered, Tony Martin and his Six Hits and a Miss. Wow. male vocalist and vocal group as well? I had a drink to calm myself, and then, like a placard-wielding swell at Sotheby’s, I whipped out my debit card and sternly handed over 89 cents to Amazon. Thus, another precious gem was added to the iTunes tiara. “We Must Have Music” was not a masterpiece of the American songbook, but it was mine, and safely stored in its digital home, right next to Ella’s “We Can’t Go On This Way” and just a stone’s throw from McCartney’s version of Fats Waller’s “We Three (My Echo, My Shadow And Me).” MGM may not have liked the song, but Paul and Ella are completely comfortable next to it.
Update, 6/14/12: Not content to let sleeping dogs or downloads lie, I found what is the best choice for anyone looking to add Judy Garland obscurities to their library. The Judy Garland Database (JGDB) is the source for all things Judy, notwithstanding the large number of fan sites devoted to her, and it was way ahead of me on the best source for the complete recording of “We Must Have Music.” Judy Garland: Collectors’ Gems From The M-G-M Films was a Rhino release in 1996. Although out of print and not available new from Amazon, the site has links to outlets for both new and used copies. This compilation includes not only the object of my obsession, “We Must Have Music” in all its two-and-a-half-minute glory, but also many other Judy gems, including all the songs she recorded for the film of Irving Berlin’s “Annie Get Your Gun,” before illness and unreliability brought an end to her long career at MGM, and she was replaced as Annie by Betty Hutton. Click the image for more info. However, you won’t find MP3 samples or files on Amazon for this one, so click the “Maureen O’Hara album” link above for a taste of Judy’s film songs.
The Internet and companies like Warner Home Video and TCM have revolutionized our ability to study the culture of our past. For music lovers, the most influential works of the 20th century can now be studied in ways that the creators of those works couldn’t dream of. Sadly, these artists couldn’t even revisit much of their own work in their lifetimes. Here are a few newer resources, beyond the Google and Amazon-based ones I mentioned, for mining gems of the American songbook.
Spotify—Free (with ads) or paid access to an amazing library of music, including a practically unlimited collection of standards by Sinatra, Ella, Billie, Louis, and all the greats. This is the best place to audition full songs for free before buying.
Spotify is a Swedish music streaming service offering digitally restricted streaming of selected music from a range of major and independent record labels, including Sony, EMI, Warner Music Group, and Universal. The system is currently accessible using Microsoft Windows, Mac OS X, Linux, mobile devices and other systems. Music can be browsed by artist, album, record label, genre or playlist as well as by direct searches. On desktop clients, a link allows the listener to purchase selected material via partner retailers.
Library of Congress National Jukebox—If you’re looking for the beginnings of the songbook and the early days of recording, this is a fantastic public site. Full of early recordings of works by Berlin, Kern, and other early-20th century popular songwriters, the National Jukebox makes historical sound recordings available to the public free of charge. The Jukebox includes recordings from the extraordinary collections of the Library of Congress Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation and other contributing libraries and archives. Recordings in the Jukebox were issued on record labels now owned by Sony Music Entertainment, which has granted the Library of Congress a gratis license to stream acoustical recordings. At launch, the Jukebox includes more than 10,000 recordings made by the Victor Talking Machine Company between 1901 and 1925. Jukebox content will be increased regularly, with additional Victor recordings and acoustically recorded titles made by other Sony-owned U.S. labels, including Columbia, OKeh, and others.
Naxos Nostalgia—The giant international classical-music label, Naxos, has a great selection of compilations of work from the best American and British singers and composers, including the giants of the American songbook and pop and jazz pioneers. This label offers access to the stars of popular music of the first half of the 20th century, from Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland to Fred Astaire, Edith Piaf and Maurice Chevalier. Though unavailable in the U.S. directly from the site because of “possible copyright restrictions,” each album has a link to a corresponding page on Classics Online, where songs can be auditioned and bought.
Warner Archives—With the market for DVDs dwindling fast, fans who want to collect as many early musicals as possible should look here as well as at TCM for classic movies. Warner Archives creates video on demand and has many early-sound films adapted from Broadway shows that are unlikely to ever be restored and reissued in hi-def, or even high-quality standard def. Custom DVDs generally run $20, but sales sometimes happen, so add your name to their mailing list.