Last night I watched one of my favorite music-themed movies—“Mr. Holland’s Opus” with Richard Dreyfus. He’s a composer who supliments his income by teaching high school music classes in the mid-60s. In one scene he plays a piece on the school piano and asks if any student can name it. All hands shoot up and a dozen voices answer, “Lover’s Concerto” by The Toys. To which Mr. Holland answers, “Wrong! That was “Minuet In G Minor” by Johann Sebastian Bach and it was written in 1725.” Their mouths drop open as Mr. Holland plays the minuet version and explains that the original was written in 3/4 time while the pop version was converted to 4/4 time. This scene got me to thinking about how many other so-called contemporary tunes are actually the product of a much older beginning.
Here’s a couple of examples that diehard Elvis fans will recognize. “Love Me Tender” (Cybermidi sequence # cm01254) hit the pop charts in 1956 as did the movie by the same name. It’s no coincidence that the film was set during The Civil War since the title song was that old itself. It was originally written as “Aura Lee” during The Civil War by W.W. Fosdick and George R. Poulton. New lyrics were written for Elvis and he had an instant hit. But Elvis couldn’t leave well enough alone. He used the same melody again with different lyrics in another of his later movies, “The Trouble With Girls.” This time the tune was called “Army Blue.”
“O Sole Mio” was an opera song written in 1898 and was covered by opera legend Enrico Caruso, among others. With changed lyrics, 40s crooner Tony Martin recorded it as “There’s No Tomorrow.” Ten years later the Elvis hit-making machine must have figured they had a sure-fire formula because they again took this old song and rewrote the lyrics for a third time and gave Elvis yet another hit called “It’s Now Or Never.”
I’d have to say that the record for oldest lyrics goes to The Byrds’ version of “Turn Turn Turn.” (Cybermidi sequence # cm00815) Pete Seeger wrote the music in the 1950s, but the lyrics, nearly 2,000 years old, are taken almost verbatim out of The Bible (Ecclesiastes 3, verses 1-8).
As a teenager in 1965, I particularly liked one Peter and Gordon song called “True Love Ways” (Cybermidi sequence # cm00444) At the time I thought it was brand new. Little did I know that the original was done six years earlier by its composer, Buddy Holly.
There was a song that was popular in 1912 called “Melody In A Major” and was composed for violin by Calvin Coolidge’s vice president, Charles G. Dawes. “So what?” you say. Fast forward forty-six years to 1958 and the song surfaces again as a number one hit for Tommy Edwards titled, “It’s All In The Game” (Cybermidi sequence # cm01100). I guess if the song’s good, it’ll last.
When I was growing up, all my folks played around the house was traditional Country Music. You know, the old stuff with twangy guitars, sour-sounding fiddles and a crying Hawaiian pedal steel guitar. I tried to block it out and concentrate on rock and roll. In 1966 I heard a new vocalist climbing the charts. His name was B.J. Thomas and his first hit on the Scepter label was called, “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” I liked it, unaware that it was a remake of an old Country tune with twangy guitars, sour-sounding fiddles and a crying Hawaiian pedal steel guitar. Hank Williams wrote and performed it before I was even born.
Vaudeville singer Eddie Cantor performed this song in 1927 while Pearl Baily recorded it in 1949. Years later, in the early 60s before they were known over here, The Beatles recorded their version of “Ain’t She Sweet” on the Atco label. It is apparently the first known vocal recording of John Lennon.
The Beatles’ other pre-fame recording featured Tony Sheridan on lead vocals singing “My Bonnie.” The music was attributed to “The Beat Brothers,” who were, in fact, The Beatles with first drummer Pete Best. Here’s another example of a tune that’s been floating around since around 1745. It was written about Charles Edward Stuart, better known as Bonnie Prince Charlie, the grandson of England’s King James II.
If you’re a baby boomer like me, you’d immediately recognize the theme song to the radio and television show, “The Lone Ranger.” If you’re a lot younger, but still familiar with the classics, you may know this song as Rossini’s “William Tell Overature.” It was written in the 1820s, again as part of an opera.
So, kids, next time you hear a “new” tune on the radio or on your MP3 player, it may not be exactly new. The latest rap song may have had its roots in a 1962 television show and the rap might go something like this: (imagine someone spitting into a microphone and beating on a cardboard box in the background)
Come and listen to my story ‘bout a man named Jed
A poor mountaineer, barely kept his family fed
Then one day he was shootin’ at some food
And up through the ground came a-bubblin’ crude
Oil, that is. Black Gold. Texas Tea
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