from the desk of H. Bowie...

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"They All Laughed"

A song written by George and Ira Gershwin in 1937

I first heard this song as part of the soundtrack to a movie with the same name, made by Peter Bogdanovich in 1981. The movie is worth watching, if you like quirky (as I generally do), but it was the song that stuck with me.

This was really my introduction to the songs of George and Ira Gershwin, with George supplying the music, and brother Ira providing the lyrics.

Many of their songs have become recognized as part of the Great American Songbook, but Ira’s lyrics are often too subtle and offbeat to fit cleanly into that mold.

This song, in particular, is one that is less frequently sung. Supposedly playwright and producer George S. Kaufman heard an early rehearsal of the number and wondered whether it was, in fact, a love song at all, before the brothers finally got to the lyric “They laughed at me wanting you,” at which point Kaufman threw up his hands and said, “Oh, well.”

So if you’re looking for straightforward love songs, this is not the first one you’d pick.

The rendition used in the Bogdanovich film was sung by Frank Sinatra, and it’s hard to go wrong Old Blue Eyes and Gershwin. But Tony Bennett made an album in 1993 that featured songs originally sung by Fred Astaire, and I’ve always liked his recording. But the Ella Fitzgerald rendition is probably as close to a perfect reference version as we can get, so for my money I would recommend you start there.

So let’s dive in.

The song starts with a brief intro, more spoken than sung, that is often omitted from modern recordings.

The odds were a hundred to one against me:
The world thought the heights were too high to climb.
But people from Missouri never incensed me…
Oh, I wasn’t a bit concerned…
For from history I had learned…
How many, many times the worm had turned.

(For those who may not immediately grasp the reference to people from Missouri, they have long been known as the “Show me” state, slow to believe a novel proposition until its truth has been clearly demonstrated.)

What I like about the intro is the way Gershwin sets the stage for the lyrics to come, comparing his amorous pursuit to some of the great feats achieved by humanity.

They all laughed at Christopher Columbus
When he said the world was round.
They all laughed when Edison recorded sound.
They all laughed at Wilbur and his brother
When they said that man could fly.
They told Marconi
Wireless was a phony:
It’s the same old cry.

Now part of the fun here is that, although Gershwin ends up talking about himself only in terms of a love affair, it is obvious to anyone listening that he is also being wildly inventive with the song itself. Consider the creative incorporation of the names and achievements of such a wide range of adventurers and inventors, and the way he plays with the line length and rhyming scheme.

And in fact the Gershwin brothers contributed to the creation of the American musical as a sophisticated art form. So while Ira may have been too modest to call direct attention to his and his brother’s achievements, he’s certainly not above demonstrating his own inventiveness, and thereby indirectly including himself in this list of notable inventors.

So now the part about love comes in.

They laughed at me wanting you:
Said I was reaching for the moon.
But oh, you came through –
Now they’ll have to change their tune.
They all said we never could be happy,
They laughed at us and how!
But ho, ho, ho,
Who’s got the last laugh now?

And now a second verse paying tribute to other creators and their accomplishments.

They all laughed at Rockefeller Center:
Now they’re fighting to get in.
They all laughed at Whitney
And his cotton gin.
They all laughed at Fulton and his steamboat,
Hershey and his chocolate bar.
Ford and his Lizzie
Kept the laughers busy:
That’s how people are.

(Note that the Ford Model T was often referred to as the “Tin Lizzie.”)

And now the second chorus, with slightly different lyrics, again returning the subject to romance.

They laughed at me wanting you,
Said it would be, “Hello, goodbye.”
But oh, you came through –
Now they’re eating humble pie.
They all said we’d never get together:
Darling, let’s take a bow.
For ho, ho, ho!
Who’s got the last laugh?
Hee, hee, hee!
Let’s at the past laugh
Ha, ha, ha!
Who’s got the last laugh now?

The song ends on a fun and slightly silly note, with repeated variations on ways to express laughter using the American English vocabulary. (Sinatra does a “Har, har, har” on the last of these.)

One can look at this song from a variety of vantage points. It can appear somewhat dated today, with references to Columbus and Whitney’s cotton gin. But it’s also an illuminating sort of time machine that lets us see America through the eyes of Ira Gershwin, as it appeared to him in 1937: a history lesson, if you will. Gershwin lets us feel the optimism and enthusiasm of that time, between the two World Wars, towards the end of the Jazz Age, with prohibition a mistake that could now be comfortably viewed through the rear view mirror (ideally with a cocktail in hand).

The song can also be appreciated simply based on its lyrical and musical inventiveness. For example the lines “They told Marconi / Wireless was a phony” is a tight couplet that never gets old, at least to my ears.

Most meaningfully, though, this song can be viewed as a paean to the possibilities of human development, to our capacity for invention, and to our continuing ability to surprise one other with the apparently unlimited opportunities for human life on this planet – not least of which is our opportunity for romantic entanglement.

(Arguably one could read Steven Johnson’s book Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World, or extract much the same message from this playful little song.)

But consider again the third line from the end:

Let’s at the past laugh.

Notice the tricky inversion of verb and object. This line usually gets buried a bit in all of the “last laugh” celebrating at the end of the song. (Louis Armstrong even stumbles over the line in his recording with Ella, seemingly unable to figure out what it is he’s supposed to be singing.)

But what Gershwin is clearly saying is: let’s have a laugh at the past, at all the things we so recently deemed to be impossible, at all the people who thought the world would never change.

Ira Gershwin was born Israel Gershovitz in 1896, the oldest child of two Russian Jews who had emigrated to Manhattan only five years earlier. He dropped out of college and worked as a cashier in his father’s Turkish baths. It was not until the age of 25 that he began a professional songwriting career. And he was eventually recognized as one of the most successful songwriters – artistically and commercially – in American history.

So if we don’t think he’s writing about the human capacity for development, then we should perhaps consider the song a little more deeply.

Just because he’s having fun doesn’t mean he’s not serious.

October 31, 2023