Milton Babbitt: A Discussion in 12 Parts

5. Popular Standards

MILTON BABBITT: If you know anybody who knows more popular music of the ’20s or ’30s than I do, I want to know who it is. I’m serious. I mean, I grew up playing every kind of music in the world and I know more pop music from the ’20s and ’30s, it’s because of where I grew up. We had to imitate Jan Garber one night; we had to imitate Jean Goldkette the next night. We heard everything from the radio; we had to do it all by ear. We took down their arrangements; we stole their arrangements; we transcribed them, approximately. We played them for a country club dance one night, and for a high school dance the next. They would be different tastes, of course.

FRANK J. OTERI: You even wrote a Broadway show.

MILTON BABBITT: Of course and I’m doing a pop tune now. I’m trying to do something which is such an anachronism for me that it’s taking me more time than trying to write a string quartet. Robert White, the tenor that you undoubtedly know, is doing a concert next month and he wanted me to write a song for him. I am very fond of Bobby, because when he was a small child practically, Gunther Schuller discovered him and he did one of my most difficult pieces, my tenor and six instrument piece and he was the first person and one of the last persons to do it. So I thought for him, he really, I owe him something for this courageous act and I’d write him a little pop tune because he’d been recording Irving Berlin and some others you probably know. And I’ve written for him a real ’30s, ’40s pop tune. And let me tell you something, I have had a terrible time. It’s so artificial what I’m doing is corny or what I’m doing is too complicated. I’ve just simply struggled with it. And I used to knock these things off all the time.

FRANK J. OTERI: So it’s not twelve-tone?

MILTON BABBITT: Oh God no! No! It’s in Aflat. It’s a sixteen bar, eight plus eight plus eight plus eight pop song. The kind of song you probably don’t even know.

FRANK J. OTERI: Oh, I know those songs. Those old Broadway show songs. I love DeSylva, Brown, and Henderson.

MILTON BABBITT: You love DeSylva, Brown, and Henderson? Oh my God. You know DeSylva, Brown, and Henderson? I mean, DeSylva, Brown, and Henderson is not what you’re likely to hear. Alec Wilder, an old friend of mine, wrote a book on popular songs, you probably know the book. There isn’t a single DeSylva, Brown, and Henderson song in it. And I called Alec and, you know, he was very taken aback that I’d be interested in the people who wrote “You’re the Cream in My Coffee.”

FRANK J. OTERI: That’s wonderful stuff. “The Best Things in Life Are Free“…

MILTON BABBITT:Button Up Your Overcoat“…

FRANK J. OTERI:I’m a Dreamer, Aren’t We All“…

MILTON BABBITT:Birth of the Blues“…How do you know all of this, you’re only a baby? Where did you…?

FRANK J. OTERI: I grew up in New York City.

MILTON BABBITT: Yeah, I know, but DeSylva…look, if you told me that you knew Richard Rodgers and Hart, I wouldn’t be surprised, but DeSylva, Brown and Henderson. There was a movie about them called The Best Things in Life Are Free, where there are very strange people playing these people…

FRANK J. OTERI: And Sunny Side Up was the very first movie musical.

MILTON BABBITT: Great movie. Great movie. Who was in Sunny Side Up? Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell.You remember the songs from Sunny Side Up?

FRANK J. OTERI:Keep your sunny side up, up…?”

MILTON BABBITT: Right. “If you have nine kids in a row…”

FRANK J. OTERI: “…baseball teams make make money you know.”

MILTON BABBITT: Exactly. “If I Had a Talking Picture of You“…

FRANK J. OTERI: Did you ever see Just Imagine? It was shown very briefly in the 1930s. It was the first science fiction musical ever.

MILTON BABBITT: With El Brendel?

FRANK J. OTERI: I don’t remember…they go into the future from the year 1930 to year 1980.

MILTON BABBITT: Yeah, El Brendel was the comic in it. Frankie Albertson, I think, was the girl lead who became very famous for marrying a famous orchestra leader, you know what I’m talking about. Remember the songs in it? “There’s Something About an Old-Fashioned Girl,” “Never Swat a Fly.” All DeSylva, Brown, and Henderson. Of course, who doesn’t know that? Any educated man. It was a terrible movie by the way.

FRANK J. OTERI: I thought it was great fun.

MILTON BABBITT: Oh, it was, it was great fun. With those airplanes flying around and those jokes, I agree. “There’s Something About an Old-Fashioned Girl” and the “old-fashioned girl” was this 1920s flapper. Sure. “Never swat a fly, he may love another fly, he may sit with her and sigh, the way I do with you.” Of course. Kid, now you know you’re talking my language.

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