Best of PL: Accentuate the positive

The items I have posted reflecting my interest in popular music are NOT among the best of Power Line. Rocket Man has encouraged me to pursue my interest in popular music on Power Line, however, and I will say only that the stuff I have written reflecting my interest in the subject is close to my heart.
I’m not usually clever enough to find a political hook for writing about popular music, but this past November 17 Ms. Hillary, of all people, gave me the opportunity to celebrate the anniversary of Johnny Mercer’s birth with a lead-in provided by a Boston Globe article devoted to her.

Ms. Hillary was the keynote speaker at the Iowa Democratic Party’s Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner Saturday evening. I haven’t noticed reports on the dinner elsewhere, but the Boston Globe today has a good one: “Dean rivals seek to accentuate positive.”
The fact that the Clinton mafiosi have been detailed to the campaign of Wesley Clark should be persuasive evidence that the Clintons would like to derail Howard Dean. The Globe reports that the audience heard additional evidence in her speech.
“Even though Senator Hillary Clinton was supposed to sound neutral in her remarks about Democratic candidates here Saturday night, some guests in the audience thought they heard a pointed jab at Howard B. Dean. ‘We have to do more than criticize,’ Clinton said during her keynote address at the Iowa Democratic Party’s annual Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner. ‘We have to stand for the best values of the Democratic Party. We have to have a vision of where we want to lead this country.'” The story notes how Dean’s rivals have begun to pound on the theme that anger is not enough.
The Globe headline states that it is Dean’s rivals who now seek to “accentuate the positive.” It should be noted that “accentuate the positive” is a phrase made famous by lyricist Johnny Mercer, and tomorrow is his birthday. “Accentuate the Positive” is of course a song in the guise of a sermon: “You’ve got to accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, and latch on to the affirmative, don’t mess with Mister In-between.”
Those lyrics are so familiar they have become a cliche, but they are followed by the preacher’s concrete, witty, unforgettable example (and a triple rhyme): “To illustrate my last remark, Jonah in the whale, Noah in the ark, what did they do just when everything looked so dark?”
Among the 1,500 songs to which Mercer wrote the lyrics are “One For My Baby (And One More For the Road),” “P.S. I Love You” (not the Beatles song), “Come Rain or Come Shine,” “Blues In the Night,” “Moon River” and “Satin Doll.” He was an utterly brilliant lyricist.
My personal favorite of Mercer’s songs is “Midnight Sun,” originally an instrumental by Lionel Hampton and Sonny Burke. Driving along the freeway from Newport Beach to Hollywood and back in 1955, Mercer heard the song on his car radio, called the station and asked the deejay to play the song again, memorized the melody, and wrote the lyrics in his head as he drove.
In his book The Poets of Tin Pan Alley, Philip Furia notes that in “Midnight Sun” Mercer pushed the oldest cliches of Tin Pan Alley to baroque extremes precisely as the Tin Pan Alley tradition was expiring: “Your lips were like a red and ruby chalice, warmer than the summer night./The clouds were like an alabaster palace rising to a snowy height./Each star its own aurora borealis,/suddenly you held me tight…I could see the Midnight Sun.” Furia writes: “It’s as if the lyric itself is a midnight sun, a last blaze of an Alley style extinguishing itself…”

I should have added in my post on Mercer that my favorite recording of “Midnight Sun” is by Sarah Vaughan on her wonderful Pablo disc “How Long Has This Been Going On?” It is simply incredible. By the same token, I should have added that I never really “heard” the brilliance of “Accentuate the Positive” until I heard Nancy Lamott’s version of the song on her beautiful disc devoted to Mercer songs, “Come Rain or Come Shine.”
Deacon followed up my Mercer post later that day with “Overcoming Ms. In-between.” “Ms. In-between” was Deacon’s witty handle for Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, and it may be worth noting that Deacon made far better use of Johnny Mercer than I was able to do.


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