Metamorphosis of a Song: “What Do the Simple Folk Do?”
I've blogged before about my joy in finding something I never knew existed in the richly varied archival holdings of the New York Public Library, but while processing the James Barton Papers, I had an epiphany of another color: finding something I've wanted to get my hands on for nearly twenty years.
Bear with me while I set the scene for this discovery with some personal history. It would be an understatement to say that I'm a fan of lyricist and librettist Alan Jay Lerner. Gigi has been my favorite movie musical since I was 5. Camelot has been my favorite musical since I was 8. My college admissions essay on my biggest influence was about Alan Jay Lerner. Maybe you caught one of my first blogs on his brilliant flop, Lolita, My Love.
As a teenager, I read Lerner's highly entertaining (though not strictly accurate) autobiography, The Street Where I Live, not to mention every biography of him available. I don't remember when, in my extensive reading on the subject, I found out that one of the songs from Camelot, "What Do the Simple Folk Do?" had been written for an earlier Lerner and Loewe show, Paint Your Wagon (which I also love, of course).
I wasn't all that surprised to learn about this. After all, Lerner had used the premise, and some only slightly altered lyrics, for a song from Love Life, a 1948 collaboration with Kurt Weill, to come up with a new song with Fritz Loewe, for his 1958 Oscar-winning film Gigi. Both songs are called "I Remember It Well."
When I found out the library had the papers of James Barton, the original star of Paint Your Wagon, I naturally wanted to process them. Though nearly forgotten today, Barton was a pretty famous performer in his day. In his vaudeville acts in the teens, twenties, and thirties, he was notable for blending the Irish dance styles he'd learned from his performer parents with a totally different style, known then as "jazz dancing" which he picked up from African-Americans he'd performed with. His skill and physicality were also remarkable.
Barton had a famous act — a comic soft shoe number where he acted drunk but did impressively nimble dance moves. This routine was so beloved that it was often inserted into later Barton projects, including Paint Your Wagon! It was captured on screen for the 1950 film The Daughter of Rosie O'Grady. In addition to being a top comic and song and dance man, Barton was also a serious dramatic actor, who starred in plays like Tobacco Road and The Iceman Cometh.
One of the great resources of Barton's papers is the dozen boxes of sheet music, providing documentation of obscure and famous popular songs of the twentieth century. One of my favorites was called "I Hope I Don't See Molly (On the Day I Marry Flo)" the jist of which is… exactly what you'd imagine from the title.
The main treasure for me was the sheet music for "What Do Other Folks Do?" that original version of "What Do the Simple Folks Do?" Though "Simple Folk" is a much more expansive piece, it follows the same structure of the earlier song and fits into a similar place in the plot.
Thanks to an early script and an out of town song list in the Barton papers, I was able to find out at exactly what point in the plot the song was performed before it was cut.
In Paint Your Wagon Jennifer Rumson (played by Olga San Juan) asks the title question to her father Ben (Barton). Both are depressed because of the collapse of the gold rush boom town he founded and Jennifer has additional angst over a misunderstanding with the Mexican miner she loves.
In Camelot, Guinevere asks the titular question to her husband Arthur. She is depressed because of her guilt over the affair she's having with Lancelot. Arthur is distraught over his conflicted feelings about that affair, and both are concerned about the imminent demise of Arthur's democratic round table government, brought on by his own vicious illegitimate son Mordred.
(If you want to see Camelot's matchless original stars, Julie Andrews and Richard Burton, perform this number, footage of them doing it on the Ed Sullivan Show is available on DVD.)
Examining the differences between these two lyrics illustrates Lerner's creative development between 1951 and 1960, even though the question asked by the woman and the remedies suggested by the man are more or less the same. The Paint Your Wagon song is a good sketch for what would become a great song in Camelot. "Other Folks" starts with a, brief, and unnecessary verse for Jennifer:
I don't know where to turn, Pa.
I don't know how to live.
You've seen an awful lot, Pa.
Don't you have some advice to give?
And then she launches into her first question, stated simply:
What do other folks do
When the world turns sour?
What do other folks do?
Oh, Lord, I wish I knew.
In Camelot, Lerner scraps the verse, which is a good move since Guinevere is much more long-winded with her version of the title question:
What do the simple folk do
To help them escape
When they're blue?
The shepherd who is ailing,
The milkmaid who is glum
The cobbler who is wailing
From nailing his thumb
When they're beset and besieged
The folk not noblessly obliged
However do they manage
To shed their weary lot?
Oh, what do simple folk do, we do not?
The Camelot lyric is much more elegant, and the details Lerner added make it funnier. Of course the Camelot characters are educated royalty. Even though Arthur does have humble origins, he was also trained by Merlin, the wisest man of his time, so it's appropriate for him to speak with more eloquence than a rough gold-miner like Ben of Paint Your Wagon. Ben's daughter, Jennifer has been to school in the east by the time she sings "Other Folks," but we must assume her mode of expression benefitted less from her education than that of another Lerner and Loewe heroine, Eliza Doolittle of My Fair Lady.
The first remedy Ben suggests is singing:
Sometimes when things is wrong,
Folks start to sing a song.
Some say it kind o' pulls them through.
That's what other folks do.
Arthur also suggests singing as a remedy, but it's the second remedy he suggests. His responses are also more elegant and more specific:
Once, upon the road, I came upon a lad
Singing in a voice three times his size
When I asked him why, he told me he was sad
And singing always made his spirits rise
And that's what simple folk do, I surmise
This is the basic format: the woman asks the question, the man proposes the remedy, they try the remedy, and it fails to cheer them up. In "Other Folks," there are 4 question and remedy exchanges, and they appear in this order: singing, whistling, dreaming and dancing. Since each exchange was going to be more extensive in Camelot, Lerner wisely reduced the number of exchanges to three, and just as wisely cut the dreaming remedy—it's intangible and vague. He also, changed the order to: whistling, singing and dancing. This makes so much more sense. A song should build and—especially since the activities proposed will actually be performed by the actors on stage—each should be more arduous that the last. In both versions, the dance is the last remedy, but in Paint Your Wagon, the song just ends with the dance! In Camelot, there's a bittersweet and clever button that makes the song:
GUENEVERE: What else do the simple folk do
To help them escape when they're blue?
ARTHUR: They sit around and wonder what royal folk would do
And that's what simple folk do.
The situation in Camelot is more fraught with drama, giving the song a subtext. In Paint Your Wagon, it's only about the openly acknowledged problems the characters are having. Another element that makes the Camelot version more effective is the symmetry of theme it creates with an earlier song. In Arthur's first song in the show, "I Wonder What the King is Doing Tonight.," he speculates about his subjects speculating about him.
Please excuse my exclusive focus on the lyrics for the two versions of the song. Loewe's music for these two songs, as far as I can tell with a very limited musical literacy, is also pretty different. The title line and the answer lines are similar, but everything else in the middle of each musical stanza was re-written. With the music now available, perhaps "Other Folks" could be restored to Paint Your Wagon's tunestack if we ever get a complete recording. (The original cast album left out a full song, a few reprises, and a ton of dance music, which accompanied the dances choreographer Agnes DeMille considered her finest work for a Broadway musical.)
Many of the critcs found Paint Your Wagon too depressing and serious for a musical. Maybe the show actually needed the positive boost that all the fun singing, whistling, dancing and dreaming of "Other Folks" would have given to a heavy second act, or at least maybe the critics would have responded to it more.
Ultimately, I think cutting it was wise. It could actually have diminished the show's seriousness as an examination of the futility of the American Dream, which was a motif for Lerner throughout his career, especially in shows like Love Life and 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Though Paint Your Wagon couldn't pull this off as a musical, Gypsy would do so a few years later with greater success. The great American play, Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman had dealt with this theme suberbly in 1949, but maybe no one was ready for a musical to do so.
Whether cutting "Other Folks" hurt the show or saved it, cutting it made "Simple Folks" possible. Paint Your Wagon's loss was assuredly Camelot's gain. It was a genuine thrill for me to find this song and be able to trace Lerner's growth as an artist through this song. If you're interested in reading the entire lyric or the music, come find it in the James Barton Papers in the Billy Rose Theatre Division of the New York Public Library.