20
Jan 12

THE FT TOP 100 TRACKS OF ALL TIME No.6: Eartha Kitt’s “Just an Old Fashioned Girl”

FT6 comments • 1,521 views

Some time in the mid-70s, I went on a school trip to the Ludlow Festival, to see (I think) Cymbeline: six kids crammed in the back of a teacher’s little van, five in their late teens actually studying it for A-level, and me, experimenting and showing off. So naturally they were all having fun amiably teasing me, and hit on POP as a topic to trip me up. As a gamble — early version of a dodge I make to this day — I declared my Young Person’s admiration for my dad’s favourite singer: Eartha Kitt. Which paid off — they’d none of them never heard of her, and with no comfy take, to needle or muddle me with, preferred to chuckle a bit at my weird obscure tastes and went back to earnest Sabbath-chat.

Funny thing is, I grew up and through a life writing about and categorising music, exploring and improving histories, and still Eartha feels more like a handy prevarication move than a name to conjure with: someone people kind of know about, for sure, and maybe like (maybe a LOT), but without a set place, or role, or handy symbolic meaning. Actually she was RCA’s biggest artist before Elvis arrived and the World Changed™ — but even in all the battle, begun in the 80s really, to rediscover undismissive unconfused perspective on pre-Elvis time, nothing apparently re-centred Eartha where she belongs in it.

Not sure how de-confusing it is, but there’s a very intriguing interview with Kitt in Vol.One of RE/Search’s “Incredibly Strange Music”, where she casually demolishes pretty much EVERYONE’s received cartography of values and politics and pop. Certainly she stomped all over LBJ’s notions of the politics of pop: in 1968, Lady Bird Johnson had invited her (along with 50 other women working in various communities across the nation) to the White House, to discuss what black kids want, and what could be done about it. And Kitt told her: in terms she apparently never expected to hear, from a mouth and a compass-point she was (one imagines) quite unaccustomed to processing. So yes, Kitt at that time belonged — as the White House promo department had judged — to a passing age of Las Vegas-y mainstream entertainment, still hugely popular but very much NOT the standard-bearers of the rising young rock-focused political wave. So what was causing riots in urban neighborhoods, Kitt was asked: Vietnam, of course. Reward: being made presidential persona non grata, and banishment from the US light-entertainment universe for many years.

Her fame had started outside America, and she didn’t need its unoffended custom to thrive: in fact she’d spent the years after the war on the left bank in Paris, in the kinds of dives that James Baldwin and and Jean Gabin and Sartre and de Beauvoir could doubtless be found. And well, even setting aside this handily existentialist self-education, the pop-cultural mainstream that rock was busy scorning was surely at least as just as fascinatingly uneasy and complicated in its wit and seemingly shallow opulence as any of the noisier pop that followed, muffling it.

Thursday’s Child is the 1957 LP that “Just an Old-Fashioned Girl” comes from, and it’s the LP my dad had at home (and I have now). It’s a concept album — as so many 50s LPs were — but there’s a sophisticated wit, a subtlety of the unspoken to the concept that’s an unfathomable distance from anything we seemingly habitually associate with this term today. The title phrase comes from the old nursery rhyme: Monday’s child fair of face, Tuesday’s full of grace, and so on. Thursday’s has “far to go” — and the LP is presented as a succession of places Eartha’s been and what she’s seen, dance troupes and night-clubs in New York, Hollywood and Vegas, but also Paris, Istanbul, south and central America. And it’s genuinely an “album” — that’s to say a selection and cross-section of unexpected styles of song, a succession of snapshots and atmosphere — that take us from the delicate, intelligent, definitely somewhat threatening vixen on the cover (shades of Roxy Music) back into the past that made her. Exotic imagined glimpses of the bohemian life and loves of a dancer or singer — of the kind of interzone that gets called “transgressive”, at least by writers determined to drive all joy and energy from the world — further conjoined with an an extract from EK’s first autobiography, also called Thursday’s Child, printed on the reverse of the sleeve (and blurrily reproduced below). As you can read, it’s an intensely evocative passage about Kitt’s mother (a displaced sharecropper, part black, part Cherokee), leading through two barefoot children through the South Carolina night, trying to find somewhere they can all sleep safely. EK was fathered by rape, by the white son of the owner of the farm she was born on — and more or less completely disowned by future stepfathers. As a child she was often dismissed as the ‘Yella Gal’ and — as she wrote and often noted — spurned on all sides; and so she ran away to all the world, to punish all such tiny-minded local bigotry, by becoming an inescapable global success.

Part of the thread of this possibility you can trace via Kitt’s conductor-producer for Thursday’s Child: a New Yorker called Henri René, French mother, German father, musical director for the international wing of RCA Victor from the late 30s, leading his own orchestra from the 40s, he’s best known today — better known than she is in some places — as a pioneer of the “bachelor pad” mode of wittily arranged, lushly recorded music (in “living stereo”), a sequence of LPs released across the 50s, their titles alone a muddled key to the story: Paris Loves Lovers; Passion in Paint; Music for Bachelors (cover feat.Jayne Mansfield in a negligee); Music for the Weaker Sex; Compulsion to Swing; Riot in Rhythm; Listen to Henri Rene (Dynamic Dimensions; Portfolio for Easy Listening; In Love Again; Melodic Magic; White Heat (ha!); and Swinging 59….

The wit is a deeply musically informed wit — the strength and allure of the LP is its breadth, as much as anything — and the “lushness” a very deft use indeed of new-found studio possibility, so that orchestration has a precision and 3D stereo presence in and around the singer. Kitt switches between personas and deliveries and the arrangements do likewise, cinematic jumpcuts that juxtapose, undercut, gather and playfully debate, ironise — “ironise” in an important way, that’s so common in 40s and 50s film, that doesn’t necessarily have a jargon term, at least when it’s deployed in non-film music, where the “soundtrack” amplifies the emotion of a scene or an action or a section in a story by being its exact opposite.

(The classic example comes from Hitchcock: the circus music rising to a loud climax during a nasty murder at fairground’s edge: the sound obscures and distracts from the material nastiness of the story, and — one step back — foregrounds the unconcerned happy world as it carries on having fun only yards away, which of course means that as viewers — two steps back, as it were — we’re complicit in these two clashing worlds, and thrown doubly hard against the pathos of the victim by sharing the last sounds she hears, and recognising her solitude…)

The layered, lush, learned irony here is an invocation — as much as anything else — of the ugly side of a woman’s success in this kind of world: and this is the use of irony I want to stress here — the conscious, amused, wise adult alertness to the fact that every one of us is embedded in conflicting worlds and roles and perspective, torn between loyalties and obligations we agree, for the sake of moment-by-moment social enrichment, to share and acknowledge. This is where the intensity and horror of Hitchcock’s irony arrives, because it demonstrates how often we fail to negotiate a settlement between clashing worlds; but this is also where the release and dark joy of Eartha Kitt’s irony operates, which insists that sometimes we can, and it’s thrillingly and heartening when this happens — just look at her!

Let’s get back to to ‘Old Fashioned-Girl’, a song that meets the contradictions of past and present head on, and playfully explores the way role-play suffuses our response to both. Or we can dig sideways a bit more — noting for oblique confirmation that René’s White Heat, made for Imperial after he left RCA, includes a version of the Woody Woodpecker themetune: and actually this (of all things) brings us back . Because the best comparison I can make for the image stream in “Fashioned” is decadence-era Tex Avery: as he eased himself away from the nihilistic anarcho-libidinal energy of his earlier cartoon shorts, the director made a group of animations that seem somehow to predict (and tease) the Bachelor Pad set, even though they’re not more than streams of quickfire visual puns, each at once cutely witty and instantly forgotten, an affectionate giggle at modern market culture as pure silly cornucopia: The House of Tomorrow; the Car of Tomorrow; the Farm of Tomorrow; and TV of Tomorrow

I want an old fashioned car, a cerise Cadillac/
Long enough to put a bowling alley in the back

I like the old fashioned flowers, violets are for me/
Have them made in diamonds by the man at Tiffany

Our little home will be quaint as an old parasol/
And instead of carpet I’ll have money wall to wall

The arrangement’s terrific: a dense harpsichord clatter bouncing behind her, as speed-read gesture at the “olden days” (and at more recent craft-enclave opulence: Wanda Landowska playing Bach on harpsichord had been released as an album of 78s in a pioneering subscription issue before the war, the cognoscenti paying upfront for a quality document that would never have received mainstream release). She sings the words bell-clear, enunciating like a guide to elegant ways to speak, as the words spool out, relentlessly, into an impishly self-mocking cartoon of material-girl cupidity, Avery-style images as sung sight-gags (“I’m just a pilgrim at heart, oh so pure and genteel/Watch me in Las Vegas while I’m at the spinning wheel“). The fold-over irony of the role she plays not so much straight as a wide-eyed and coolly understated innocence, holding your gaze, challenging you to call her on it all. As emphasis on the elegance there’s even just trace of a mimicked accent when she sings “Old” — and it reminds you how hard it is to guess or hear her own real accent anyway; her default mode isn’t not quite as wildly mutable as Nicki Minaj, say, but nevertheless they’re soul-sisters.

Eartha was hot and she was witty and quick, and her voice darts across backdrops of cartooned identity; a knowing actress flickering between roles, momentarily sketching them, chuckling about them, chuckling at you so fascinated by the growling codeshifts, as we’d call it today. “Old Fashioned Girl” is a portrait of a type — impishly material-girl in the way it mocks cliches of piety — but it’s self-mocking too, mocking the type, mocking the performer sketching the type, mocking the audience the performer has in the palm of her paw, mocking the need for the relationship we’re all in, in contrast to… what?

Mocking cliches of piety — maybe this is why Kitt seem to sit so resolutely outside the legacy of “soul” as a singer, and only somewhat overlaps with jazz (I have a rather nice 1991 LP with a stupid title, Eartha Kitt: Thinking Jazz), no more part of its canons than (say) Louis Prima. Anyway, as we can see — to return to particulars from airy and confusing generalities — Kitt’s sensibility was never about the fetish for some idealised cultural home-space blessedly free from roleplay or powerplay or the erotics of hierarchy. Nor (of course) should anyone’s idea of soul or jazz have been, but somehow the UK factions in the post-punk critical generation worked together to effect exactly this: perhaps the single greatest failure of this era was our collective inability to open up a language and an ethos that encompassed the new music in front of us, the post-Elvis tradition, and a grown-up non-symbolic understanding of soul, of jazz-as-ethos… and of everything Eartha seems to carry about her, on this LP above all.

RE/Search were attempting with this particular collection and its 1994 follow-up to re-purpose several lost strands of music, from electronica to what became known as loungecore, and venturing in the process a little clumsily through the usual stages of a re-evaluation: between a forgotten and a rediscovered pleasure lies an awkward stretch of ambiguously evolving attitude, easily tagged (and dismissed) as “ironic” or “guilty”. I don’t think it’s an accident that Kitt fell into this area for them: as a collective RE/Search had travelled from old-skool west coast punk-rock ‘tood (the zine was then called Search and Destroy) via Ballardian Industrial Culture (which was fascinated with celebrity and mediation and muzak and such figures as Martin Denny) to its not-very-clear slightly self-congratulatory 90s identity, which embraced tattoos, scarification, circus freaks, and the “Angry Women” project (which Kitt fairly easily belonged in, truth to tell). The “irony” this kind of project risks having imposed on it is a feeble ghost of the mode that Hitchcock or Kitt are so confidently deft within and so unsettling deploying: you see the generous motive behind a title like “Incredibly Strange Music” (to recast something seemingly over-familiar and uninteresting as utterly weird), and yet it’s fairly tricky not also to be feeling that much of this music is really only “Incredibly Strange” if you start from an “Incredibly Self-regarding and Parochial” viewpoint. Which perhaps RE/Search felt its readers mainly did?

(Actually there’s a lot to be written about 90s attempts to resolve the 80s impasse — but I’ve already written quite a lot, and don’t intend to pursue that issue here.) (Phew! and indeed Hurrah! cry the long-suffering FT readers…)

To follow every hint and glint of this music, we have to be drenched in a world that’s gone: I can laboriously patch in some of the relevant backstory, but the labour drags down away at the intended effect. We’ve forgotten too much, if we ever even knew it. Examine the label credit — to chase up the provenance of the songs, which were at some point very deliberately selected and agreed on, even before René’s arrangements were written, and work on the sense of conceptual unity begun — and you’re instantly embrangled in a tangle of typos, long-dispersed modish approval, forgotten events and musicals and names: George Shearing (‘Lullaby of Birdland’) and Marvin Fisher (‘Just an Old-Fashioned Girl’) were well enough known in some circles, as perhaps are Mack David (co-composer of ‘If I Can’t Take It With Me When I Go’) and Murray Grand (co-composer of ‘Thursday’s Child) — but Jean-Piere (sic) Moulin? Who was Mesi Julian? ‘Oggere’ seems to be by the Afro-Cuban composer Gilberto Valdés (the label credits just say “Valdez”), and the “Tabares” of the ‘No Importa Si Menti’ composer-credit may be Baz Tabranes, but who was “Tore”, the sole fragmentary indication of the identity of the composer-author of ‘Fascinating Man’? And has no one else ever sung this song? Really? (Don’t say Falco — only the title’s the same… )

(None of the above is actual real proper historical research, mind you: I didn’t even hunt through my own books, just set off on a few lightning google-trips across the internet — I wanted to out the post up before the actual end of time — so any clues others turn up or already know are very welcome. Orson Welles called her “the most exciting woman in the world,” and cast her as Helen of Troy in his staging of Dr Faustus: she also crossed over into semi-highbrow Broadway appearances, such as a musical based on archie and mehitabel, called Shinebone Alley, one of the first with an all-integrated cast, which I want to know more about. I’ve gone nowhere near her role as the third Catwoman, as nuttily perfect as Sun Ra’s Batman project, or the free shows she gave to East Londoners, one of which I saw in the very early 80s… )

Which all brings us back, the long route, to the ‘prevarication move’, and how it was I had something I could baffle the older kids with in 1975-ish, even knowing none of this. Something happened in the late 50s and early 60s, a cultural ruin of sorts, and whether you blame Elvis or “rock” or Vietnam or perhaps even the Vegas swing culture that was one victim of the ruin, that’s allowed songs like to be artefacts that hide more than they reveal, and escape more they connect; for performances like this to be mysteries more than they’re windows. Gather together nothing more than the languages Kitt sings in on this LP — Spanish, French, German, some kind of apache street pidgin in ‘Mademoiselle Kitt’, whatever Cuban patois is featured in the sinister and magnificent ‘Oggere’ — and the scattered dance styles that René unifies into his own orchestral voice, and you’d faced, in the end, with the masked pain, which is also very much the mastered pain, of a performer who never had a home to go back to her; whose family are the multicultural band of outsiders of the Josephine Baker orphanage; a smart, highly political girl-pirate, a feminist Vegas showgirl, who made the stage her best trusted place.

All revolutions go down in history, yet history does not fill up, as another old-fashioned left banker once wrote.




Comments

  1. 1
    lonepilgrim on 20 Jan 2012 #

    outstanding

  2. 2
    thefatgit on 20 Jan 2012 #

    Fantastic piece of writing. I have heard the song before, but when I tried to play it in my head whilst I was reading, the voice that should be Eartha’s, defaulted to Shirley Bassey. Did she sing this song as well?

  3. 3

    This is the only cover I can find on youtube! (Actually not the only one but Shirley B isn’t among them at quick glance… )

    Here’s Eartha herself, with a slightly different arrangement

  4. 4
    koganbot on 20 Jan 2012 #

    My only signifying exposure to Kitt was her playing opposite Nat King Cole in St. Louis Blues; she was a knockout as the tough but sympathetic, truth-telling, and very wise “bad” girl who pierced right into WC Handy’s/Cole’s core. I have no idea if I saw the whole movie, say on AMC, or if I just stumbled on that segment while channel surfing. Is all I remember from it, and I don’t remember the interchange or the nature of the piercing, really, just that she had the Truth – sexual, existential – within her. Powerful. Unsettling.

    Her actual singing often leaves me cold, but I surmise that’s ’cause I haven’t yet penetrated to its wise, sympathetic core: or, even if such core isn’t really there, it belongs there, she wants it there, and that’s worth something (yes, I’m imbuing her with a character written by a screenwriter; but I think it’s fair to assume that the character was meant to embody “Eartha Kitt” anyway).

  5. 5
    swanstep on 21 Jan 2012 #

    Stephin Merritt big-upped Kitt in the mid-’90s and, to my ears at least, divided JAOFG into two songs on 69LS: For We Are the King of the Boudoir (even the title’s ingenious) and Zebra.

    Nice piece of writing but JAOFG itself feels to me a little undistinguished: something about its changes and melody plods I find – they should prick on like the lyrics but they don’t (Miss Piggy nails the leadenness of the underlying music well I feel). Relatedly, I love the vid. footage of Kitt from that wonderfully shot Danish(?) tv show Kaskad, but I’ve never been inclined to rewatch/relisten to JAOFG whereas her C’est Si Bon and I Want to be Evil (my mind flits automatically to Kitt joining the NWOBHM!) on Kaskad are real show-stoppers that I often come back to.

    Interesting that Kitt came out of the west of South Carolina… SC generally and that area in particular is famous for having the most brutal forms of slavery (worse than Mississippi or even than the Caribbean) and for fostering all sorts of toxic social phenomena, including incredibly violent defense of honor culture in places like Edgefield County near where Kitt was born. Fox Butterfield’s work in the ’90s on the spread of violence across the US out of this horrific part of SC, summarized in this book, shocked the conscience at the time. Kitt grew up with a lot of staggeringly awful stuff I’d guess and this must be part of story behind her general strangeness/slight otherworldliness. Has anyone read her autobiographies?

  6. 6

    Woohoo, my (very second-hand) copy of Thursday’s Child the autobiography arrived through the post! It says “Boots: Booklovers Library” on the cover <-- will have to post a picture of this logo, not that it's relevant to this post at all.

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