Tuesday, March 04, 2014
Music on My Mind
Ethel Waters, "Miss Otis Regrets".
I've mentioned before that I like murder ballads. Murder ballads often have an ambiguous edge to them. They depend crucially on there being a sharp distinction between justice and injustice, since they crucially depend on the idea of 'comeuppance', but this distinction, and the idea of comeuppance, can be put forward in various moods. A lot of murder ballads easily allow you a great deal of freedom as to the mood. This one, which was written by Cole Parter in the 1930s, is somewhat distinctive in that it works best with a particular mood, which Ethel Waters hits perfectly -- the song has been recorded by many others, but I think even Ella Fitzgerald, who usually finds the best mood for a song, was not able to top the perfect take here. Trying to characterize it in words one comes up against the fact that our language for moods just isn't sufficiently rich. I suppose we could call it ironically sweet politeness.