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.


  1. MrsDarwin8:36 AM

    Oh, I do like this. You're right; it's very different from Ella Fitzgerald's take. I think it's because Ethel Waters moves through more of a range of emotions in the song, starting so refined and ending up choked and breathless -- rather like Miss Otis did.

    I wish we had some gems like this in the stacks of wax we inherited with the house, but the former owners' collection seems to run to standard recordings of standard classics (though I do appreciate the two-record set of PDQ Bach's greatest) and then a random assortment of older, heavier records in books of slipcases -- the equivalent of mixtapes, I guess -- which won't play at the right speed on my record player. Somewhere up there is a recording of FDR's speech to Congress on Dec. 8, 1941, but there's a big chip out of the edge which cuts off the famous opening line.

  2. branemrys12:37 PM

    I think you're exactly right: the vocal mood parallels the unfolding of the story itself. We start out with things as if they were just ordinary, getting a sense of who Miss Otis, then things start waver a bit when Miss Otis strays in Lover's Lane, then get cooler, all the way until things simply break down.

    I inherited quite a few old records from my grandparents. A lot of Barry Manilow.


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