Friday, February 19, 2021


Perhaps the best advice Mel Brooks has passed along is in the lyric from one of his earliest films, “The 12 Chairs.” Set to what was originally a folk song or dance from Hungary, Mel wrote: “Hope for the best. Expect the worst.” The Boy Scouts may have shortened it to “Be Prepared,” but that doesn’t quite capture the truth about life, does it?

Below, you’ll find four versions of the melody.

While blacks and Latinos glumly insist the white man stole their music, the “adapting” or “borrowing” of folk melodies is as old as the Jew's harp and the nose flute. Brahms, Liszt, Dvorak and others were seizing on new etnic sounds long before The Weavers turning a crappy bit of monotony into “Wimoweh.” They did it long before Paul Simon mated some of his best lyrics to what he called an “American Tune,” but was actually an old German melody based on Hans Hassler’s “"Mein G'müt ist mir verwirret,” which was borrowed by Bach.

My own favorites in this genre are the "Slavonic Dances" from Dvorak and the "Hungarian Dances" from Brahms. The masters did go out and visit obscure small villages to find exhilerating new rhythms and styles. Mostly, in this era of no-copyright, the masters were free to do as they pleased, especially as they usually improved upon the folk melodies. The only major grunt came from Bela Keler, who was irked to discover his “Bártfai emlék" (Memories of Bártfa) now sportig the title Brahms' Hungarian Dance #5. Brahms, ala Pete Seeger, who didn't know the droningly boring tune he turned into "Wimoweh" was written by Solomon Linda, Brahms simply responded that he had no idea it was an original piece and not a folk song. His bad.

By the 20th Century, turn-around was fair play, and plenty of Tin Pan Alley hacks were foraging through public domain classical music, looking for melodies to inspire new lyrics. The Russian romantics were especially prey to the hack henchmen, with “Tonight We Love” and “Moon Love" swiped from Tchaikovsy and “Full Moon and Empty Arms” ripped from Rachmaninoff. Among others.

Brahms’ “Hungarian Dance #4” became “As Years Go By,” and was a hit for the irritating operetta hero Nelson Eddy. A few other guys put out over versions, as did a popular female of the day, Evelyn Knight. A far more compelling and ambitious version would later be recorded by the great Mezzo-Soprano Rise Stevens on her ten-inch album “Symphonic Songs.” For non-opera fans, a Mezzo is MUCH easier on the ears than an outright Soprano. Rise, who just missed making it to 100, was my favorite Mezzo, and I was glad to get an autographed photo from her. My sentimental favorite soprano, if anyone cares, was Victoria de los Angeles, but there was certainly a lot of competition. Gee, wish I'd seen Carol Neblett do her topless version of "Thais." But I digress. As you’ll hear, following about 20 seconds of romantic (or spooky) gypsy violin, her magnificent voice joins in a vocalise before she tackles the actual lyrics from Pete De Rose and Charles Tobias:

As years go by this love we know, as years go by, will live and grow. It will remain our love refrain, like songs of long ago. When autumn calls and leaves that fall are soon forgotten a brook runs dry and birds may fly away. As years go by and youth has fled, when silvery hair has crowned your head, you’ll still have me, I’ll still have you to love as years go by…

It's a bit of an irony that many of the Hungarian and Slavonic "dances" adapted by Dvorak and Brahms were not exactly suitable for dancing, as they were given the classical composers' full range of arrangement, including pensive slow moments that would leave dancers utterly confused as to what to do next.

I’m not sure if Mel Brooks was inspired by the original Brahms classical piece, or by “As Years Go By.” Either way, his lyrics suit the music for a film that is, in essence, an old folk tale from Czarist Russia. The screenplay was based on a novel by Ilya Ilf & Evgeny Petrov, first published in 1928. Mel’s movie came out in 1970. An irony is “12 + 1” aka “The Thirteen Chairs” was in production around the same time. It limped into theaters where critics found it a hodge-podge mess with an international all-star cast tryng to outshine each other. Orson Welles, Terry-Thomas, Vittorio Gassman, and in her last screen appearance, Sharon Tate, all had their moments as they fulfilled Mel's warning, "Hope for the best...expect the worst."


AS YEARS GO BY, EVELYN KNIGHT (caution, scratchy sound from this 78rpm oldie)



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