This is a tale of one of the more mortifying moments in the life of Robert James Elisberg -- and yet I still believe I was right. It's a fascinating observation that sometimes that's not always enough.
I've written in the past about how certain popular pieces of music are based on classical music (like here that the Humming Chorus in Madama Butterfly is used in the song "Bring Him Home" from Les Miserables, among others), and also how there is a similar tradition in classical music that uses themes of folk music interwoven throughout. "The Bear Came Over the Mountain" was actually used by Beethoven in his Wellington's Victory. Mozart did a classical piece based on "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star." For that matter, the whole point of Brahms' Hungarian Dances was to use old Hungarian folk songs as the basis for his classical interpretation. Dmiitri Shostakovich's Tahiti Trot, Op. 16, uses no less than "Tea for Two."
So, this is something that's deeply common in classical music, indeed done by The Masters, and something I admire and love hearing and trying to discover.
That's another reason why I've always loved the theme music to one of my favorite films, 1963 war movie, The Great Escape. I remember reading many decades when I was a kid how Elmer Bernstein's terrific score interpolated a brief passage of Woody Guthrie's folk song, "The Sinking of the Reuben James," into his main title music. I thought that this was extremely clever -- not just adapting the chorus of a folk song into a large, sweeping symphonic piece, but most especially creating an homage to a military disaster in which 116 men were tragically lost on the first American battleship sunk in WWII, and blending it into a movie score about a heroic WWII escape attempt in which 50 lives were gunned down en masse. The next time I saw the movie, I listened for it, and sure enough, there it is. And I've admired it all the many times I've watched the movie since. It's always added a deeply touching subtext to a terrific theme and movie.
A great many years later, about 15 years ago, I was at a fundraising event at an acquaintance's house, and one of the people there was Elmer Bernstein. Now, not only did he write the score to The Great Escape, but he also was nominated for 14 Oscars (winning one), for such classic movies as To Kill a Mockingbird, The Magnificent Seven, The Ten Commandments, his Oscar-winning Thoroughly Modern Millie, and even Ghostbusters. This was a Hollywood legend.
As I said, I absolutely love when a few bars of folk songs are interpolated into symphonic music, and I wanted to tell Elmer Bernstein how much I dearly loved what he did with The Great Escape score and "The Sinking of the Reuben James," how incredibly clever and moving it was, and how I suspected most people don't even know the homage is there. So, when I had my chance, I went up to him, and seeing there was a break in the conversation around him, I expressed my admiration.
And he gave me the blankest stare. And said, no, he didn't adapt "The Wreck of the Reuben James" into the score.
It was, as you might imagine, a galling moment, one where you feel yourself being sucked into a hole in the ground while all the people around watch. The problem, I was sure as my head spun hellishly, is that I had expressed my point SO poorly, that he almost certainly thought I was being critical, that perhaps I was suggesting he had stolen the song and not written anything himself. All of which was the farthest thing from my mind. I was trying to compliment him, and it seemed to have come out backwards. Ack! I couldn't leave him with that negative assumption, that I thought badly of his terrific work, so I explained myself. I wasn't making a criticism, I said, but I really, greatly admire when composers do that, as they do in the great tradition of classical music...
And again, a horrifying blank stare. No, "I didn't use that song in my score."
It was ghastly. No, sorry, doubly-ghastly, because I had repeated myself and compounded the misunderstanding. Because things had gotten so muddled, I really was certain I wasn't getting it across right. Because I was absolutely sure that the song is there in the theme. No, not the whole song, but rather what the best of classical composers have long done, blend in just a brief passage to create a hint to something greater, a subtle connection to shared folklore. And -- me being me -- I really wanted to clarify myself. I wasn't criticizing him. But...I just didn't know what I could say. I was lost. And as I was thinking, my friend Jeff Melvoin who was standing nearby said, politely, throwing me a lifeline, but drippingly, "Give it a rest, Bob..." -- and I thought, and thought, and I still tried to figure out how to explain (mind you, this whirling around in my head was all happening in about six seconds), and...I realized that as much as I oh-so dearly wanted to correct things, it was too convoluted at this point, and the only thing to do was cut my losses and give it up. And so I sort of awkwardly shrugged, mumbled "sorry," and stumbled away, and perhaps hopefully vanish from sight in a "poof." of smoke.
And the thing is -- to this day, I really, truly, honestly believe that I was right. I wish I'd have avoided the moment, making the point wasn't worth it, I wish I'd said, "Love your work," shook his hand and wandered off to get more hors d'oeuvres, I wish I'd listened to that little voice that had been swirling in my head even while I was yammering that said, "Shut up already! Cut your losses and go, get out of there!," but I do not think I was wrong. I could have been wrong, no question, none, but -- this was 40 years after he had written the score, he was 81 years old (he passed away the next year), the detail may easily have slipped his mind (something not even remotely uncommon at that age -- indeed not long ago, I heard an interview with a sharp, vibrant Sheldon Harnick on his 90th birthday saying he hadn't written a particular line in Fiddler on the Roof in 1964. I reminded him of the line, since he was doing other interviews, and he laughed at the wonders of memory, forgetting his own legendary work despite all the times he'd heard the work), it may have been artistic pride in front of others, he may have thought I was being critical and blocked me, he may have been influenced by the song and not even realized it, maybe his having used the passage had been a demand from the director that he didn't want to do, maybe he never acknowledged using homages, I may have expressed myself poorly -- and yes, I absolutely could have been completely wrong. But...I don't think I was.
I think I was right. But, boy, howdy, it was still humiliating. One of those "Oh, dear God, what were you thinking??!" things, that comes back to give you a shudder when you remember it. Like every time The Great Escape comes on television. Which, over the past 15 years, is about once every four months...
(By the way, it is not at all unprecedented for a composer not to recognize his influences. There's a famous story about when they were making the movie, Singin' in the Rain, which uses old songs long-since written by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed. The filmmakers however decided they needed a brand new song, a comic number, and the screenwriters -- who were Broadway lyricists, as well -- Betty Comden and Adolph Green, asked Arthur Freed...who was still alive and a major MGM producer -- indeed the producer of Sinigin' in the Rain -- to compose the music for this new song, something they asked to be in the vein of Cole Porter's song, Be a Clown. A few days later Freed came back with music for them, and as Comden and Green later recounted, it not only was in the vein of the Porter song Be a Clown, it was almost note-for-note exactly the same song. But Freed had absolutely no idea. The screenwriters were mortified and didn't know what to do. "How to you tell Arthur Freed he had just copied Cole Porter?" And so they realized you don't tell him -- and they didn't say anything and left it in, and instead just wrote new words, which is how we got "Make 'Em Laugh." Listen to it and "Be a Clown." They're identical. Almost precisely. And Arthur Freed had no idea he'd copied Cole Porter.)
I don't know if that's what happened with Elmer Bernstein. It wasn't a whole song, just a mere passage, simply part of the chorus, and done four decades earlier, so even easier to overlook. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe he forgot. Maybe he didn't know he'd done it. I have no idea. The only thing I'm sure of is that it was humiliating.
And if you don't think the whole experience isn't still gnawing at me after 15 years, you haven't been paying attention.
Yet I think I was right.
And here's what I mean. You listen for yourself.
Here is the Kingston Trio with the chorus of "The Sinking of the Reuben James," with the famous line, "What were their names? Tell me what were their names?", asking about all those good men who were lost.
And this is the passage from the main title theme to The Great Escape.
There is a story that Alan Jay Lerner tells about adapting George Bernard Shaw's play Pygmalion into the musical My Fair Lady. You will recall that in the musical, Eliza returns to Higgins' house at the very end, and he is clearly pleased, though not yet willing to show that he's in love with her, however their budding romance is what we're left with as the curtain falls. Lerner went on to say that Shaw was not a romantic, and hated that people who saw Pygmalian thought that Eliza and Higgins would end up together -- and so Shaw later wrote a sort of addendum to the play, where she and Freddy Eynsford-Hill not only get married, but open a flower shop together. When it came to adapting My Fair Lady, however, Lerner simply couldn't accept that and explained, "But God -- and Shaw -- forgive me, I believe he is wrong."
I know the situation is completely different...but that's how I feel about the talented, wonderful -- and actual composer of the thing -- Elmer Bernstein...
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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