The Steiny Road to Operadom | Karren LaLonde Alenier | www.scene4.com

Love’s Old Sweet Song:
The Power of Musical Seduction

Karren Alenier

“Love is an inevitable part of the bargain of the living in the inexplicable exchange of nothingness for mortality, and poetry is man’s defense against being swindled in that bargain. Any man who is an alien to poetry, no matter who he is, is swindled in that bargain. Instinct demands love of all who live, and good living demands imagination and faith.” —William Saroyan

One might say, music (and poetry) puts us in touch with our feelings and disengages us from logic.

Some people consider music, especially pop music, a bad influence that might cause the listener to break with the dogma of his or her family’s belief system relative to whom one might be sexually attracted.

In Western culture, we are subject to certain soundtracks to:

—exercise by

—encourage us to buy more goods

—eat more food

—feed our sadness or happiness

—scare us

—break us under torture

In other words, soundtracks can affect our behavior in either a positive or negative way.


What brings this up for the Steiny Road Poet is that she and her composer friend Janet Peachey, as they work on a new opera together, are thinking deeply about Paul Bowles’ unconventional marriage to Jane Auer. Specifically, Steiny and Peachey are thinking about the period when Paul Bowles wrote music for William Saroyan’s play Love’s Old Sweet Song.

As Saroyan writes in his introduction to the play which was published by the Samuel French publishing house in 1940, Love’s Old Sweet Song was also the title of a song. The Irish composer, poet, and author James Lynam Molloy and lyricist G. Clifton Bingham published this Victorian parlor song in 1884. Parlor songs were written as pop songs for the middle class and meant to be sung in their homes. They would buy the sheet music so that friends and family could stand around the family’s piano and sing.

Less anyone think that contemporary audiences are not exposed to parlor songs or specifically the tune “Love’s Old Sweet Song,” Steiny (a.k.a. Karren Alenier, a.k.a. The Dresser) will direct you, Dear Reader, to another Scene4 column where The Dresser recently reviewed a recent production of the award-winning Broadway musical The Dead (qv) which debuted in the year 2000 by Irish composer Shaun Davey with book by Richard Nelson based on James Joyce’s short story by the same title. During this musical, the tunes are all Irish folk tunes or in the style of Irish folk music and which are sung during the course of a Christmas party by the people in attendance. During the recent production of The Dead by Scena Theatre, Music Director Gregory Watkins played introductory music (not in the musical) while the audience members settle in their seats, including “Love’s Old Sweet Song.”

The lyrics of “Love’s Old Sweet Song” read:

    Once in the dear dead days beyond recall.
    When on the world the mists began to fall,
    Out of the dreams that rose in happy throng
    Low to our hearts love sang an old sweet song
    And in the dusk where fell the firelight gleam
    Softly it wove itself into our dream

    Just a song at twilight
    When the lights are low,
    And the flickering shadows
    Softly come and go
    Though the heart be weary,
    Sad the day and long,
    Still to us at twilight comes love's old song
    Comes love's old sweet song.

    Even today we hear love's song of yore
    Deep in our hearts it dwells forever more
    Footsteps may falter, weary grows our way
    Still we can hear it at the close of day
    So till the end when life's dim shadows fall
    Love will be found the sweetest song of all.

    Just a song at twilight
    When the lights are low,
    And the flickering shadows
    Softly come and go

    Though the heart be weary,
    Sad the day and long,
    Still to us at twilight comes love's old song
    Comes love's old sweet song.


Saroyan’s play concerns a young woman named Ann Hamilton who lives in southern California in the year 1939. A postman named Georgie Americanos brings her a telegram that says a man from Boston named Barnaby Gaul will visit her and she will know him because he will walk by her house whistling “Love’s Old Sweet Song.” She says she knows no one named Barnaby Gaul. The postman persists and says this is about love. Meanwhile the postman, who has merely relayed the message orally so she can avoid the cost of paying for the telegram since times are hard financially, has also delayed the delivery. Thus, as the postman stands with Ann, a man comes down the street whistling “Love’s Old Sweet Song.” While Ann has already protested to the postman who seems to be hitting on her that under no circumstance will she entertain a visit from this unknown suitor, as soon as Ann sees Barnaby she is smitten. Complications to the story include a large homeless family taking up residence on Ann’s lawn, her house burning down, and finding out that Barnaby Gaul was a hoax set in motion by a disgruntled fellow postman of Georgie’s. What Saroyan as author is presenting are ethical and social dilemmas.


Now back to the marriage of Jane and Paul Bowles. During the time when Paul was writing music for Saroyan’s play, the Bowles’ were living at the Chelsea Hotel in New York City.


Jane was also trying to work on a novel but had tremendous writer’s block. One day while Paul was working in their room, she invited in two drunken people, which made Paul furious. When Jane wouldn’t tell her drinking partners to leave, Paul lost control and hit her, an act for which he was immediately sorry and humiliated. He was sorry because he truly loved Jane who made him feel alive and creative. He was humiliated because he was working on music about love and he thought only his father could make him lose control of his own behavior. Steiny ventures that Paul lost touch with his imagination to civilly eject Jane’s intruding friends and with his faith in Jane that she could make him rise above the chaotic darkness in himself. Therefore the soundtrack Paul was creating for Love’s Old Sweet Song was not strong enough to keep him from bad behavior.


To put this discussion in the context of Gertrude Stein, Steiny points  out that Paul Bowles became a protégé of Stein when he met her in 1931 at which time she told him to quit writing poetry and consider moving to Morocco. Steiny who met Bowles in 1982 is convinced that Stein’s reaction to Bowles’ dark poetry, which got early recognition from an international little magazine where Stein and other luminaries of Modernism were also published, had a twinge of jealousy, jealousy that Bowles had not paid his dues relative to getting published. Steiny will also mention gently that James Joyce, for  whom Stein had extreme distain, used “Love’s Old Sweet Song” as the song Molly Bloom sings in Joyce’s novel Ulysses, which was published in its entirety in 1922 by Sylvia Beach, owner of Shakespeare & Co, where Stein borrowed books. Stein was devastated that her friend Sylvia would publish Joyce and not Gertrude Stein.

Sylvia Beach with James Joyce

Therefore, Stein also had lapses in recognizing the value of other people’s poetry and the music that poetry creates.


The Dead - https://alenieratscene4.blogspot.com/2020/01/the-wistful-liveliness-of-dead.html

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Scene4 Magazine — Karren Alenier

Karren Alenier is a poet and writer. She writes a monthly column and is a Senior Writer for Scene4. She is the author of The Steiny Road to Operadom: The Making of American Operas. Read her Blog.
For more of her commentary and articles,
check the Archives.

©2020 Karren Alenier
©2020 Publication Scene4 Magazine


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