Composing and performing songs is an art—not just in Western Art Music, but in folk and popular genres around the world (cf. What is serious music?!). The songs of the Beatles deserve to be treated with the same seriousness as those of Schubert (cf. Susan McClary); and apart from pop music generally, it’s worth admiring the craft of miniatures such as cartoons, TV theme-tunes, and jingles (for the merits of “analysis”, see the introduction to my Beatles series, citing Mellers and Pollack).
The exquisite Dream a little dream of me was composed in 1931 by Fabian Andre and Wilbur Schwandt, with lyrics by Gus Kahn. Unlike Beethoven, those guys really knew how to write a tune. A lullaby for parting lovers, it’s been revisited by many singers to different effects that reflect the changing zeitgeist.
Cass Elliott (1941–74, another sadly brief life) made the most celebrated recording with The Mamas & The Papas * in 1968—a time of revolutionary conflict when we have to remember that there was also a mood for such ballads. As she commented,
I tried to sing it like it was 1943 and somebody had just come in and said, “Here’s a new song”. I tried to sing it as if it were the first time.
And it’s magical:
Stars shining bright above you
Night breezes seem to whisper “I love you”
Birds singing in the sycamore tree
Dream a little dream of me
Say nighty-night and kiss me
Just hold me tight and tell me you’ll miss me
While I’m alone and blue as can be
Dream a little dream of me
Stars fading but I linger on dear
Still craving your kiss
I’m longing to linger till dawn dear
Just saying this
Sweet dreams till sunbeams find you
Sweet dreams that leave all worries behind you
But in your dreams whatever they be
Dream a little dream of me…
Mama Cass caresses the lyrics (“Birds singing in the sycamore tree”…) with dreamy syncopations and triplets, never metronomic. The harmonic progressions into and out of the “Stars fading” section are enchanting. Whether or not listeners are consciously aware of it, various types of modulation are effectively used in pop music. Step-wise shifts are most frequent; but here, after the opening two verses in the home key of C major (with our ears perhaps prepared by the surprising chord at “whisper” in line 2), the second section modulates fluently, exhilaratingly, to A major (from 0.54)—distantly reminiscent of Mahler’s sudden revelation of alpine pastures adorned with cowbells, or an incandescent Messaien meditation suffused with ondes martenot [Steady on—Ed.].
The “Stars fading” section is a gem in itself. After the chromaticism of the opening two verses, its rather brighter mood, over layers of honky-tonk piano and wordless chorus, far from sounding brash, only enhances the song’s overall intimacy. With more lazy triplets, I relish the descending minor 7th leap (from high so to low la) at “linger on dear” and “linger till dawn dear”, framing more sensuous lingering on the last word of “Still craving your kiss“… And then, to signal the return to the home key, the harmony shifts back with “Just saying this“—first (1.13) beneath a descending semitone in the vocal line, then the second time (2.18) with dreamy wide leaps.
It’s all complemented by the arrangement, with the first bass entry slipping in for verse 2 (Cass responding with a funky rhythmic emphasis on “kiss me”), the nostalgic-pastiche piano interlude and coda, as Mama Cass becomes subtly more jazzy and energised… Every detail is perfectly calibrated to the dream.
* * *
Going back to quirky original versions from 1931 transports us to a different era of dance music—when the singer was subsidiary, providing an interlude between the main instrumental sections. Here’s Ozzie Nelson and his Orchestra:
BTW, it’s fun to invert the chronology of these early recordings, imagining them as a post-modernist ironic take on Mama Cass’s song by the Michael Nyman band.
We can only hear early music with our modern ears; and how we respond to music over time depends substantially on the persona that we impute to the protagonists. Still in 1931, by contrast with those versions, Kate Smith (cf. By the Sleepy lagoon) performed the song with an impressive rhythmic freedom, and the band arrangement is also effective, already breaking out from the starched corset of the foxtrot:
Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong recorded it in 1950:
(Several YouTube uploads mistakenly attribute this to Billie Holiday, but alas she doesn’t seem to have recorded it—now that would have been amazing!)
Doris Day (1957) is even dreamier:
Now here’s a thing. For the “Stars fading” section, versions so far modulate upwards by a minor 6th—pleasantly novel, but not radiant like the major 6th modulation of The Mamas & The Papas (a stroke of genius that I surmise we can attribute to Papa John Phillips). And in earlier versions, for the first appearance of the line “Dream a little dream of me” the vocal line has risen brightly (mi–la–so); but as a later generation perhaps found this too soupy and saccharine, it was discarded, instead falling from a flat mi to re.
Just a few selections from numerous later covers. Anita Harris in 1968, almost contemporary with The Mamas & the Papas’ recording, sounds rather too four-square to my ears. Enzo Enzo recorded a French version, Les yeux ouverts, in 1990; Tony Bennett and k.d. lang sang it in duet in 2002; and the 2013 Robbie Williams cover (with Lily Allen) is in thrall to The Mamas & The Papas.
While there is much to savour in such renditions, the more I listen the more infatuated I am by the dreamy mood of Cass Elliott’s version, with her rhythmic variety, and all the subtle tweaks of the arrangement in timbre and harmony that make it so very enthralling.
Other popular songs in similar vein that feature in my wide-ranging Playlist of songs include You’re my thrill, Moon river, I sing a little prayer, You must believe in spring, Comment te dire adieu—and a wealth of Beatles ballads. For dreams perhaps not envisaged by Gus Kahn, click e.g. here and here; see also Aboriginal dream songs. Cf. Bach as bandleader and arranger.
* Pedants’ corner (cf. my notes to Morris dancing and Messiaen’s transcendent éclairs; see also Punctuation for truck drivers):
I don’t really Hold With the ampersand, which has a whiff of the corporate (the “vast emporium, one of these appalling achievements of our modern craving for the huge, the immense”, as Henry James characterised the Army and [sic] Navy Stores), but here, while curious, it’s correct… I also make a copious exception for G&T.