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Bebop Spoken There

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Thursday, April 02, 2020

If I Were A Bell – yet another song worth singing

(By Ann Alex)

Here I go with another of my occasional pieces about song lyrics. I'd known this song for ages, then one day Paul Grainger told me that it came from the ever-popular 1950's musical Guys And Dolls, sung by a character who was highly religious, but who was led astray by the power of romantic love. She sings this song on hearing church bells ringing.

The Wikipedia plot outline tells us of lots of romping around between gamblers, gangsters and their women friends, great fun, and the song is sung by pious Sarah Brown after she kisses gambler Sky Masterson. Among the singers doing this song we have a rather fast almost throwaway version by Carmen McRae, a neat Ella Fitzgerald offering with a very 'churchy' instrumental ending, and also various versions by the likes of Miles Davis and the Keith Jarrett Trio. Consider the lyrics:

Ask me how do I feel, ask me now that we're cosy and clinging
Well sir, all I can say, is if I were a bell I'd be ringing
From the moment we kissed tonight
That's the way I've just got to behave
Boy, if I were a lamp I'd light
And if I were a banner I'd wave

Ask me how do I feel, little me with my quiet upbringing
Well sir, all I can say, is if I were a gate I'd be swinging
And If I were a watch I'd start popping my spring
Or if I were a bell I'd go Ding Dong Ding Dong Ding

Ask me how do I feel, from this chemistry lesson I'm learning
Well sir, all I can say is if I were a bridge I'd be burning
Yes I knew my morale would crack
From the wonderful way that you looked
Boy, if I were a duck I'd quack
Or if I were a goose I'd be cooked

Ask me how do I feel, ask me now that we're fondly caressing
Well, if I were a salad I know I'd be splashing my dressing
Ask me how to describe this whole beautiful thing
Well if I were a bell I'd go Ding Dong Ding Dong Ding

(Frank Loesser)

Well sir, all I can say is that the main attraction of this song is the many vivid images we see. Lots of opportunities for illustration by the singer, such as some waving of the banner – not quite sure about the burning bridge, that sounds positively dangerous. I laughed out loud the first time I heard about the salad splashing its dressing – an American Caesar salad perhaps?

 'Little me with my quiet upbringing' is just a gift for a singer, a chance to use a cute voice. It's obvious how the song fits with the plot and the ding dong is ripe for interesting improvisation for the instruments. And of course we have the usual poetic techniques of repeated initial letters such as 'cosy and clinging' and the rhymes. Frank Loesser knew his grammar, using the subjunctive 'were' after 'if' instead of 'was', which is arguably a more ugly word and a more difficult word for singers because of the final 's'.

Like many of these amusingly romantic songs, there is a final affirmation of love, with ' this whole beautiful thing'. A good way to end a good song.
Ann Alex


Liz said...

Hello Ann, like you I love this song, I remember seeing the original film with Jean Simmons & Marlon Brando, "If I were a bell" was always a fave of mine. Have a look at "Adelaide's Lament" same show, it is a pearl of a part for AM Dram musical groups. I have seen all of these shows over the years, the American ones stand out with great lyricists, sending good wishes in these dark days x

Anonymous said...

Liz, Lovely to hear from you in these strange times. I'm not a great lover of musicals but I do like the individual songs. Cole Porter and Lorenz Hart are brilliant songwriters by any literary standards. Take care, stay safe, Ann Alex

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