Monday, November 7, 2011

Hoagy Carmichael - "Hong Kong Blues"

This is a song which I have been singing since I was about 10 years old and saw Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in "To Have and Have Not", the brilliant re-write of Ernest Hemingway's very dry novel of the same name. As a matter of fact, the film came about only after an argument between Howard Hawks, the director, and Ernest Hemingway, while the two were on a fishing trip. Hawks opined that he could make a good film from Hemingway's worst novel. Hemingway offered up "To Have and Have Not", which was his least favorite. Hawks enlisted the aid of William Faulkner, and a bottle of bourbon, to write a new screenplay in about 1 night. This is the only time in film history in which a Nobel Prize winning author has worked on the script of another Nobel Prize winning author.

Hoagy Carmichael's musical inspiration was Bix Beiderbecke, a jazz musician who drank himself to death at age twenty-eight. They had been in a band together while in college; Carmichael had planned on a career in law; but the music of the times sidetracked him.

Hoagy Carmichael penned over 600 songs in his lifetime. Many of them are still performed today. "Georgia on My Mind", "Stardust", "In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening" and "Rocking Chair" all come to mind. Even George Harrison recorded "Hong Kong Blues", which is also known as "Buddha's Gong". Bob Dylan recorded it back in 1962, or thereabouts, as did Ramblin' Jack Elliott. Even I play it on my guitar. It's very simple, having only 3 chords to it. But the song is clearly a piano number, and so no-one has ever topped this version of it.

The band which Mr. Carmichael assembled for this number is mind boggling, with it's unusual array of musical instruments. There is a banjo, mandolin, the piano, drums and even a violin, all combining to make a most unusual, and pleasing sound. This type of musical ensemble was not that rare in the islands back in the early part of the 20th century, as ships from all nations came and went, carrying their own brand of music with them. Sometimes, these sailors, and musicians, deserted the ships, electing to remain in the islands, combining their separate talents, and cultures, to form new sounds. "Hong Kong Blues" is a perfect example.

Somewhat of an enigma, Carmichael was a dyed in the wool Republican, hated FDR and the New Deal, and blamed the President for the fact that he couldn't see over the dashboard of his Lincoln Continental, even though he was only slightly over 5 foot tall.

Hoagy Carmichael was a rural, midwestern boy, and so "right wing" that he once challenged Humphrey Bogart to a fistfight for his "leftist" views. In his autobiography "The Stardust Road", Carmichael writes of the times before smoking marijuana, which he called muggles, was illegal;

"It's the summer of 1923. We took two quarts of bathtub gin, a package of muggles, and headed for the black-and-tan joint where King Oliver's band was playing.

The King featured two trumpets, piano, a bass fiddle, and a clarinet. As I sat down to light my first muggle...taking the first chorus was that second trumpet, Louis Armstrong. Louis was taking it fast.

"Why," I moaned, "why isn't everybody in the world here to hear that?" I meant it. Something as unutterably stirring as that deserved to be heard by the world.

Then the muggles took effect and my body got light. Every note Louis hit was perfection. I ran to the piano and took the place of Louis's wife. They swung into Royal Garden Blues. I had never heard the tune before, but somehow I knew every note. I couldn't miss. I was floating in a strange deep-blue whirlpool of jazz."

The original lyrics for "Hong Kong Blues" had to be changed slightly for the movie. The expression "Buddha's Gong" referred to being addicted to opium. That line was okay, as most Americans were unfamiliar with the term. But the word "opium" would not survive, and so Hoagy sings "sweet local man" in it's place. Here are the lyrics to this wonderful song by a truly legendary American songwriter;

"Hong Kong Blues" by Hoagy Carmichael

It's the story of a very unfortunate coloured man
Who got arrested down in old Hong Kong.
He got twenty years' privilege taken away from him
When he kicked old Buddha's gong.

And now he's boppin' the piano just to raise the price
Of a ticket to the land of the free.
Well, he say his home's in 'Frisco, where they send the rice,
But it's really in Tennessee.

That's why he say,
"I need someone to love me,
Need somebody to carry me home to San Francisco
And bury my body there.

I need someone to lend me
a fifty-dollar billand then,
I'll leave Hong Kong far behind me,
For happiness once again.

Won't somebone believe
I've a yen, to see that Bay again.
But when I try to leave,
Sweet opium won't let me fly away.

I need someone to love me,
Need somebody to carry me home to San Francisco
And bury my body there."

That's the story of a very unfortunate coloured man,
Who got arrested down in old Hong Kong.
He got twenty years' privilege taken away from him,
When he kicked old Buddha's gong.

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