That Old Feeling: Yesterday When We Were Young

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That gave work to plenty of talented American lyricists, some of whom achieved their greatest renown (or at least royalties) providing English versions of foreign songs. Marc Blitzstein composed a dozen operas, including "The Cradle Will Rock," but his most famous lyrics — "Oh, the shark has/ Pretty teeth, dear/ And he shows them/ Pearly white" — are an artful translation of Brecht's "Mackie Messer." Mitchell Parish, who wrote the words to Hoagy Carmichael's "Stardust," had a smart sideline in Americanizing such tunes as "Let Me Love You Tonight" (the Spanish "No Te Importe Saber"), "Tzena, Tzena, Tzena" (from Israel) and Domenico Modugno's "Volare" ("Nel Blu, di Pinto di Blu"). Johnny Mercer, than whom there is no greater, translated Weill's "Bilbao Song," Philippe Gerard's "When the World Was Young" and, indelibly, "Autumn Leaves," a #1 hit for Roger Williams in 1955. It's Mercer's rendition of the French "Les Feuilles mortes" (Dead Leaves), with music by Joseph Kosma and lyrics by the poet-screenwriter Jacques Prévert.

You might think it a snap to morph a song from a foreign language into yours. Indeed, thanks to computer magic, one can now get an English rendition in a few seconds. But the translation may lose more than the poetry; it may mislay all sense. We put our Google search engine to the test with "Autumn Leaves." Here are Mercer's first eight lines:

The falling leaves
Drift by the window
The autumn leaves
Of red and gold
I see your lips
The summer kisses
The sun-burned hands
I used to hold
Here's Prévert's original:
C'est une chanson
Qui nous resemble
Toi qui m'aimais
Et je t'aimais
Nous vivions tous
Les deux ensemble
Toi qui m'aimais
Moi qui t'aimais
And here, the French, as translated by the Google machinery, which renders the title as "Dead Sheets":

It is a song
Which us resemble
You who liked me
And I loved you
We lived
Both unit
You who liked me
Me which loved you

Some day when you're in need of amusement, call up one of your favorite foreign song titles (say, "Besame Mucho") and click on the "Translate this page" command for a good Google giggle ("Inseminate, inseminate, inseminate mucho, inseminate/Inseminate, inseminate, inseminate mucho"). The exercise will prove there are still a few things a human can do better than a computer.

What France could do better than the U.S. — at least in the early postwar era — was to nourish a distinguished singer-songwriter tradition. Many of Paris' top chansonniers had American hits in translation. Charles Trenet provided Darin with "Beyond the Sea" ("La mer"), a #6 charter in 1960, and Gloria Lynne with "I Wish You Love" ("Que reste-t-il de nos amours?"), #28 in 1964. Becaud, in addition to "Let It Be Me," wrote such semi-standards as "Day the Rains Came" ("Le jour ou la pluie viendra"), which reached #21 for Jane Morgan in 1957; "What Now My Love" ("Et maintenant"), which Sonny and Cher took to #14 in 1966; and "It Must Be Him" ("Seul sur son etoile"), a #3 hit for Vicki Carr in 1967. Two years later, Charles Aznavour's "Yesterday When I Was Young" ("Hier encore") registered #9 on the country charts for Roy Clark. Jacques Brel gave singer Terry Jacks two '70s smashes: the #1 "Seasons in the Sun" (Rod McKuen's translation of "Le Moribund") and "If You Go Away" ("Ne me quitte pas"), which reached #8 in the U.K.

Some foreign songwriters had more hits in the period than old American masters (Irving Berlin, Harold Arlen) who were still copiously composing. The German bandleader Bert Kaempfert, best known for "Strangers in the Night," wrote winners for himself ("Wonderland by Night") and others: Wayne Newton's signature song "Danke Schoen"; "Wooden Heart," a chart-topper for Joe Dowell; and "Spanish Eyes," a #15 success for Al Martino. Kaempfert had another distinction: as an A&R man in Hamburg in 1961, he produced the first session of Brit popster Tony Sheridan and his backup group, the Beatles. Later the Beatles did their own cultural exchange, recording German-language versions of "I Want to Hold Your Hand" and "She Loves You."

By the mid-'60s, America still took its musical cues from abroad, but in the Fab Four's Mersey-accented English. The ascension of Brit rock pretty much put an end to our first, gently lapping wave of world music. Today culture is a one-way street, and America is careering down it — everybody else, out of the way! The world consumes our movies, music, TV shows; we ignore theirs. I think we're not xenophobic so much as xen-ignorant. But ignorance is its own form of arrogance. We're spoiled kids, playing in a sandbox that we mistake for the great beach of world culture.

Entertainment can confirm prejudices or expand horizons. For a lot of '50s kids, the pleasure of music or foreign movies was in discovering something — anything — new. I not only saw the movies and heard the French songs in translation, I spent rapt hours listening to songs in an obscure dialect of English: the new Afro-American rock 'n roll. It took that long for me to determine that the Little Richard lyric "Well Long Tall Sally she's biffa specie ga/ Everything that Uncle John need" was really "Well Long Tall Sally she's built for speed/She got everything that Uncle John need." Other children of the time were more precocious. The novelist Peter Beagle wrote that he taught himself French in order to understand the ballads of Georges Brassens. (This was before Google.) What kids would be inspired to do that today? And what foreign performer would inspire them?

I see kids walking down the street strapped into their own little world, listening on their Discman to music that would certainly sound foreign to me, if only they would share it. I look at them, think of myself at their age, and I wonder if they wonder: Is there more out there? In strange lands and languages, aren't there beautiful melodies worth hearing?

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