That Old Feeling: Yesterday When We Were Young

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In our first column, we asked you to tell us what these ten songs have in common:

"Gloria" (Laura Branigan) from the Italian song by Umberto Tozzi and Giancarlo Bigazzi

"I Can't Help Falling in Love With You" (Elvis Presley) from the 18th century French ballad "Plaisir d'amour" by Jean-Pierre Claris

"It's Now or Never" (Elvis Presley) from the 19th century Italian song "O Sole Mio" by Giovanni Capurro and Eduardo Di Capua

"Jealousy" (Frankie Laine) from the "gypsy tango" by the Danish composer Jacob Gade

"Let It Be Me" (The Everly Brothers) from the French song "Je t'appartiens" by Gilbert Becaud and Pierre Delanoe

"The Lion Sleeps Tonight" (The Tokens) from the South African chant "Wimoweh"

"Mack the Knife" (Bobby Darin) from the German song "Die Moritat von Mackie Messer" by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill

"My Way" (Frank Sinatra) from the French song "Comme d'habitude" by Jacques Revaux and Claude François

"Skokian" (The Four Lads) from the Zulu song by August Msarurgwa

"Strangers in the Night" (Frank Sinatra) from the German song by Bert Kaempfert

"You Don't Have to Say You Love Me" (Dusty Springfield) from the Italian song "Io Che Non Vivo" by Pino Donaggio and Vito Pallavicini

The answer: all were English-language adaptations of music from other languages."World music" is the phrase du jour for exotic sounds from Africa, Asia, South America — what used to be called the Third World. Today world music is available everywhere; type the words into your Google search line and get about 3,070,000 websites. World music has its own Billboard chart, its own radio shows, if mostly on college stations. But it's a specialized, affirmative-action genre. Even if the definition is enlarged to include pop music from the Old World (from France, Italy, etc.), world music rarely catches the notice of the kids who dote on Destiny's Child or Uncle Kracker.

Once upon a time, however — and you already know we mean the '50s — the airwaves were alive with the sound of world music.

In the funhouse mirror of official history, the '50s are seen as our most xenophobic decade. That is exactly wrong: then, the seemingly alien cultures of Europe and Asia held endless fascination for Americans who were either back from war service abroad, their aesthetic tastes spiced a bit, or simply tired of bland domestic fare. Foreign-language pictures were suddenly chic, and represented a much broader geographic span than today; world-class auteurs emerged not just from France and Italy but from Japan, India, Sweden. Ingmar Bergman would eventually make the cover of TIME.

It was the decade when Hollywood directors first traveled to distant climes, hoping to bring a foreign flavor to their pictures. Of the '50s' ten Oscar winners, five — "An American in Paris," "Around the World in Eighty Days," "The Bridge on the River Kwai," "Gigi" and "Ben-Hur" — were shot abroad. Remember too that Marilyn and Jayne weren't the only sex symbols crashing in the '50s; it was also the time of Sophia Loren, Gina Lollobrigida, Brigitte Bardot. And the movies' all-time entrancer, an Anglo-Dutch princess named Edda Kathleen van Heemstra Hepburn-Ruston — Audrey Hepburn.

On Broadway, French dramatists were all the rage: the plays of Jean Giraudoux and Samuel Beckett had good runs, as did the musicals "La Plume de ma tante" and "Irma la douce"; the young Hepburn entranced New York audiences as Colette's Gigi and Jean Anouilh's Ondine. Novels from Germany, Italy, Japan — pretty much any nation the Allies had conquered — were must reading for the intelligentsia. Jean-Paul Sartre was so famous he was parodied in Hepburn's Paris frolic "Funny Face."

Novels, foreign films, stage plays — isn't all this caviar culture, or at least quiche? Well, it's true that midcult media didn't necessarily penetrate the mass skull. But for the first time, many Americans were sophisticated enough to have developed a cultural inferiority complex. So they went looking elsewhere, and their restlessness encouraged the rise of small industries (back when industries could be small) in publishing, foreign-film distribution and off-Broadway production. Grove Press, Janus Films, Circle in the Square: even today these names have the aura of heroism about them. They located the nexus of the questing consumer and the adventurous entrepreneur.

But even the more passive folks, sitting in their living room in front of that new magic gadget, got a world view. ABC's weekend movie slot was frequently filled with British product; I keenly recall an airing of the 1949 "Blue Lagoon," with 20-year-old Jean Simmons as the most thrilling mermaid. The Sunday afternoon show "Omnibus" presented classical concerts, up-and-coming comic talents (Mike Nichols and Elaine May) and foreign films, including the U.S. premiere of Laurence Olivier's "Richard III."

And — yes, I'm finally getting to the point — anyone with an ear to the radio got a world tour. Earlier decades had welcomed a few musical refugees: "Perfidia" in Glenn Miller's version, Eddy Duchin's cover of "Brazil", the Andrews Sisters' hot-Yiddish "Bei Mir Bist du Schön." But the '50s truly internationalized music on the radio; it turned AM into the U.N.

The Cuban Perez Prado got America dancing sideways to mambo and cha-cha rhythms with his own "Patricia" and "Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White" (a French tune by Louiguy and Jacques Larue). A slew of instrumental hits traded in wanderlust: "Lisbon Antigua" (by Raul Portela, Jose Galhardo and Amaduedo Vale, recorded by Nelson Riddle), "The Poor People of Paris" (Marguerite Monnot's "La Goualante De Pauvre Jean," covered by Les Baxter), "Never on Sunday (Manos Hadjidakis), "Petite Fleur" (composed by expatriate jazz lion Sidney Bechet and Fernand Bonifay, and a 1959 hit for Chris Barber).

Some tunes wore their otherness proudly. It was hard to ignore that Ritchie Valens' "La Bamba" was Spanish or that "Sukiyaki" by Q (Kyu) Sakamoto was Japanese; those were the languages the tunes were sung in. Even a few translated songs had the novelty of distance and difference — "Skokian," for instance. As I recall the English lyric, it wore its ethnographic condescension jovially: "Oh, far away in Africa,/ Happy happy Africa,/ They do a bingo-bongo-bingo/ In hokey-smoky-Skokian."

Most listeners, though, didn't know that the countrified "The Three Bells" ("Les trois cloches" by Jean Villard) or the Paul Anka "All of a Sudden My Heart Sings" (by Jean-Marie Blanvillain and Laurent Henri Herpin) or "Mack the Knife" (which had five versions in the Top 20 from 1956 to 1959, including Bobby Darin's #1) had come to Tin Pan Alley through Ellis Island. This was music they heard, liked and bought. I also doubt that the decade's record producers were trying to broaden the masses' musical palette; they probably figured that, since catchy tunes were hard to find, they might try searching abroad for exploitable material. And since the love-song format developed by U.S. composers had infiltrated every corner of the globe, foreign tunesmiths had already learned America's musical "language." Only the lyrics were alien, and they could be translated.

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