I recently pulled out my copy of a classic 1950’s Emarcy recording of Sarah Vaughan‘s called Sassy. Most of the 12 songs portray true love as hopeless, women as doormats, and romance as fantasy and idealizing. Of course, this was before our more enlightened–and also cynical–age, pre-dating the feminist movement.
In the 1950’s, colleges offered majors in homemaking, and there were young women going to school for a “Mrs.” degree. It was the time of “Ozzie & Harriet.” But the women in the songs on Sassy lived outside this idealistic paradigm. One typical song on the 1956 album is James H. Shelton‘s “I’m the Girl.” The woman portrayed in the ballad is the “other woman” who will never have the man’s true love, but is still willing to be at his beck and call:
I am the girl
That he calls up at three
And I am the one
Who will go
I’d be so terribly happy to be
The one who says yes
After you have said no
Note that most lyricists back then were men, with a few exceptions like Dorothy Fields or Blossom Dearie. Lyricists would write and sell their songs to publishers, who then would find top artists to record them. The singer-songwriter era came later.
The woman-as-doormat theme of “I’m the Girl” is similar to Sarah Vaughan’s “Black Coffee,” Nancy Wilson‘s “Guess Who I Saw Today,” as well as Nina Simone‘s “The Other Woman.” Other songs on Sassy include “I’m Afraid the Masquerade is Over,” “I’ve Got Some Crying to Do,” and other torch classics. Male artists also recorded torch songs, and two great ones are Frank Sinatra‘s “In the Wee Small Hours“ and “When No One Cares.”
The Sarah and Nina songs are also about unrequited love, but unlike Sinatra’s songs the women are not on an even playing field. I think that is what makes them even more poignant. Although my girlfriend usually recoils in nausea when she hears these old chestnuts, I have to say I love hearing these emanations of sadness, co-dependency (a word not yet used much in 1956), and self-pity. Maybe it’s audio schadenfreude.
Here is Sarah Vaughan singing James Shelton’s “I’m the Girl”:
And Nina Simone singing the indelibly sad “The Other Woman” from her magnificent Town Hall concert from September 1959. Nina could bring out feelings like few others. This song was a far cry from her later anthemic song “Four Women.” It was recorded before she had become politicized.