Confession #10

 Buffalo Gals, will you come out tonight.

In my love of music there is nothing I enjoy more than discovering different arrangements of songs I know, often of entirely different genres, that have been changed, altered or updated to suit various predilections and changing tastes and mores. 

While watching Frank Capra's marvelous 1946 modern Christmas masterpiece, It's a Wonderful Life, for the one-thousandth time (and I hope to see it at least one-thousand times more!) I was struck for the very first time by the big band reprise of Buffalo Gals that is played over the closing credits. Wow! Unlike the traditional renditions of the song earlier in the movie, this is a version that really swings! 

Now, for those that don't know----though I can't imagine who wouldn't----Buffalo Gals is a familiar traditional song that was once ubiquitous in America; that is, a song that was known to everyone of my generation and several that came before. And even if it is one of those songs that never quite rises to consciousness, it is just there, laying dormant inside, in the background across time and generations. 

How such a song ever gets into one's head it is hard to say....... I want to convince myself that it was placed in mine on the elementary school playground when 
classmates and I would spontaneously sing it amongst our games because that's just how familiar and deep within it is. Scott Pirraglio, my dear friend since childhood, tells me that we almost certainly knew it from the reruns of old Warner Brothers Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons of the 40s and 50s that were still very much in circulation in our childhood in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

So, knowing the song well, when I heard this decidedly un-traditional, unfamiliar and swinging version of Buffalo Gals in It's a Wonderful Life I was completely charmed and for the first time the tune penetrated my consciousness: who is it, which orchestra or band is playing this upbeat version......and just how old and where does this song originate, anyway?

Well, so far I haven't been able to discover who is playing on this delightful version, though it's probably a Hollywood studio orchestra, which is also a mystery at this point since the movie was created by the tiny independent Liberty Films who produced It's a Wonderful Life and only one other film before calling it quits; there just is absolutely no way they had an in-house orchestra like the big studios! But worst of all, it does not appear that there is a full-length recording of this version, only a thirty-second taste to whet the appetite. 

Interestingly, it was the great Russian-born musical director Dimitri Tiomkin who created the score for the film and used the traditional arrangement of it again as background music in High Noon of 1952. The customary version of the song was also employed in the scores of other Hollywood movies of the pre and post-WWII golden era----reflective of it's great cultural familiarity, but certainly diffusing it further and deeper than ever before through the popular mass media of Hollywood.

Amazingly, the original version of Buffalo Gals, then called "Lubly Fan", was written and published in 1844 by the blackface minstrel actor John Hodges, professionally known as "Cool White". It was written about the dance hall and brothel girls of Buffalo, New York, then the westernmost and terminus port of the Erie Canal. The song became extremely popular on the minstrel circuits and was diffused throughout the United States where its lyrics would be altered to fit local and regional audiences....."Boston Gals, will you come out tonight, come out tonight...."

For historical illustration only: I do NOT endorse racism in any form!

By the 1870s the song was well enough known that it and its lyrics were included in such works as Edward Lear's poem, the "Owl and The Pussycat" and Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer.

By the time that Buffalo Gals appears in Capra's It's a Wonderful Life----in a scene set in 1928----it was a part of the fabric of American life and had been reimagined, reinterpreted and recorded with hillbilly, cowboy, ragtime and polka arrangements; even Woody Guthrie recorded his own version of the song! It reached even greater popularity in the 1950s, particularly as a Western Swing and square dance standard. This popularity continued into the 1960s when it also began to appear on children's records. 

Some 1940s interpretations of Buffalo Gal

Beginning in the mid 1940s, a re-imagined version with a swing arrangement and completely new lyrics appeared and was recorded by a number of artists, such as Russ Morgan and the Andrew Sisters, giving the old tune a new life. This version was translated into the nascent rock 'n roll music of the 1950s by Bill Haley and the Saddlemen as "Dance With a Dolly" (1952) and later Bobby Darin as "Plain Jane(1959) and the rockabilly Ray Smith as "Rockin Little Angel(1960)

1950s Rock 'n Roll interpretations of Buffalo Gal

It is upon the shoulders of these up-beat records that were aimed at a youthful audience that arguably the best, most well known to my generation and, for me, the most memorable interpretations of the original tune were produced in the 1960s-----The Olympics' "Dance By The Light of The Moon" (1960) and Damita Jo's "Dance With A Dolly" (1961). But the story certainly does not end there: a survey of entries on Discogs shows that just since the year 2000 Buffalo Gals has been recorded and released more than two hundred fifty times by dozens and dozens of artists in styles ranging from traditional arrangements to Hip Hop, Soul and Funk, Electronic, Rock and Pop----and even "The Boss" himself has recorded and released a version! 

At nearly one hundred seventy-five years old and showing no signs of dying anytime soon; having been performed by thousands of artists countless times; having been recorded several hundred times in a myriad of styles and interpretations------and having appeared in at least two of the greatest American movies of all time and one of it's greatest novels; who knows, maybe it is Buffalo Gals that is actually the greatest American song of all time!

2 December 2018


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