The Aged P

…just toasting and ruminating….

28 April
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22 November
Comments Off on Anyone Remember Phil Harris And That Tree?

Anyone Remember Phil Harris And That Tree?

Always loved this 1947 Phil Harris record – when I was a kid it was regularly being played on BBC radio…the henpecked husband being chased by an angry wife wielding a rolling pin was a staple figure of comedy in the 30s, 40s and 50s…hence the plaintive plea to the woodman.

What is less well known was that the song had originally been a massive hit in the early 1900s for Bert Williams, long forgotten now but a hundred years ago one of the most popular vaudeville stars in America. Williams was the first black artist to break out of the “coon” stereotype and appeal to all audiences and “Woodman” was one of his most popular songs, sung in a “talking blues” style that Harris also copied. It proved to be the big hit of the Ziegfeld Follies Of 1911.

Yet the distinction of the song’s pedigree is not limited to Williams – for it was composed by Vincent Bryan and the former singing waiter Irving Berlin in the same year that “Alexanders Ragtime Band” became a smash hit not just in America but throughout the world and propelled the previously unknown Berlin overnight from obscurity to international fame.

But it’s roots go even deeper for Berlin adapted the lyrics from a poem, “The Oak”, written by the American poet George Pope Morris in 1837. The English musician Henry Russell wrote a score for it later that year and, under the more familiar title, the sentimental ballad became a staple of concerts and musical evenings for the rest of the 19th century. In 1911 Berlin introduced the comedic elements to the story and altered Russell’s score. So, what initially appears to be a classic 1940’s piece of Phil Harris musical humour has a very distinguished provenance.

Sadly both Harris and Williams and that whole genre of comedy songs are rarely heard today – mores the pity…

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