THE FOLKS WHO LIVE ON THE HILL by Peggy Lee

I still really miss Benny Green’s Sunday afternoon radio programme.  Some weeks, especially if, after church and after lunch I’ve gone out for a drive towards the Brecon mountains and reservoirs for some scenery and a little stroll, I stupidly try to twiddle the dials to Radio 2, hoping to still find him there.

His program was quite unique, and –like John Peel, from another context –introducing me to things I might not have heard anywhere else; his knowledge of the ‘great American songbook’, particularly, was encyclopaedic –but he also got you appreciating the context in which there were written, with anecdotes about the composers and the performers, the creative partnerships or business collaborations which had produced these songs.  He got me listening to lyrics in a new way – I remember when he shed light on ‘Paper Moon’, seemingly a throwaway romantic ditty –describing how it deftly proposes the idea that love can give validity and substance to otherwise superficial and insubstantial scenarios.  Something like that.  Anyway, Benny Green wasn’t above repeating favourites on his playlists, from what I (at least imagine) I remember,  this extraordinary beautiful Peggy Lee song seemed to get more than its fair share of Sunday afternoon plays.

It’s a Jerome Kern – Oscar Hammerstein number: in essence, I suppose it reflects the generic dream of every young couple –a home, their own living space, independent house ownership (and ‘location, location, location’).  And the aspiration of building a family together in an idyllic setting, before eventually settling to enjoy the living space in post-childrearing comfortable old age.  I have to ‘hold lightly’ to these lyrics, or I will get very cranky about how hard it is now in the UK for young couples to gather the money for a deposit, especially while still paying off a student loan, to get the simple ‘foot on the mortgage ladder’, let alone get the capital to build a house on a hill!!!

Still, the romance of dreams and songs.  Hammerstein’s lyric is simple and economical –three verses (one: building and living, two: family and extensions, three: on their own again) and a playful little ‘middle eight’ –‘our veranda/will command a/view of Meadows green/the sort of view/that seems to want to be seen…’ In the third verse, Peggy Lee apparently didn’t want to sing ‘Darby and Joan’ (who used to be Jack and Jill) –perhaps she didn’t understand it –so she sings ‘baby and Joe’ (?) Doesn’t matter; still sounds nice.

Let’s be honest, what’s most gorgeous about this is the sound, just the sound – from the first intriguing, haunting sweep of strings, and the single trumpet that enters, quickly augmented by other woodwind instruments taking up the introductory phrases and overlapping before Ms Lee slides in with one sultry, simple word ..’Someday..’ So many beautiful ingredients to this song –as well as the silky allure of the voice, and the sensitive orchestration, there’s a kind of wonderful leisureliness to the phrasing and the pace of the whole song, so that, yes, Mr. Green, it bears many a repeated listen.

Funny thing, I can’t take too much Peggy Lee all at once.  We’ve got ‘Fever’ on our jukebox, of course, but that’s something else –a clever little minor classic, a paeon to sexual chemistry –but a whole album of Peggy Lee?  Hmmm, maybe like overdosing on cream.

A final word on the lyrics: perhaps too they tap into another part of the aspirations of  romantic dreamers –to be acknowledged as a recognized unit (an ‘item’ as we say these days) with its own established identity –‘And we’ll be pleased to be called/what we have always been called/the folks who live on the hill…’ And…  given our geographical location, and our relative marital longevity, I suppose this could be said to be what Susan and I have become.

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