“Why are we here? Where are we going?” — Lew Brown
August 1, 2010
Sometimes we meet people in unexpected ways. For example, I met Lew Brown, who died 52 years ago, while I was struggling to write a sermon yesterday. We homilists are supposed to base our message on the readings of the day, and today’s readings have a consistent theme: Don’t neglect your spiritual well-being while you’re absorbed in accumulating possessions and other forms of material wealth. The first reading is from the Book of Ecclesiastes (“For what profit comes to a man from all the toil and anxiety of heart with which he has labored under the sun?”); St. Paul’s letter to the Christian community in Colossae (“Think of what is above, not of what is on earth”); and the Gospel according to Luke (“Though one may be rich, one’s life does not consist of possessions”).
It’s a message we hear often. In other words: Been there, done that.
And so I thrashed around for several hours, trying to find a way into this homily. I looked back at hooks I had used the last few times these readings came up in the three-year cycle, but they seemed contrived and heavy-handed — as my writing often seems to me after some time has passed. Then, as we like to say in the church, the Holy Spirit put a song in my head: “Life is just a bowl of cherries / Don’t take it serious / Life’s too delirious / You live, you love, you worry so / but you can’t take your dough / when you go, go, go.”
The lyric was a pop iteration of the central theme of today’s readings and, because the tune is still familiar, I decided to use it. When I set out to find out who wrote the lyrics, I found several web sites that attributed it to George Gershwin who, of course, was not a lyricist. I also found it attributed to Ira Gershwin, who was. That didn’t sound right to me, so I persisted, and I found out that the lyric was written by Lew Brown for the Broadway review “George White’s Scandals of 1931.” (Pay attention, boys and girls. You can’t trust internet sources.)
When the song is performed now, it usually seems to recommend a carefree life, but Brown wrote it at the onset of the Great Depression when it had a different connotation. As is frequently the case with popular lyrics, these at least touch on pretty serious ideas: “The sweet things in life / to you are just loaned / so how can you lose / what you’ve never owned?”
Like Irving Berlin, Lew Brown was born in the latter 19th century in tsarist Russia, and like Berlin, his family brought him to New York City when he was child. Brown began writing songs when he was still attending Dewitt Clinton High School in the Bronx and by 1912, when he was 19 years old, he had his first hit, “I’m the Lonesomest Gal in Town,” and he had another in 1916, “If You Were the Only Girl in the World (and I Was the Only Boy)”. The scores for both were written by Albert von Tilzner, with whom Brown collaborated on several other tunes. “If You Were the Only Girl in the World” became an American standard, and it would be only one of many for which Brown — either solo or as a collaborator — provided the words. He teamed up for a long time with composer Ray Henderson, and together they wrote the song that prompted this blog and one of my favorites, “The Thrill is Gone,” which was also written for the “George White Scandals.” Other songs he had a hand in were “The Beer Barrel Polka,” “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree (With Anyone Else but Me),” “Sonny Boy,” “It All Depends on You,” “The Best Things in Life Are Free,” and “You’re the Cream in My Coffee.”
Lew Brown — who was born Louis Brownstein — died in 1958, never expecting to help a tin-horn deacon preach the gospel. Thanks, Lew . . . for everything.