National Commentary

Nicholas F. Benton: The Song that Saved America

With a new movie by the same name opening this weekend, this may be my last chance to talk about the greatest song in American history before its title becomes hopelessly entangled with what it seems will be a pretty good film.

It was Hoagy Carmichael who wrote “Stardust” in 1927, a song that persisted through countless performances, recordings and artists, as America’s number one favorite for at least the next 25 years.

The complex and sophisticated melody and the lyrics added by Mitchell Parish in 1929 present a haunting evocation of love and separation that was a special balm for carrying the nation through a very tough period of depression and world war.

No less than the likes of Glenn Miller, Louie Armstrong, Artie Shaw, Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie, Nat King Cole, Mel Torme, Connie Francis, Harry Connick Jr., Ella Fitzgerald, The Peanuts, Django Reinhardt, Barry Manilow, John Coltrane, Rod Stewart, Willie Nelson, Billy Ward and the Dominos have recorded it, reportedly over 1,800 recordings, in all.

On the eve of the new century in 2000, Swedish music reviewers voted it as the Number One “Tune of the Century.” It goes like this:

“And now the purple dusk of twilight time steals across the meadows of my heart. High up in the sky the little stars climb always reminding me that that we’re apart.

“You wander down the lane and far away leaving me a song that will not die. Love is now the stardust of yesterday, the music of years gone by.

“Sometimes I wonder why I spend the lonely night dreaming of a song. The melody haunts my reverie and I am once again with you, when our love was new and each kiss an inspiration. But that was long ago; now my consolation is in the stardust of a song.

“Beside the garden wall, when stars are bright, you are in my arms. The nightingale tells his fairy tale, a paradise where roses bloom. Though I dream in vain, in my heart it will remain my stardust melody, the memory of love’s refrain.”

Remember, this was introduced into American culture at the front end of fledgling recording and radio transmission industries. Not too long before, there was no medium for the entire nation to share in such a beautiful melody and paean to love.

It is the particular kind of love affirmed in the song, a love that transcends time and space and the impulse for instant gratification, that can carry an individual, or a country, through even the toughest of times.

Too often it is one-dimensional appeals to patriotism or a hatred of the enemy that are seen as the keys to maintaining a high morale during times of national trouble or war.

But it could be argued that the sentiment evoked by “Stardust” played, in fact, a far more important role in all this than generally considered. During the transience and the dislocations of the Great Depression and the severe disruptions of normal life, battlefield agonies and separations of World War II, families and loved ones on all ends and sides of the national convulsions could remain connected just in the manner called forth by the song.

In a Hooverville, wandering a railroad track, in a fox hole, aboard a destroyer or sitting alone on a front porch back home, millions of Americans could look to the sky at dusk and feel connected, experiencing through the lyrics and melody of “Stardust” the full-blown emotions of love and intimacy transcending separation. Loved ones became almost close enough to touch, breaths felt, perfumes and colognes sensuously recalled, soft whispers heard and special memories lived afresh.

There were a couple of other songs of that era that evoked the same kind of transcendence, such as “I’ll Be Seeing You” and “In the Still of the Night.” But no others had quite the unique sound, lilt and timbre of “Stardust.”           

 When the optimism of the industrial revolution was dashed beyond anyone’s imagination by the Great War (World War I), a shattered western civilization sought to pick up the pieces with a more somber and cautious approach to its future. But the utter chaos of that war spilled over to give rise to state institutions of totalitarianism that threatened the very fabric of modern civilization for decades that followed.

In the end, it was an America in love with “Stardust,” and all that it stood for, that prevailed.