Thursday, November 12, 2015

Mark Steyn on Einar Aaron Swan, Frank Sinatra, and “When Your Lover Has Gone”


“E A Swan, third saxophonist from the left, during his brief stint with the Vincent Lopez Orchestra”

Re-posted by Nicholas Stix

[Previously, at WEJB/NSU:

“Sinatra, Riddle, and the Gal That Got Away: ‘When Your Lover Has Gone.’”]


When Your Lover Has Gone

Sinatra Song of the Century #14
By E A Swan
Steyn's Song of the Week
March 2, 2015
Steyn Online

ImageE A Swan?

Who's he?

Well, if you saw Frank Sinatra on stage, pretty much right up till the end in the Nineties, there would come a moment when he'd say something along the lines of:

Now we have a song that's very beautiful ...and a little bit sad. It was written by a gentleman called Einar Swan...

Or sometimes:

It was written by a gentleman called Einar Aaron Swan...

If you know your appellatory ethnology, you'll recognize that "Einar" is Scandinavian ...and "Aaron" is kinda Jewish...


And "Swan"? That's a type of waterfowl - its etymology deriving from the Old English/Old High German "swan", the Old Norse "svanr": "the singing bird", from "swen" - to sing, to make sound. But few Swans made a sound like Einar Aaron, in a song that, via Gene Austin, Ethel Waters, Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Linda Ronstadt, Carly Simon and of course Sinatra, sings across eight-and-a-half decades:

When you're alone

Who cares for starlit skies?

When you're alone

The magic moonlight dies

At break of dawn

There is no sunrise

When Your Lover Has Gone...

Swans are said to sing before death - hence, swansong. E A Swan sang, lived and breathed music for his entire short life, and left us one beautiful swansong. "I have always loved the song 'When Your Lover Has Gone by E A Swan," said Sven Bjerstedt, "and was very surprised to suddenly one day find out that Swan's first name was Einar. It most definitely seemed to have a Scandinavian ring to it." Mr Bjerstedt was so intrigued he wound up writing a monograph on Swan for the Swedish-Finn Historical Society, A Study On Jazz Age Fame And Oblivion, which is well worth your time and to which I am indebted for much of the family background on Swan.

His father Matti was born in 1877 in Evijärvi in Western Finland. In those days, it was common practice for Finns to take their surname from the farm on which they toiled. E A Swan's father lived on the Joutsen farm, and "Joutsen" is Finnish for "swan". In his late teens, Matti changed his name from "Joutsen" to "Svan", which is Swedish for "swan". Swedish is an official language of Finland, because the Swedes ran the joint before the Russians took it, and there remains a minority Swedish-speaking population to this day. I was at some Euro-confab a while back where everyone was seated alphabetically by nation, and so Finland wasn't under F, but under S for "Suomi", which sounds like the Japanese wrestling delegation. But, in fact, Finland is the Swedish name for Finland, whereas Suomi is the Finnish name for Finland. At any rate, Evijärvi is a unilingual Finnish community with virtually no Swedish speakers, but the family had moved to Nederveti, which is Swedish-speaking. So Matti Joutsen became Matti Svan. A couple of years later, Svan quit the farm for Helsinki, and a couple of years after that he followed his two elder brothers and sailed for America. He boarded the SS St Louis in Southampton, England on May 13th 1899, and shortly after disembarkation in New York, Matti Svan changed his name yet again - to John Matthew Swan.

As with other subjects of the Czar, there was a steady stream of Finnish emigration to the United States. By 1900 there were more Finnish newspapers in America than in Finland. John Swan married a young Finnish lass, Edla Aaltonen, and like many Finns they settled in Massachusetts. Their second child of nine was born there on March 20th 1903: Einar William Swan.

That's right. Not Einar Aaron, but Einar William.

For John Matthew Swan, it was all about the music. "Ever since I was a young boy I wanted to be a great musician," he told The Worcester Telegram in Massachusetts in February 1915. "Music was my one solace in my little home across the seas where, one of a family of ten children, it was hard work for us all to eke out a living under the rule of the Russian Czar."

He was, in fact, one of a family of eight children, but John Swan seems to have concluded at some time that his actual immigrant's tale of hardships in the old country was insufficient and subjected it to quite a lot of embroidery over the years. He was honest about the love of music, however. For a while the family lived in Ohio and John played in the Cleveland Saxophone Quartet. In Gardner, Massachusetts, he made violins and other instruments for players in the Boston Symphony. A month before the Worcester Telegram piece was published, the Finnish Music Society of the East held its inaugural meeting in Maynard, Massachusetts, with John Swan among its founders.

And he taught his children. Seven of the Swans' moppets played professionally, and they got around. There's a picture of an all-female orchestra called the Gypsy Sweethearts performing not too far from my pad in New Hampshire at the old Hotel Lookoff in Sugar Hill, 85 years ago. John Swan's daughters Anne and Ellen are playing the flute and guitar.

But Swan always knew who among his musical progeny was the real talent:

Einar W Swan, my oldest boy and the musical genius of the family, was born at Fitchburg twelve years ago, and showed musical talent when he was two years old. He first played the organ and later on I found that he loved to play violin... When he was six years old we gave our first public concert in which Einar came up to my expectations by making a great hit with his violin playing. After this he rapidly picked up a knowledge af various instruments. He studied in order,piano, clarinet, flute, saxaphone, trap drumming, all of which he plays better than many persons who confine their ability to one instrument.

Einar composed his first violin music in 1914, which he has had copyrighted... Proceeds from our last concert in Worcester three weeks ago, will be used to buy him one of the best violins I can find. He has, like the rest of my children, fulfilled my expectations of becoming a great musician, and I can sit and dream of the day when he will become as great in name and ability as our present day nationally prominent musicians.

That composition of young Einar that his proud dad referred to is a "Grand March for the Hope League", the Hope League being a Sunday School supported by the Rauhan Aarre (Treasure of Peace) Temperance Society. A couple of years after that first composition, he was a multi-instrumentalist star with the high school band.

And then he found jazz - and love. "Jazz," Einar later told The Worcester Telegram, "is the coming and perfectly legitimate development of modern music. All musicians are turning to it, some more, some less." John Swan would have liked a "some not at all" category, at least for his children. He had labored all their lives to turn them into fine classical musicians, and now the most talented of them all had gone off and formed something called Swanie's Serenaders, all brass and banjos and syncopated rhythms. When Einar said he was leaving for New York and a job with Sam Lanin's orchestra at the Roseland Ballroom on Broadway, his father is said to have flown into a rage and smashed his violin. A couple of years later, in 1927, the plot of Al Jolson's prototype talkie - a cantor who can't handle his son becoming a "jazz singer" - must have seemed awfully familiar to Einar.

And love made the breach final. Einar had met a girl, Billie, whose formal name was Ann Kaufman. She was Jewish, and Einar decided to convert, changing his name along the way from Einar William Swan to Einar Aaron Swan. John Swan was horrified: The brightest talent in his family had gone, in two fell swoops, from a classical Aryan to a jazzy Jew. When he moved to New York, Einar must have been the blondest Jew in Manhattan. Never mind The Jazz Singer, he was now living a nightmare inversion of the biggest hit on Broadway, Abie's Irish Rose - or in his case Billie's Finnish Swan. But it was serious stuff. Neither his parents nor any of his siblings ever saw Einar again.

Given his circumstances, a Finnish Lutheran who winds up a New York Jew should just have gone all the way and become a New York Jewish songwriter - converting, as it were, to the ranks of Kern, Berlin, Gershwin and Rodgers. Instead, Einar seems to have concluded he could make more money as a reed player and arranger. He joined the orchestra of Vincent Lopez, at one point the principal if distant rival to the country's undisputed Number One bandleader Paul Whiteman. In May 1925 they sailed for London and performed for Queen Mary. His family may not have been speaking to Einar Swan, but The Worcester Telegram still was. As they breathlessly reported:

When the Lopez orchestra had the capital of the British Empire at its feet, the management of the famous Savoy hotel came to the Worcester lad, barely turned 22, and offered him a contract in staggering figures to conduct its orchestra, one of the greatest in all Europe. He turned down the offer. 'My baby was back in the United States and not very well,' he says, 'and I wanted to get back to her. Besides, I'm an American.'

So back to New York and arranging and playing - for Lopez, and for Red Nichols, Jimmy Dorsey, Tommy Dorsey, Xavier Cugat... Once in a while, he wrote a song. In 1926, to a lyric by Raymond Klages, he composed a pretty waltz, "Trail Of Dreams", recorded by the Yellow Jackets, Ben Bernie and others. The same year the New Orleans Owls recorded "a spooky fox-trot" by E A Swan, "White Ghost Shivers".

And then, out of nowhere, Einar Aaron Swan produced a masterpiece:

For ages and ages

The poets and sages

Of love, wondrous love, always sing

But ask any lover

And you'll soon discover

The heartaches that romance can bring...

That's the verse - and then:

When you're alone

Who cares for starlit skies?

When you're alone

The magic moonlight dies

At break of dawn

There is no sunrise

When Your Lover Has Gone...

Einar Aaron Swan wrote both the music and the lyric. Both are very good, and even better together, with a rare unity. The tune's chromaticism is both beautiful and muscular, which is why so many instrumentalists enjoy playing it. But, coupled to the words, it's heart-aching: The lyric gets darker as the lonely night progresses through those first 12 bars, from "starlit skies" to the death of "magic moonlight" to that bleakest of images, a daybreak with no sunrise. But, even as the words get more down, the music ascends through the scale - as if to underline that, even for the most brutally spurned lover, there is always, surely, hope. But all hopes are dashed as the melody drops to that title phrase, and its grim acknowledgment that your lover has gone:

What lonely hours

The evening shadows bring

What lonely hours

With mem'ries lingering

Like faded flowers

Life can't mean anything

When Your Lover Has Gone.

And that's it: Two 16-bar A sections - no middle, no release. Just a very economical melody with strong memorable imagery - "faded flowers" is awfully good for a chap who seems never previously to have written a lyric.

Somehow the song wound up in Blonde Crazy, a Warner Brothers pic from 1931 that's as good as it sounds. Jimmy Cagney plays a cocksure bellhop cum conman, and Joan Blondell is the chambermaid he fancies, and they have terrific chemistry. Blonde Crazy became famous for two things. First was the leading man saying, "Mmm. You dirty, double-crossing rat", which became the basis for every Cagney you-dirty-rat impression - including Sinatra's, which throughout his career he dropped into his banter, and even occasionally into the middle of songs. Second was the very sexy pre-Code scene in which Cagney opens the bathroom door as Joan Blondell is soaking in the tub.

But there was also "When Your Lover Has Gone". It's sung by an uncredited tenor over the credits, and played in the score at the moment Cagney's character proposes to Blondell's. Blonde Crazy isn't a musical, it's a classic Warner melodrama about cheats and chiselers motoring along on slangy rat-a-tat-tat machine-gun dialogue, but it does include along the way a tune by Friday's Sinatra Song composer Gerald Marks - "(With You on My Mind, I Find) I Can't Write the Words" - and some other Warner melodies, like "I Found A Million-Dollar Baby (In A Five And Ten Cent Store)", heard from a record playing in Room 610 at the hotel. It's unclear how E A Swan wound up getting the song in the movie, but, if your music is only ever going to appear in one Hollywood picture, Blonde Crazy isn't a bad one to land.

"When Your Lover Has Gone" was noticed by Ethel Waters, Benny Goodman and Louis Armstrong, but the big hit record went to Gene Austin, the Texas crooner whose record of "My Blue Heaven" remains one of the biggest sellers of all time. Austin was a co-writer of "The Lonesome Road", which Sinatra and Nelson Riddle made a memorable recording of for their album A Swingin' Affair. Frank admired Austin's intimate style of singing, so, if as a 15-year old boy in Hoboken, he never got to see Blonde Crazy, I'd wager he certainly heard the Gene Austin hit.

He first recorded it in 1944. The song had fallen away by then, save for a fine mid-tempo 1942 recording by the great Maxine Sullivan - torchy but rhythmic. Two years later, and only two years into his solo career, Sinatra opted for a more conventional ballad treatment. There's nothing wrong with his vocal - he knows what he wants to communicate, but his arranger, Axel Stordahl, isn't quite on the same page. The swooping strings dancing up and down in Frank's fills are excessively frilly, and make the song more ordinary.

I wonder if Einar Swan's dad, John Swan, ever heard that record. In 1932, the year after "When Your Lover Has Gone" became a national hit, John Swan abandoned his family in Massachusetts and took off for California. He left his wife and children destitute, and, estranged from both Einar and John, they were reduced to begging. Mrs Swan did not long survive her husband's desertion. She died a mere three years later:

Like faded flowers

Life can't mean anything

When Your Lover Has Gone...

Out on the west coast, John Swan never contacted his family again. He took up with another Finnish immigrant lass, whose first husband had been swept overboard from his whaling boat back in the old country. Swan started a new family with Hanna, and spent the rest of his life making organs for churches. He wrote off all those dreams for his musically accomplished children back east, and apparently the very real success of his prodigal jazz son.

What do you do to follow "When Your Lover Has Gone"? It's not clear E A Swan even tried. In the next nine years he had his name on a couple of songs: "A Room With A View" and "In The Middle Of A Dream". The former is not the Noel Coward number of the same name, but was recorded by Artie Shaw and Helen Forrest; and the latter was co-composed by Tommy Dorsey, whose formidable star power couldn't earn it the public's favor. Both songs had lyrics by Al Stillman.

Who was Al Stillman? He was married to Pauline Kaufman, the sister of Einar Swan's wife Billie. Starting with "The Breeze And I" in 1940 he would chalk up an impressive string of hits, including the seasonal standard "Home For The Holidays", the somewhat lesser seasonal song "Little Jack Frost, Get Lost", the blockbuster "I Believe", the swing-era favorite "Jukebox Saturday Night", the Four Lads hits "Moments To Remember" and "No, Not Much", the Johnny Mathis hits "Chances Are" and "It's Not For Me To Say", the goofy Sixties novelty "I Love You And Don't You Forget It (That makes seven times that I said it)" - plus "Doncha Go Way Mad", which Sinatra and Neal Hefti make a fine record of, and "In Spain They Say Si-Si" which I once sang on stage in Sheffield, Yorkshire back in the early Nineties with Texas Jewboy Kinky Friedman, "Red Dwarf"'s Craig Charles and the soon-to-be British Home Secretary David Blunkett joining in on the si-si's and oui-oui's.

That's not a bad catalogue, although I don't think you could point to any Al Stillman lyric that wrings your withers the way his brother-in-law does on "When Your Lover Has Gone". As his son told it, Swan and Stillman used to write together just to amuse the kids - knockabout party pieces for family weekends. And so Einar passed the 1930s arranging for radio and for Raymond Page's 100-piece orchestra. Steady work.

And then he died. On August 8th 1940, he was vacationing at Greenwood Lake, New York, when he had a fatal cerebral hemorrhage. Einar Aaron Swan was 37 - a year younger than George Gershwin at the time of his death. But, unlike Gershwin, E A Swan left one song.

Fifteen years after Swan's death, Frank Sinatra went into the studio at Capitol Records in Los Angeles to make his second recording of "When Your Lover Has Gone", this time with Nelson Riddle, for the Ava-exorcizing album In The Wee Small Hours (which we discussed a couple of weeks back). Unlike the Stordahl arrangement, this one uses the verse. Frank was a great discarder of superfluous verses, but he also recognized when they added something valuable. And for the Swan song he thought the verse necessary. But not the verse I quoted at the top, with all its flowery generalities:

For ages and ages

The poets and sages

Of love, wondrous love, always sing...

That's too obvious an over-explanation of what's coming next. Instead, Sinatra went for the second, rarely sung verse:

What good is the scheming

The planning and dreaming

That comes with each new love affair?

The love that you cherish

So often may perish

And leave you with castles in air...

When you're alone

Who cares for starlit skies?

And, as happened so often, the Sinatra recording became the song. And the obscure second verse became the verse to Swan's chorus.

It's a beautiful record, and Frank's third word - "alone" - is alone worth the price of admission. Sinatra's recording inspired others - and I don't just mean Ella Fitzgerald's wacky swinger with Nelson Riddle, which tacks the lyric of "When Your Lover" on to the vamp, the long-crescendo powerhouse instrumental and the wind-up of Riddle's Sinatra arrangement of "I've Got You Under My Skin" and somehow pulls it all together. But Linda Ronstadt, Carly Simon, Stacey Kent and other singers who do "When Your Lover Has Gone" know the song because of Sinatra - because he remembered a 1931 Warner Brothers movie not just for Cagney's "You dirty rat!" and Joan Blondell in the bath but for a forgotten theme song he thought deserved to be better known.

He used to marvel at the way E A Swan had come out of nowhere, written this one number, and then bought a one-way ticket back to nowhere. And then somehow or other he heard what had happened: the cerebral hemorrhage at 37, the wife he left behind, the two young children. And Frank Sinatra decided to give all his royalties on "When Your Lover Has Gone" to Swan's widow Billie - that's to say, not just the songwriting royalties, which are healthy enough since Sinatra re-activated the number and attracted all kinds of other singers to sing it, but Frank's own mechanical royalties for his records of the song, his performances. Sinatra owes E A Swan a huge debt for the song, but Ann Kaufman Swan and her children owe a few thanks to Sinatra, too.

It fell to Einar's younger sister Aina to be the member of the Swan family who enjoyed a songwriting career sustained across the decades. Aina started going back to her parents' native land every spring and began writing lyrics to the music of Finnish composer Heikki Sarmanto. Not as lucrative as Sinatra and Billie Holiday, maybe, but in 1994 the Finnish Government awarded Aina the Order of the White Rose for her contribution to Finnish music.

Alec Wilder, Frank's friend and the composer of "I'll Be Around", never cared for "When Your Lover Has Gone". It "is not my kind of song", he said. He disliked its "incipient melodrama" and the "art song attitude" of the piano copy, and he claimed to find "the self-conscious 'blue note' ending" embarrassing. But he liked maybe six notes - the first note of the last measure of each four-bar phrase: "star-", "moon-", etc. I wonder how he felt about "I'll Be Around" (Side 2 Track 3) sharing the same LP as "When Your Lover Has Gone" (Side 1 Track 8).

But Sinatra knew better. The first male vocalist to claim the female torch repertoire as his own, he understood better than Wilder and better than most other singers the importance of storytelling and the power of the things that aren't said. And in just a few allusions and images set to the right notes E A Swan conjures everybody's story. Perhaps that's why he never wrote anything before or after: This was all he wanted to say - and, if he'd tried to say anymore, it would have been less.

Or perhaps, as a letter he wrote not long before he died suggests, he had known for a while he was not well, and had sensed that his life would not be long. And so Einar Aaron Swan - named for "the singing bird" - left us the ultimate Swan song.

~Mark's original 1998 obituary of Sinatra, "The Voice", appears in the anthology Mark Steyn From Head To Toe. For the stories behind many classic Sinatra songs, see Mark Steyn's American Songbook. Personally autographed copies of both books are exclusively available from the Steyn store.

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