Red roses for a blue lady. Staying with my mother, we listened to this song at least six times, singing along.
Her condition (Alzheimer's) means she doesn’t notice repetition, and each time a favourite song comes round, it brings as much surprise and delight as the first time.
It’s never occurred to me before, somehow, to admire the lyrics of songs as much as they deserve. Yet, here I go, banging on about the power of simplicity in poetry, and never noticing it staring me in the face in songs. Or maybe noticing it as a thing of lesser value. I suppose that’s because popular songs are the wellspring of sentimentality.
I used to think of my dad as embarrassingly sentimental. As a kid, I sat beside him in the cinema and when the film came to an end, there would be tears running down his cheeks. I had all the hardness of youth on my side. Cry? Me? Never! I didn't even cry at the end of Bambi.
And now? Here I am singing ‘Red roses for a blue lady’ and the tears are comforting old friends. These words, once fixed, endure. They cement themselves at a deeper level than almost anything else. They last through the ravages of an illness that destroys memory bit by bit. And the story they tell is hopeful. There are only two verses (repeated of course) and here they are:
I want some red roses for a blue lady
Mister florist take my order please
We had a silly quarrel the other day
I hope these pretty flowers chase her blues away
I want some red roses for a blue lady
Send them to the sweetest gal in town
And if they do the trick, I'll hurry back to pick
Your best white orchid for her wedding gown.
There’s a narrative in there. A quarrel, a romantic relationship, two people both unhappy about the way they fell out. And it turns out it’s not a light relationship, it’s one in which one half is about to propose marriage to the other. And we know the red roses are going to work because the lady is blue, not angry. She never wanted the fight.
The tune works brilliantly with the words. ‘I . . . want . . . some’ trips gently into the ‘red’ of the roses, where the tune birls into action. The neat little play on words (red for blue) is funny and endearing. Great opening line. After that, the words are nice – but ordinary I think – until you get to ‘And if they do the trick, I’ll hurry back to pick’ where the double rhyme heralds a climax – and what a climax! Best white orchid. Wedding gown! Yesssss!
I had never heard of the guys who wrote this, or perhaps I had and immediately consigned their names to the bit of my brain I don't care about much. It was Roy C Bennet and Sid Tepper. And of course they wrote loads of other stuff I knew too: lots and lots of Elvis songs, as well as the title track to the Cliff Richard film The Young Ones, which I saw in 1961 with my dad, one of my first ever visits to the cinema. (He would have cried at the end, I have no doubt.)
My mother would have got to know ‘Red roses’ in the 1949 Vaughn Monroe recording. It would have been in the charts in 1949, the year before she married my father. She was 25. I’m pretty sure I first heard it sung by Vic Dana in 1965, when I was 12, just beginning to feel sentimental and hide it well.
Poets can learn a lot from songs. The metaphor of poem as song runs through the genre anyway. This took me back to Thomas Hardy, Late Lyrics and Earlier, published 1922, same year as The Waste Land. The book was on my mother’s shelf, just behind her as she sang along to ‘Red roses. . . ‘, so I lifted it down and later on I read it as she dozed.
Hardy was drenched in the lyric tradition of course, and his ability to pack a narrative into a few lines is unparallelled. Here’s one he subtitled as ‘Song: Minor Mode’. I wonder if he had a tune in his head? And the title ‘The Rift’ puts it in precisely the same category of story as ‘Red roses for a blue lady’, though Hardy’s love stories rarely turn out well. Here’s the lyric:
Twas just at gnat and cobweb-time,
When yellow begins to show in the leaf,
That your old gamut changed its chime
From those true tones – of span so brief! –
That met my beats of joy, of grief,
As rhyme meets rhyme.
So sank I from my high sublime!
We faced but chancewise after that,
And never I knew or guessed my crime . . .
Yes; ’twas the date – or nigh thereat –
Of the yellowing leaf; at moth and gnat
I didn’t remember this particular poem (Hardy wrote a lot) but I can tell already which phrase will stick: ‘at moth and gnat / And cobweb time’, the repeated phrase, culminating in the key rhyming sound (time, chime, rhyme, sublime, crime).
How perplexing the paradox that sadness, in poetry and song, proves a source of comfort.