I’m taking the liberty of reposting this tribute to a great song with an unusual story behind it as a break from the news of the day. Since I first wrote this 15 years ago, YouTube has become a rich musical resource that allows me to fill out the story. Stretching from Ella Fitzgerald to Fran Landesman to T.S. Eliot and Geoffrey Chaucer, this is the bare-bones version of the tale:

There are a few torch songs that lament the coming of Spring. This time of year, if you’re tuned to one of the right stations, you may well find yourself listening to Ella Fitzgerald’s memorable rendition of “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most” (video below). The song is a buried treasure on Ella’s quartet-backed jazz set Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie! (I love the Amazon review that rates it “50,000 stars.”) Released by Verve in 1961, the album represents one of the many summits of Ella’s artistry.

Here are the lyrics, complete with the introductory tag:

Once I was a sentimental thing,
Threw my heart away each spring.
Now a spring romance hasn’t got a chance,
Promised my first dance to winter.
All I’ve got to show’s a splinter
For my little fling!

Then the song begins in earnest:

Spring this year has got me feeling
Like a horse that never left the post.
I lie in my room
Staring up at the ceiling.
Spring can really hang you up the most.

Morning’s kiss wakes trees and flowers,
And to them I’d like to drink a toast.
But I walk in the park
Just to kill the lonely hours.
Spring can really hang you up the most.

All afternoon the birds twitter-twitt.
I know the tune. This is love, this is it.
Heard it before
And don’t I know the score.
And I’ve decided that spring is a bore.

Love seemed sure around the new year.
Now it’s April. Love is just a ghost.
Spring arrived on time,
Only what became of you, dear?
Spring can really hang you up the most.

Hey, it only took three verses and a chorus to clue us in to the reason for the sorrows of Spring. Once the reason is disclosed, however, the song digs a little deeper into the seasonal theme. Here we get a glimpse of romance as conducted by the ancients:

College boys are writing sonnets
In their tender passion they’re engrossed
While I’m on the shelf
With last year’s Easter bonnets.
Spring can really hang you up the most.

Love came my way. I thought it would last.
We had our day, now it’s all in the past.
Spring came along, a season of song,
Full of sweet promise
But something went wrong.

Surely Spring will cheer her up? Not a chance:

Doctors once prescribed a tonic.
Sulfur and molasses was the dose.
Didn’t help one bit.
My condition must be chronic.
Spring can really hang you up the most.

All alone, the party’s over.
Old man winter was a gracious host.
But when you keep praying
For snow to hide the clover,
Spring can really hang you up the most.

In Fitzgerald’s rendition, the song ends on what must be the lowest note in her register. Utter devastation.

What could possibly have inspired a songwriter to hang a tale on the notion that Spring is the cruelest season? It’s such a striking idea for a song that I’ve wondered about the thought that lay behind it.

Thanks to the Internet, I found it. It didn’t take long to discover that the song’s composers were Fran Landesman (lyrics) and Tommy Wolf (music). Even though the song sounds like a classic of the Great American Songbook variety, Landesman was around to set up her own site to expound on her art:

Fran Landesman is still the poet laureate of lovers and losers: her songs are the secret diaries of the desperate and the decadent. No one can convey the bitter-sweet joys of melancholy or the exhilaration of living on the edge like Fran.

That certainly sounds right, but what about the song? According to the intriguing biography on her site, Landesman wrote the song shortly after she initiated her collaboration with Tommy Wolf at the Crystal Palace in St. Louis:

Fran and Tommy soon began writing songs which he would sing nightly to the drinking masses at the Crystal Palace. One night the British born piano player George Shearing came into the club and was particularly taken with a song whose title Fran had come up with while speculating on how a hip jazz musician might express the T.S. Eliot line “April Is The Cruellest Month…” The song was called “Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most.”

So that’s it. The source of this striking song lies in “The Waste Land,” the Ur-text of modernist poetry:

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

And Eliot? He was working an ironic twist on Chaucer’s “Whan that Aprille…” It can be a long, long road to a great pop song, but listening to Ella we discover that the journey can represent arrival as well as departure. (First posted in 2006.)

UPDATE 2009: Since I first wrote this post in 2006, Mark Steyn has answered all my questions about this great song in his essay on it in A Song for the Season. Bringing his acquaintance with Fran Landesman to bear, Mark’s take on the song is part memoir, part tribute, part music criticism and altogether brilliant.

UPDATE 2012: Fran Landesman died on July 23, 2011, at the age of 83. The New York Times noted some of the highlights of her remarkable life in the obituary by Douglas Martin. RIP.

UPDATE 2021: Ella also recorded the song on Whisper Not (1966), her penultimate album on Verve. Verve was the label founded in 1956 by Ella’s manager, Norman Granz, to turn Ella into the beloved star he thought she deserved to become. The first album Verve released was Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Song Book. Arranged and conducted by Marty Paich, this 1966 version of “Spring Can Hang You Up” features Harry Edison on trumpet, Jimmy Rowles on piano, Chuck Berghofer on bass, and Louie Bellson on drums.

Ella performed the song live at the epochal Granz-produced concert that is documented on Jazz at the Santa Monica Civic ’72.

To fill out the picture, check out the video of Ella performing the song live-in-studio for the Dutch TV program Music All In (1974). Here she’s backed by Tommy Flanagan on piano, Keter Betts on bass, Joe Pass on guitar, and Bobby Durham on drums. The video provides stunning proof to support Ann Hampton Callaway’s observation that Fitzgerald was “a beautiful balladeer,” even if this was “her unspoken side.”

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