I like it when teachers set grands battements on what I call a rumpty-tumpty 3. My favourite pieces for this kind of exercise is the Zarah Leander song Davon geht die Welt nicht unter, and Hands, knees and boomps-a-daisy, but all good things must come to a brief pause, and so it was time to find another one, and Oh! Oh! Antonio is just what I was looking for. If you’re wondering why I’m suddenly bringing music hall into this game, after all that Schubert and czardases, I have to point out that rhythmically speaking, behind every balletic variation, there’s a tarty music-hall number dying to show its frilly knickers, and a bit of decorum (which flies out of the window once you put some swing into a waltz) is the only thing that divides these songs from Paquita or Bayadère.
How I discovered Oh! Oh! Antonio
I wonder what the chances are of anyone knowing this if you played it for class? I didn’t know it until last week, when it was used in Indian Summers, set in 1932: Cynthia Coffin (Julie Walters) proprietor of the English Club in Simla leads the singing as the local English gather for the club’s re-opening. You never can tell: someone on a forum remembers his great grandfather (Welsh, who spoke no English) singing it to him as a child. Songs have a way of travelling through time. I always thought the Teddy Bears’ Picnic was a song from the 60s (because I heard it as a child) yet the tune was written in 1907, and the words in 1932.
In fact, this song is also about the way songs get transmitted. You may have noticed that it begins almost note-for-note like Strauss’s Kunstlerleben (Artist’s Life) waltz Op. 316, written in 1867, and regarded as the “twin” of the Blue Danube. Now listen to the words of the second verse:
Her old hurdy-gurdy all day she’d parade
And this she would sing to each tune that it played.
So what you’re hearing are new words to an old tune. But there’s a third temporal layer to this: the third verse (not on the recording, but available here) has the line (just before the chorus)
She faded away, but they say in the streets
The ghost of that girl in Italian repeats…
So this is a song about people talking about the ghost of a girl singing a song that she made up to an old tune playing on her hurdy-gurdy. A Pathé newsreel film clip from 1923 of the “first wireless barrel organ” playing this song adds yet another layer to the story: here is a kind of hurdy gurdy playing, ghost-like through the ether, a song about people talking about the ghost of a girl singing a song that she made up to an old tune playing on her hurdy-gurdy. Incidentally, it’s wonderful to see people waltzing in the street as they hear the music. I nearly wrote “spontaneously waltzing” until I wondered whether perhaps Pathé had placed those people very carefully there to make the clip more interesting. Sadly, there’s no audio on the film.
Reanimating ghosts: songs and musicians
When Florrie Forde sings Oh! Oh! Antonio, she brings that ghost of a song back into the physical present (in 1908, that is). That’s one of the things we do as musicians – let songs breathe a bit longer, or, if you like, plant them in ground where they’ll suddenly flourish again just when they were in danger of expiring. There is no natural process by which “great” songs stay hits purely on their own, it only happens by transmission, and the processes can be unpredictable and strange (and expensive, in the case of Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke). They are “broadcast” both in the TV/Radio/Internet sense, but also in physical form as sheet music and records. They travel with people as carriers of songs, geographically and temporally.
Last week, I saw a 101-year-old woman teaching Are you lonesome tonight? to a young Filipino nurse in a care home in Streatham. I thought, that’s odd, she would have been 46 when Elvis Presley recorded it – surely this isn’t her generation of songs? But when I looked the song up just now, I discovered that in fact, it was first released in 1927, when she would have been 13 – which makes a lot more sense.
So let’s keep Oh! Oh! Antonio going a bit longer—why not? Sing along if you know the words (which you do, because I’ve put them in the score). It would of course be wonderful in any class where there’s an Antonio teaching or dancing, or maybe just for remembering your own Antonio-related history. There’s not an app for that, but there’s a song for it.
Update on 26th April 2015
As proof that the Internet’s power is limited by your diligence and ingenuity as a searcher, I’ve now come across a site that has the original sheet music for Oh Oh Antonio! Fuller and probably easier to read and play than mine, all credit to the person who put this site together.
Update on 31st Jan 2016
…and if you’d like to hear it or play it on the Ukulele, visit Colin Tribe via Youtube