Saturday, July 9, 2011

The Song that Never Ends

Norman Martin is credited with writing “The Song That Never Ends” in 1988 but I encountered a song, designed to never end, thirty years before, in the early 1950s. It was my Sophomore year of high school and I was recruited to sing the baritone part in a male quartet. Opinions would vary, I sure, about the quality of our singing but we were, for a couple of years a “popular” choice to provide a small vocal program at various community club meetings and events. Our repertoire was varied but leaned heavily toward barbershop harmony pieces and what could, at that time, still be called “Negro Spirituals.”

One of our favorite songs – so popular with the quartet that I’ve forgotten its title – was a piece, sung, a cappella, that featured a key change raising the pitch for the succeeding chorus by one half note. The song then ended with a standard resolution at the point where we had previously been led to a new key. The lead singer (second tenor) was responsible for taking us into the key change by executing a chromatic progression that was his special secret; a mystery to the other members of the quartet. We simply followed the leader. It eventually became obvious that it was a mystery to him as well. But through most of our career together he ably executed the transition and audiences were duly impressed and pleased.

On one occasion, though, we intended to end our performance with the special crowd pleaser. We had, thankfully, already consumed our cherry pie, the dessert we received as payment for a job well done. But that day our concert took an unexpected turn. The lead singer took us smoothly through the modulation and into the second and, we believed, final rendition of the chorus, but when we reached the critical point at which we were to end the song, receive the applause, take our bows, and leave, our leader repeated the modulation, taking us another half-note higher and requiring us to sing the chorus another time. That was fair enough; the pie had been good, and we could wait for the applause through one more chorus. But, when he failed to bring us to a resolution after that repetition, and transitioned us once again to a higher pitch, we knew we were on an unsustainable course. There was a “I’m sorry, guys, I don’t know what to do!” look on his face as we moved into our fourth modulation.

When the wagon is careening wildly down the hill each man must decide when he should bail out, leaving the others to their fate. It is every man for himself!

One by one we bailed; the quartet became a trio, a duet, a solo, and finally four young boys convulsed in laughter. Our audience joined us in our mirth and gave us a polite and amused send off, thankful, no doubt, that our song had finally ended.

I’ve speculated that the reason our version of the “song that never ends” failed to catch on, and Mr. Martin’s became a success, lies within that pesky key change. Without it, we might still be onstage, four graying old men, circling endlessly through a chorus that never ends.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   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