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The Melody Lingers On: These Foolish Things

Tony Thornton, Open Writing’s inimitable guide to those songs that are worth singing, listening to and remembering for ever, tells us about that great – though often parodied – classic, These Foolish Things.

Please click on The Melody Lingers On in the menu on this page for more of Tony's finger-clicking toe-tapping articles about the greatest songs of the Twentieth Century.

A year ago I wrote about the ‘list song’ – My Romance, and how songwriters use lists to express love and affection. Although the best ever must be Cole Porter’s You’re the Top, a close second must be My Foolish Things.

Take a look at the words:

A cigarette that bears a lipstick’s traces
An airline ticket to romantic places
And still my heart has wings
These foolish things remind me of you.

A tinkling piano in the next apartment
Those stumblin’ words that told you what my heart meant
A fairground’s painted swings
These foolish things remind me of you.

You came, you saw, you conquered me
When you did that to me
I knew somehow this had to be.

The winds of March that make my heart a dancer
A telephone that rings but who’s to answer?
Oh, how the ghost of you clings
These foolish things remind me of you.

Music by Harry Link and Jack Strachey. Words by Holt Marvell.

The song originated as a last-minute number for a 1930s British revue. It has long been a standard due to performances from Benny Goodman, Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra, Ella and a powerful version by rocker Bryan Ferry.

The song is about Jean Ross, the inspiration for Christopher Isherwood's Cabaret character Sally Bowles. After meeting and bewitching the lyricist Eric Maschwitz, she inspired his lyrics for These Foolish Things.

Holt Marvell was really Eric Maschwitz an English entertainer, writer and broadcaster. As a lyricist, Maschwitz wrote the screenplays of several successful films in the 1930s and 40s, but is best remembered for his lyrics to popular songs such as A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square. In 1958 he joined the BBC as Head of Television Light Entertainment and left to join ITV in 1963. He also edited the Radio Times.

The reason for including the song here is because (like no other) it is vulnerable to parody. The idea becomes irresistable to some who think they can do better. Here are some words by Tom Anderson, David Appleton and John Lloyd about somebody called Ewan (1969).

A cigarette that bears an Embassy label
A pint of Ex to put him under the table
He went to Cambridge too
These foolish things remind us of you.

He smokes a pipe, and all day long he puffs it
He plays the market and he never muffs it
He speaks American too
These foolish things remind us of you.

Inside the office there is quite a selection
Of pretty girls who are in need of protection
So mini skirts are taboo
These foolish things remind us of you.

Ella Fitzgerald’s version has extended lyrics not written by Maschwitz.

First daffodils and long excited cables
And candle lights a little corner table
And still my heart has wings
These foolish things remind me of you.

The park at evening when the bell has sounded
The pier in france with all the gulls around it
The beauty that is spring
These foolish things remind me of you.

The sigh of midnight trains at empty stations
Silk stockings thrown aside, dance invitations
Oh, how the ghost of you clings
These foolish things remind me of you.

Gardenia perfume lingering on a pillow
Wild strawberries only seven francs a kilo
And still my heart has wings
These foolish things remind me of you.

The smile of Garbo and the scent of roses
The waiters whistling as the last bar closes
The song that Crosby sings
These foolish things remind me of you.

The scent of smoldering leaves, the wail of steamers
Two lovers on the street who walk like dreamers
Oh, how the ghost of you clings
These foolish things remind me of you.

There is no end to it. Here is a version by The Royal New Zealand Artillery Old Comrades Association

On fighting maps we now plot shooting traces
You showed us where and when a compass faces
And how to take six swings
These foolish things were taught me by you.

You showed me aiming posts the good Lord planted
The things a GPO should take for granted
The thrill a bracket brings
These foolish things were taught me by you.

And if I should forget the things you taught us
And lay my Zero Line through Corps Headquarters
The still small voice of you rings
These foolish things were taught me by you.

Here is the Twenty-Four Pints parody by Phil Alexander.

I saw you dancing, you were quite an eyeful
The way you shimmied like a shaken trifle
Your lipstick – was it Heinz?
But twenty-four pints, and I fancied you.

The way you clearly lacked a male companion
Your cleavage deeper than the Guh-rand canyon
Your nose – just like the Sphinx
Twenty-four drinks, and I fancied you.

These Jewish Things is a parody by Fourteen and Beautiful

A mohel (pronounced moy'el), performs the ceremonial circumcision at a bris. A babke (bob-ka) is a sort of coffee cake.

My nephew’s bris, that had the drunken mohel
Who almost slipped and made the boy a ‘goil’
My Star of David ring
These Jewish things remind me of you.

The way I catch a buzz from Manischewitz
The babkes that my parents used to get us
The songs a cantor sings
These Jewish things remind me of you.

The way the Holy Days are always kosher
The lean pastrami from the corner grocer
My own neurotic shrink
These Jewish things remind me of you.

I wonder what Maschwitz made of that lot. Maybe he was flattered – who knows. But I’ll bet he smiled to himself knowing that not one of them could match his line – one of the greatest lines ever written:

Oh, how the ghost of you clings.


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