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Monday, December 21, 2009

Party Girl

Track 8
Party Girl
album: American History + Rock-n-Roll = The Deedle Deedle Dees
words & music by Lloyd Miller, arrangement by Chris Johnson, Ely Levin, Lloyd Miller, and Anand Mukherjee horn arrangement by Roy Nathanson
lead vocals: Ali Hammer
kid back-up vocalists: Hannah Finamore-Rossler, Elodie Keating, Isabel Thornton
alto sax: Roy Nathanson
trumpet: Gabe Nathanson

Just when I thought my life would end
I talked to my friend...

Here's what she said to me:

You don't have to be a party girl
You don't have to spend all your time
shaking hands for FDR
Ellie, that ain't who you are

You don't have to be a party girl
You don't have to spend all your life
standing by the door
Eleanor, I know you can do more

Down in the coal mines
In the camps
Out with the working people

Be his eyes and ears
His legs and feet

My great depression began
The day Franklin Roosevelt won the election
He's the one with the big grin
I'm just the one beside him

Hick said "No...

A couple of years ago, a fan online asked for a song about Eleanor Roosevelt. For a long time I was really stumped by this request. Part of my writer's block had to do with Eleanor's notoriety -- she's so well known, she did so much, she's so well regarded. What more could I add? Even more important for me was the lack (as far as I knew at the time) of any complication or personality flaw or exciting incident that would provide the narrative hook on which to hang my song.

I finally found my hook for ER last year when reading Jonathan Alter's short book on FDR's first 100 days (a Deedle Deedle Dees book club selection, read about the meeting and the FDR-themed singalong I led here: In Alter's book, I read for the first time of Eleanor's friendship with Lorena Hickok, a hard-drinking, cigar-smoking journalist. Lorena sounds like a film noir stock character doesn't she? In the movies, of course, such characters were always male -- but that's only one of many ways that Lorena defied the stereotypes of the age. She was one of the most respected writers of the day and very much an insider among insiders in the small, exclusive world of 1930s and 40s Washington politics and media.

Only recently have researchers started to uncover more details of Eleanor and Lorena's friendship. Most signficantly, a biographer found a box of letters between the two a few years ago -- and after reading some of the contents, decided not to ignore what she found. The letters have since been published, and, at least to a 2010 reader, they sound very much like the writings of two people who were more than just friends. It's dangerous to read the language of another era with present-day ears of course, but read excerpts of the letters at the links below yourself and see what you think.

Ultimately, though, what's most significant in my opinion about the relationship is the influence that Lorena had on Eleanor. After FDR was first elected (the first of four times) Eleanor, contrary to the standard image of the smiling, supportive First Lady, was despondent and convinced that her life would now be horrible. In correspondence with Lorena, Eleanor sounds genuinely and severely depressed about her future as a party hostess and presidential spouse. Some researchers have speculated that she may have even been suicidal at this point. Lorena, as she did many times during their many years of communication with each other, doesn't soothe Eleanor with talk of how the job of First Lady won't be that bad. Instead, she tells her, in the blunt manner she was known for, that she should change the job to suit herself. She didn't say the exact words, "You don't have to be a party girl" (that's my pop music re-phrasing) but she did tell Eleanor to remake and expand the role of the president's wife. Pretty cool.

A note on the performers: We're privileged to have jazz legend Roy Nathanson and his son Gabe (now 12 years old, 11 when he recorded it) doing the horns on this song. Roy wrote the Afrobeat-inspired horn part and he and Gabe performed it together in the studio. If you've never Roy's music, you must. He's done a lot of different things, so make sure to sample some of all of it --- his work with the pioneering Jazz Passengers, his super-fun experiments with the Lounge Lizards and John Lurie, and his collaborations with Elvis Costello, Deborah Harry, and others.

Here are a few specific recommendations:

Otto von Dee says start with the album, Plain Old Joe.

Roy's newest album, Subway Moon, which has a companion book of poetry:

Roy's jazz opera featuring Elvis Costello:

Find Roy's shows and other stuff at this MySpace. By the way, the Hot Johnsons, the bluegrass/jazz/klezmer/soul string band that Chris (Booker Dee) and I play in when not onstage with the Dees, will be opening up for Roy in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn, this January.

We're also very excited to have Ali Hammer, formerly of Rasa Radiata, an NYC band that also featured Dees drummer Ely Levin (AKA Otto von Dee), on vocals. She also sings lead on "Do the Turnout" and back-up on "Xu Lapi Knewel, New Jersey."

LINKS to learn more about Eleanor and Lorena (parental guidance suggested):

a play about Eleanor and Lorea

read some of their letters here:

a published version of their letters:

Alter's book: