As I reached the last chords of the 1949 tune “My Foolish Heart,” Harold—a gruff man sitting in a wheelchair a few feet away from the piano—interrupted me. “Come here a minute,” he demanded. I obeyed, and braced myself for a complaint. Harold said, “You know that last song you played? My wife and I had that at our wedding. She died a few years ago, so it was very special to hear it again. Thank you.” You just never know.
The experience made me curious: What other songs did my older listeners feature in their weddings? I’m not talking about the ubiquitous “Bridal Chorus” (“Here Comes the Bride”) from Wagner’s Lohengrin or Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March.” I mean selections from the popular American songbook.
Many seniors had already told me over the years that the song “Always” was played when they got married. Irving Berlin wrote it in 1925 to woo his love interest, Ellin MacKay. It worked; they married in 1926.
I decided to take an informal wedding song survey, and to share the results here during June, a traditional month for weddings.
Many I asked simply couldn’t remember what music was played at their wedding. A few said they didn’t have any wedding music. Ninety-two-year-old Don, with his well-honed sense of humor, told me that my survey reminded him of a Mae West quote: “Marriage is a great institution, but I’m not ready for an institution.”
Then a friendly woman named Marilyn got the ball rolling. “Lots of people had ‘Oh Promise Me’ at their wedding,” she said. “It was used too much though, and everyone got tired of it.” “Oh Promise Me” was published in 1889 as an “art song,” meant for solo voice performance with piano accompaniment.
Another standard at weddings of yesteryear was “I Love You Truly,” written in 1901 by Carrie Jacobs-Bond, one of America’s first successful female composers of popular music. “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” was also a favorite, along with a second Irving Berlin song, “How Deep Is the Ocean”:
How much do I love you?
I’ll tell you no lie
How deep is the ocean?
How high is the sky?
Yes, romance was a high priority in songs of the time. Big bands of the ’30s and ’40s gave us “I Only Have Eyes for You,” “The Very Thought of You,” “The Nearness of You.”
My listeners who married in the 1950s mentioned “True Love,” by Cole Porter, from the film High Society, the musical version of The Philadelphia Story. And “The Wonder of You,” by Baker Knight. He wrote it with Perry Como in mind, but it was recorded instead by Ray Peterson, and later by Elvis Presley and by the Platters.
Many baby boomers like me married in the 1970s. I opted for classical music at my (June) wedding, but other weddings I attended around that time included Paul Simon’s “Bridge over Troubled Water.” (I always wondered a bit about that choice.) Some of my contemporaries liked “Wedding Song,” also known as “There Is Love,” a modern hymn written in 1971 by Paul Stookey of the folk group Peter, Paul and Mary. The Carpenters’ “We’ve Only Just Begun” was also heard at a lot of ’70s weddings.
But the view of marriage even in the first half of the last century was not all hearts and flowers. Before he composed “Always” and “How Deep Is the Ocean,” Irving Berlin co-wrote the lyrics to “My Wife’s Gone to the Country (Hurrah! Hurrah!).” There’s a 1914 song titled “When You’re Wearing the Ball and Chain.” And consider “Shuffle Off to Buffalo” from Forty-Second Street (1932), which includes these cynical lines:
Matrimony is baloney
She’ll be wanting alimony
In a year or so…
I’m pretty sure that Roy—who dresses like he might have been a member of an outlaw motorcycle gang before moving to assisted living—would agree with that sentiment. When told of my interest in wedding songs he piped up, “Hey, I got one for ya: ‘You Ain’t Nothin’ But a Hound Dog.'”
Copyright © 2013 by Paulette Bochnig Sharkey
All rights reserved.