My audiences like “Aura Lee,” a delicate melody composed in 1861 by George Poulton, with lyrics by WW Fosdick. It was first used in minstrel shows, but with the start of the Civil War became a favorite of the troops on both sides. Then an 1865 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy wrote new words to replace the story of the beautiful young woman with golden hair, transforming “Aura Lee” into the West Point class song “Army Blue.”
My elderly listeners have little interest in Elvis Presley songs, so I wonder if they know about another reinvention of “Aura Lee.”
In 1956, Elvis Presley was contracted to his first movie role. The film’s music director, Ken Darby, re-used the melody from “Aura Lee” (by then in the public domain) to create a title song for Presley, “Love Me Tender.” Several of Presley’s other hits resulted from this kind of borrowing, including “It’s Now or Never,” based on the 1898 Italian song “O Sole Mio.”
From Civil War ballad to trainee soldier song to Elvis hit, “Aura Lee” has endured. When my husband hears the tune, yet another set of lyrics runs through his mind. Blame Allan Sherman.
Sherman was a comedy writer best known for his song parodies in the early 1960s. His most famous hit single, “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah,” was based on letters that one of his sons sent home from camp. Sherman set his words to a classical piece, Ponchielli’s “Dance of the Hours”:
Hello Muddah, hello Faddah,
Here I am at Camp Grenada
Camp is very entertaining
And they say we’ll have some fun if it stops raining.
I went hiking with Joe Spivy
He developed poison ivy
You remember Leonard Skinner
He got ptomaine poisoning last night after dinner.
All the counselors hate the waiters
And the lake has alligators
And the head coach wants no sissies
So he reads to us from something called Ulysses…
There were many other clever Sherman parodies: “Won’t You Come Home, Disraeli” (“Won’t You Come Home, Bill Bailey”); “One Hippopotami” (“What Kind of Fool Am I?”); “I See Bones” (“C’est Si Bon”).
But the one that plays in my husband’s head when he hears “Aura Lee”—thanks to a 1963 Allan Sherman album his parents had when he was growing up—is this:
Every time you take vaccine,
Take it orally.
As you know the other way,
Is more painfully.
Who else but Allan Sherman would write an ode to the polio vaccine? He found musical inspiration in unexpected and unlikely places. And for some of us, “Aura Lee” will never be the same.
Copyright © 2013 by Paulette Bochnig Sharkey
All rights reserved.