Do you believe in magic?

One of my favorite memories from last summer involves a couple of amiable millennials: my daughter, Jessa, and her cousin Zoë. On a warm August evening, as we relaxed and chatted on the patio after dinner, darkness descended and the fireflies appeared.

Thanks to having a scientist for a dad, Jessa understands it’s bioluminescence—not magic—that makes fireflies glow. Knowing the facts never seemed to diminish her delight chasing fireflies 25 years ago, in a Madison, Wisconsin neighborhood where kids still played kick the can and capture the flag. Zoë grew up in California. Fireflies are rare in the Golden State, and the ones that are there tend to be a non-bioluminescent species.

Science aside, the evening held a bit of magic for me, watching the grown-up cousins enjoy a slice of Midwest childhood. They caught a few fireflies in a jar to have a closer look, then let them go.

About now you’re probably expecting me to get to my musical point. I do have one. Two, actually.

The first is Tony Bennett’s 1958 hit single “Firefly,” by Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh. Fun, jazzy. See for yourself:

Better known is “Glow Worm.” The Mills Brothers’ version topped the charts in December 1952, but the song actually dates from 1902, when German composer Paul Lincke wrote “Glühwürmchen.” Decades later, the Mills Brothers heard it. They loved the melody but weren’t crazy about Lilla Cayley Robinson’s old-fashioned lyrics:

Lead us lest too far we wander,
Love’s sweet voice is calling yonder…

They called in Johnny Mercer to write new lyrics. His signature wordplay made the song, well, hep, to use vocabulary you see only in crossword puzzles these days:

Glow little glow worm, turn the key on,
You are equipped with tail light neon…

When the Mills Brothers recorded and performed “Glow Worm,” they kept some of the original words at the beginning, then moved into Johnny Mercer territory. Telling the difference is easy. Mercer’s irrepressible lyric-writing skills shine here. Like he says, “When you gotta glow, you gotta glow.”

Copyright © 2014 by Paulette Bochnig Sharkey
All rights reserved.


This entry was posted in Music history, Reminiscences, Songwriters and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Do you believe in magic?

  1. Judie says:

    At dusk, hundreds of fireflies gather by the creek on Bruce ‘s farm. It is magical

  2. Jessa says:

    We read your post this morning 🙂 Jim printed it out. I still think a childhood without fireflies is a wasted childhood, haha. But, children will always find magic in something. And, when luck is on our side, adults may happen upon fantastic things as well 🙂 Now check your email!

    • Jessa says:

      Here is something I wrote in 2009, echoing your sentiments exactly.

      “Fourth of July is my favorite of all our various holidays. Every year, I long to see those colors rip through the blue-black skies at musically timed intervals as I sit by the water with beer, friends and massive amounts of sparklers and screaming bottle rockets. Unfortunately, San Francisco just doesn’t know how to do it correctly. It’s not their fault though. It is really too cold to want to be patriotic after sundown. Furthermore, San Franciscans don’t grow up with the magic of fireflies flitting around them as they feel the crack of the sparkling explosions deep in their rib cages.

      I remember running after the ephemeral bugs, crazed and giggling across our lush midwestern lawns. The true green of the fescue glinting under street lamps, only to be trampled by our callused feet. These calluses were earned. Much playtime went into the development of the armour that would allow me to run on hot pavement at the pool, grip stones set precariously into the school creek and pedal madly from my pink banana seat. I lived on a street where block parties existed, kick-the-can was played nightly and sugar was passed between neighbors with pleasure. When one is raised in this environment, how could it be possible to not love America and all it stands for?”

      • Thank you for sharing your memories of a Midwest childhood, Jessa. It makes me happy to know you look back fondly on Wisconsin summers. They sure beat the winters!

  3. June ritchie says:

    One of my memories is going night crawler hunting with gramp! Did he ever take you.? I thought that was great fun being out after dark with our flashlights racing across the wet lawn in our bare feet. Big contest to see who would capture the most bait, wow I wonder if anyone ever does that now? I guess we were easily intertained!!

  4. Sandy Shores says:

    Your blogs always bring back fond memories. I recall both songs! Miss seeing you and talking to you since our Combo group has dispersed.

  5. Me, too. And being in the Silvertones gave me the chance to play a lot of great old music that just doesn’t work for a pianist playing solo!

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