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
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