Sunday, October 4, 2009

The Donkey Serenade

A few days ago, around midnight, in my kitchen, I had an ecstatic, transcendent, truly heavenly experience, lasting more than two hours. No, it wasn't a wild, San Francisco sex orgy. In fact, I was all alone. Let me explain.

It was Saturday night and I had just come home from a delightful dinner at my friends, Howard and Garry's house. We had had great conversation all evening, and after dinner we talked enthusiastically for two more hours on a wide range of subjects from philosophy and music, to religion and politics – all seasoned, from time to time, with the spice of smutty, gay humor (it seems that all roads, somehow, eventually lead to sex, or at least to talking about sex.....). As I was leaving, I mentioned that I had just seen the Michael Feinstein documentary, The American Songbook, which tells the story of the great American song composers of the Thirties and Forties.

The documentary mentioned one composer I had never heard of, the immigrant, Rudolph Friml. There were accounts that he could sit at a piano for hours, effortlessly spinning out one gorgeous melody after another. And there was even a few seconds of what looked like a home movie showing the young, very buoyant composer performing at a keyboard and then jumping up from the piano-bench, acting a little silly and sweetly childlike.

Then it showed a clip from a 1938 Hollywood movie, The Firefly, for which Friml had composed the music. Suddenly I was electrified. It was a melody that I had occasionally heard snippets of when I was a very young child, back in the nineteen fifties. It was a melody that had mesmerized me then, and now came flooding back to my conscious mind.

Music is so mysterious. I don't know why that song had such an impact on me as a child. But it was like something haunting, that had somehow slipped through the cracks from another world. It was like a faint intimation of a more joyous and loving and simpler world. I never knew what the song was called, or what it was about, or where it came from. And perhaps that all added to it's mystery and dreaminess.

So, as I was leaving, I mentioned all this to my two hosts, and Garry, who is quite the musical theatre buff, asked me to sing the melody for him. Oh, he said, that's The Donkey Serenade. Great, I said, I can't wait to get home and Google it.

And that's why, at two a.m. in the morning I was dancing ecstatically, and with total abandon, around the kitchen table for the thirty seventh time. The music transported me. I was lost in a world of beauty. I had to hear it again, and again, and again. And when I finally, grudgingly, went upstairs to wash up for bed, I took the computer into the bathroom so I could hear it some more.

I had found the original movie soundtrack version. It's really a deceptively simple melody, but the arrangement is so brilliant and charming. It's built over a lazy, latin percussion rhythm, to imitate the sound of donkey's feet clomping along the road. In the movie, a young man, (Allan Jones), rides a horse alongside an elegant carriage being pulled by donkeys. As he rides along, the young man is serenading, and trying, without much luck, to gain the attention of the beautiful and stylish young lady inside (Jeanette MacDonald). On top of the carriage, sitting next to the driver (who is playing a guitar), is a little boy with a flute. These flute parts, as well as the little boy's squeaky and incredibly cute voice, are ingeniously woven into the arrangement, giving the whole piece a heart-breaking innocence and sincerity.

The internet is so funny. Not only had Google allowed me to find a cherished melody that had been lost to me since my earliest childhood, but I immediately, in the midst of my ecstasy, started emailing the link to friends all over the world. I just had to share my happiness with everyone.

I'm sure some of them thought I was completely crazy. Why is he sending me this scratchy, operetta-like song from a 1938 movie musical? And maybe you'll think I'm crazy too, but here's the links. You can hear the original song (without the visuals) at And I have not been able to find the full video clip of the scene (if you find it, PLEASE let me know), but you can see a very short snippet of the scene in the trailer for the movie (it's at 1:24 into the trailer) at