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28 September 2017

Post 552: BUNK JOHNSON AND THE 'BLUE BELLS GOODBYE' MYSTERY

Among the many tunes recorded by Bunk Johnson in the early 1940s, one of the favourites was Blue Bells Goodbye (available on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-nGE7W-R0A4). Its appeal is easy to understand, because, following its leisurely 16-bar Verse, the Chorus breaks into 2/4 time and offers a pleasant, simple 32-bar melody.
The tune achieved even wider popularity when it was taken up by revivalists, such as the bands of Ken Colyer and Papa Bue. The first version I came across (nearly sixty years ago) was the Ken Colyer recording, which you can listen to BY CLICKING HERE.

But where did this tune come from? Bunk claimed to have recalled it from his youth. But nobody could find any evidence of a  'Blue Bells Goodbye' before his recording.

Some fans who idolised him believed that Bunk himself had composed it. Others speculated that it could have been a march dating back to the American Civil War.

Well, here is the solution to the mystery. In 1905, Egbert Van Alstyne composed a tune called Bright Eyes Goodbye. Words were provided by Harry H. Williams.

Sure enough, it has the same melodies as Bunk's tune, and the same 32-bar up-tempo Chorus preceded by the leisurely 16-bar Verse.

Our jazz bands still go on playing it as Blue Bells Goodbye. Perhaps we ought to correct the mistake and begin calling it Bright Eyes Goodbye. But titles get changed in the evolution of jazz, so would it be better to leave it with Bunk's title?

We can excuse Bunk for getting the title slightly wrong. He probably had a much better memory of the tune than of its title.

Here's the original sheet music. You can see that it's the tune in question all right. The Verse is virtually identical to what Bunk plays. The Chorus is almost so, especially at the start, though he seems to have tweaked a few of the later notes. The probable reason for this is that Bunk was further confused by memories of a song called 'Blue Bell' (not 'Blue Bells Goodbye') that had been composed in 1904 by Theodore F. Morse, with lyrics by Edward Madden. Its structure is remarkably similar to that of 'Bright Eyes, Goodbye'.

My good friend Todd Brown has not only offered me his own analysis of this matter (see foot of this post). He has also recorded 'Blue Bell' on his guitar, and you can watch his performance on YouTube BY CLICKING HERE.

Here are Todd Brown's perceptive comments: My guess is that Bunk was conflating "Bright Eyes Goodbye" with another song, known as "Blue Bell" or "Goodbye My Blue Bell" (music by Theodore F. Morse, lyrics by Edward Madden.) Like "Bright Eyes," "Blue Bell" has a lyric that begins with a soldier bidding goodbye to his sweetheart and telling her not to cry; unlike "Bright Eyes," it ends sadly, as we learn in the second verse that the soldier has died in battle, so the two will never be reunited. Interestingly, "Blue Bell" was published in 1904, while "Bright Eyes" was published in 1905. This suggests to me that "Blue Bell" came first and "Bright Eyes" was a sort of "answer song" written in response to it. (Lyrically, the first verse of "Bright Eyes" is remarkably close to "Blue Bell," and the phrase "I'll return true as blue" may have been included in the chorus as a nod to the earlier song.) Bunk Johnson had probably heard both songs and got the titles a little mixed up.
Incidentally, these days "Blue Bell" seems to be best known from an instrumental version by the American guitarist Merle Travis; the title is often rendered, incorrectly, as "Blue Belle" or "Farewell My Blue Belle." I suspect that's because here in the States, most people assume that the setting is the American Civil War and that the title refers to the young lady as a blue (i.e., sad) "southern belle." Given the spelling on the sheet music, I think we are actually meant to assume that the soldier calls his sweetheart "Blue Bell" because her "eyes so blue" remind him of the flower known as a blue bell.