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16 February 2018


In most of the popular songs from the early days, composers wrote a Verse as well as a Chorus. But today, in the case of hundreds of these tunes, our jazz bands normally leave out the Verse and play only the Chorus. In fact, if anyone suggests playing the Verse, it usually turns out that only one or two members of the band actually know it.

Of course there are exceptions. For example, the Verse of Alexander's Ragtime Band is so much an integral part of the song that it is practically always played through, at least once. Chloe has a highly unusual spooky Verse in a minor key - well worth playing. The Verse of Everybody Loves My Baby is a good one, too, and leads perfectly into the Chorus. Exactly the same is true of I'm Gonna Meet My Sweetie Now, where the Verse is an important part of the narrative.

And the Verse of Put On Your Old Grey Bonnet is so good and substantial that it's a fine song, quite independent of the neat and merry Chorus. And - in case you don't know - I can tell you the Verse of Ice Cream, though rarely played, is very attractive. Peg o' My Heart has a pleasant 16-bar (8+8) Chorus based on the Four-Leaf Chord Progression; but to give your performance a bit of body you should also play the attractive Verse (which is also an 8 + 8)

I used to think we ought to make an effort to revive discarded Verses. So I started to seek them out, though it's often difficult these days even to get hold of the original music. Here is what I discovered: the Verses were often really dull compared with the popular and familiar Choruses! So perhaps it's no bad thing after all that so many Verses have been abandoned. Yes, it is astonishing but true that some great songs with good melodies that everybody loves actually had, in their original form, dull and forgettable Verses.

The reason why I am thinking about this matter of long-forgotten Verses is that my attention was drawn to When You're Smiling. That wonderful researcher and vintage music collector Audrey VanDyke shared the original sheet music of this song.

When You're Smiling (composed in 1928 by Mark Fisher, Joe Goodwin and Larry Shaye) is such a good song. Bands love it. Audiences love it (and often sing along); and the tune is easy to improvise upon.

Yet - be honest - do you have the faintest idea of its VERSE?

Well, thanks to Audrey, I can now tell you the Verse consists of 16 bars and the words are:
I saw a blind man.
He was a kind man
Helping a fellow along.
One could not see.
One could not walk.
But they both were humming this song:...
When you're smiling, etc.
The Verse is a kind of 'recitation' - the melody uses only five different notes. And whoever would have thought that When You're Smiling - as originally composed - is about two severely disabled people?
John Dixon of The Shotgun Jazz Band sent me these further comments:
Your post on missing verses, dead on. the Verses were often really dull compared with the popular and familiar Choruses! - too true. It’s the general reason we don’t play EVERY verse to every tune. Many times we’ll learn the verse and just realize it’s not very good. Same with lyrics. 'Poor Butterfly' is an outtake from the latest record and at first I wanted to do it with the lyrics but they are SO cheesy and hamfisted. Same with many verses. It’s an ongoing joke, actually… We’ll call a tune and someone will say “Know the verse?” and Tyler and I will break out in a super schmaltzy verse that’s always the same.
I received the following comments from James Buck - a friend and regular reader who lives in the South of England:
I was told by an old dance band musician, some dozen years ago, that in the 'dance hall days', when he was playing regularly. "The bands missed out the verses because they were often in different keys and tempos, from the choruses.  This was too much for most dancers to cope with, so they stopped dancing.  So the bands just dropped the verses!"    
I can not check with him, as he has long since died.  He being in his late 80's when he told me this.

This, as well as your comments, is another reason for the verses no longer being played.   In my mind the verse often gives another meaning to a chorus, as in "Pennies from Heaven".


The book Enjoying Traditional Jazz by Pops Coffee is available from Amazon: