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Fran Landesman and the Sad Songs of Spring


by Con Chapman


When the hounds of spring are on winter's traces,” wrote Swinburne, “The mother of months in meadow or plain/Fills the shadows and windy places/With lisp of leaves and ripple of rain”? And who are you or I to gainsay that sentiment, however loaded it may be with hissing sibilants and fricking frickatives?

But those lines, depicted tongue-in-cheek by James Thurber, give no hint of an answer to a more troubling question that arises this time of year: Why are the best of songs about spring—sad?


Swinburne: “Konked,” as Lou Rawls would say, “to the bone.”

It's that time of year. In spring, we ought to be happy; winter is over, and spring, so long longed for, is here. Perhaps the much-awaited fulfillment of a fervent wish is bound to disappoint.

In spring, as e.e. cummings put it,

when the world is mud-
luscious the little lame baloonman whistles far and wee.

A “little lame balloon man”—pretty sad, if you ask me, but you didn't.

When we sing of spring, we tend—unless we're idiots humming “Here Comes Peter Cottontail”—to sing sadly.


Fran Landesman

Like “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most”—lyrics by Fran Landesman, music by Tommy Wolf.

It is the anti-spring song, one for those who once threw their hearts away each spring, but who now say a “spring romance hasn't got a chance.”  There is a fine version by Ella Fitzgerald, among others.

Landesman has the look of a woman for whom lines of regret such as

Spring this year has got me feeling
like a horse that never left the post.
I lie in my room staring up at the ceiling.
Spring can really hang you up the most

were more than an exercise in poesy; someone who was a lot of fun, but who may have waited for some calls that never came as men chose other leggier, prettier girls for—as Cleveland Amory said of a young man from Boston backed by a long-winded reference—breeding purposes. She was called “the Dorothy Parker of jazz,” and many assumed (including me) that she'd been disappointed in love because of her acerbic lyrics.


Ella Fitzgerald

That view, as it turns out, couldn't have been more wrong. Landesman was happily married for six decades to her husband Jay, publisher of the beat journal Neurotica, and yet he allowed her a wide latitude in romantic affairs. While there's no registry or clerk's office in which to record extramarital acts and deeds, it is widely assumed that Landesman was a lover to, among others, both Jack Kerouac, whom she called the handsomest man she ever met, and Lenny Bruce, who proposed to her. “Let's you and me go on the road,” Bruce wrote to her, “and send Jay a little money every month.”

She described her relationship with her husband in the poem “Semi-Detached”:

We each have a side that's as free as the air,
And people don't see the side that we share.
Our set-up is sweet. There isn't a catch,
The secret is living semi-detached.

“Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most” was a play on T.S. Eliot's line “April is the cruellest month” from The Waste Land, and was apparently part of a high-brow self-deprecating trend among the beatniks to lampoon themselves by re-casting classics such as Shakespeare into hip argot. (Are today's hipsters in Brooklyn or elsewhere doing anything similar, or even capable of it?) It was first performed, along with “The Ballad of the Sad Young Men,” in a musical developed from Jay's unpublished novel about the beat scene in New York, “The Nervous Set.” The show was a huge success in St. Louis, but closed after three weeks when it moved to New York. A half-century later, though, “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most” is still being performed.

Happy or ecstatic as Landesman may have been with her love life, when she featured it in her work she tended to shine a melancholy light on it; she titled two collections of her poetry Scars and Stripes and How Was It for You? Freed from the convention of monogamy, she may have found pleasure but not necessarily fulfillment.

At the end of her life her sight failed, but she continued to perform her poetry—in a half spoken, half sung fashion all her own—from memory.

The woman who was sometimes called “the godmother of hip” died in July of 2011 at the age of 83, five months after her husband.

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