Old Devil Moon

Old Devil Moon / Vincent Herring

Stars in the night
Blazing their light
Can’t hold a candle
To your razzle-dazzle

One of the most haunting pieces of music in modern times was written for the Broadway production of the musical Finian’s Rainbow with lyrics by E.Y. Harburg and music by Burton Lane. The original 1947 production ran for 725 performances performance. Francis Ford Coppola did a film version in 1968.

The play opens in Rainbow Valley, Missitucky (a fictitious blend of Mississippi and Kentucky) near Fort Knox, home of a mixture of black and white tobacco sharecroppers. The local sheriff and the front man for local senator demand the locals pay their taxes or else have their land auctioned off. 

The sharecroppers want to wait for Woody Mahoney, their union leader. The Sheriff begins the auction, but the sharecroppers refuse to listen and drag him and Collins off to meet. As they leave, an elderly Irishman called Finian McLonergan arrives with his daughter Sharon. They have come looking for Rainbow Valley, but Sharon misses their home in Ireland.

Finian explains to Sharon that American millionaires convert their wealth into gold and bury it near Fort Knox. He concludes it is the soil in Fort Knox that makes the USA rich and reveals that he has a crock of gold stolen from a leprechaun named Og, which he intends to bury. Woody and the sharecroppers reenter, and when Woody doesn’t have enough money to pay the interest on the taxes, Finian pays the rest. Finian and Sharon are welcomed by the sharecroppers. 

That night, Finian buries the gold and marks the spot, only to be met by Og. Without his gold, Og is slowly becoming mortal, and needs it back. Sharon and Woody come looking for Finian, but are soon distracted by the moonlight and each other. Woody sings “Old Devil Moon” to Sharon.

* * *

In Max Wilk’s book They’re Playing Our Song,  lyricist Yip Harburg tells the story behind “Old Devil Moon.” Friend and composer Harold Arlen came to Harburg’s house one night and Yip played him the score that he’d written with Burton Lane for Finian’s Rainbow. Arlen pointed out one song that he thought was weak. Yip said, “So, I had Burt play him a tune he’d been fooling around with. It was to be ‘Old Devil Moon,’ though it had another lyric; we’d written it for a movie, but never used it.” Arlen praised the song, so Harburg tossed out the first lyric. “I started looking for an idea, something that had to do with witchcraft, something eerie, with overtones of voodoo. Eventually it became ‘Old Devil Moon.’ Strangely constructed. It doesn’t have a verse, and it isn’t the ordinary thirty-two-bar song at all, but it became very popular. That’s what made it a great song – it was original.”

In his book American Popular Song, Alec Wilder says that the opening measures of “Old Devil Moon” would have been surprising for 1947 when modal writing was less common. “To move from a whole note f to a repeated e flat in the second measure had to come as a great surprise.” He calls the song an example of “splendid writing” with a number of interesting elements. “One is the very adroit control of repeated notes, which, though a characteristic of the song, are never used to the point of monotony. Another is the dangerous but in this case successful use of the mixolydian mode, in which the seventh interval is a half tone below its usual position.”

* * *

The song “Old Devil Moon” has been one of the most recorded songs in history. The version above is probably the latest version of the song, recorded by jazz artist Vincent Herring on his April 2021 album Preaching to the Choir. It interprets the song with a hard-moving bop influenced beat, sounding very similar to the beat of the piece “Killer Joe.” A few leading artists who’ve given their interpretation to the song are Miles Davis and Sarah Vaughan (1954), Frank Sinatra (1956), McCoy Tyner (1962), Lena Horne (1963) and Bobby Hutcherson (2007).

In my opionion, the best vocal interpretation of the song is below from the 1968 movie Finian’s Rainbox by Francis Ford Coppola. In the scene, Don Francks sings “Old Devil Moon” to Petula Clark.

See here a moving version of “Old Devil Moon” performed from the play Finian’s Rainbow by Broadway actors Cheyenne Jackson and Kate Baldwin.

_________________________

Lyrics

I looked at you and suddenly
Something in your eyes I see
Soon begins bewitching me

It’s that old devil moon
That you stole from the skies
It’s that old devil moon in your eyes

You and your glance makes this romance too hot to handle
Stars in the night blazin’ their light can’t hold a candle
To your razzle dazzle you’ve got me flyin’ high and wide
On a magic carpet ride
Full of butterflies inside
Wanna cry, wanna croon
Wanna laugh like a loon
It’s that old devil moon in your eyes

Just when I think I’m free as a dove
Old devil moon deep in your eyes
Blinds me with love

You’ve got me flyin’ high and wide
On a magic carpet ride
Full of butterflies inside
Wanna cry, wanna croon
Wanna laugh like a loon
It’s that old devil moon in your eyes

Just when I think I’m free as a dove
Old devil moon deep in your eyes
Blinds me with love

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