Behind the Song Old Devil Moon / John Fraim
The moon is the subject to great thoughts throughout history. The most magnificent and prominent object in the heavens for mankind. It has served as a symbol in myth, films, literature, paintings. Perhaps one of the greatest background symbols that can appear within a particular scene. The moon appears in various guises through the short collection of moon images. It’s interesting how the word “devil” got into the title of the song.
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.” The song you hear is the result of what started that night. It is sung by Dan Francks to Petula Clark in Finian’s Rainbow which opened in 1968.
So interesting how often great music is created through little more than chance or synchronicity. Like “Old Devil Moon.” Like the film Citizen Kane. Like The Red Badge of Courage. Like thousands of famous works of art. Created by little more than chance. Not always planned out. Sometimes just probing something else and discovering something the musician, artist, was not necessarily looking for.
Through the images in the film, the moon appears in various guises during the song. The witchcraft element Harburg pitched to Lane begins with the first image we see. A great evil witch on a broomstick against a moon. The moon caught in various images through the four-minute song. There is the moon over Los Angeles with the vast network of LA lights below it fading into the horizon. A nod to my hometown of LA. There is the famous moon over Hernandez, Mexico in the black and white photo, probably the most famous photo of Ansel Adams. There is the moon in various animated films. It gains a certain mythological presence in these films. There is the moon created by a ping pong ball with an LED light inside and placed on the top of plaster makeshift mountains I created and photographed from a diorama I made. The 30″ x 40″ photo of the diorama is printed on canvas and framed and sits above me on the wall behind my computer on my desk.
There is the moon represented in the Tarot deck. There is the moon over couples in love. Certainly, it symbolizes romance. There is the moon positioned in over nature. Over forests. Seas. Farmlands and prairies. Over an American suburb in the evening (taken with my drone looking over at the neighborhood from a few hundred feet up). There is the moon over couples in love. Certainly, it symbolizes romance. There is the moon positioned in over nature. Over forests. Seas. Farmlands and prairies. Over an American suburb in the evening (taken with my drone looking over at the neighborhood from a few hundred feet up).
Just as the music of “Old Devil Moon” winds down, there is a slow pan upward until we see the moon featured in perhaps the greatest image of the moon in modern times. The greatest image for a particular generation. An image imprinted into millions. Perhaps billions. The greatest movie image of modern times played out against the moon.
See our post “Old Devil Moon” with the song lyrics and Vincent Herring’s version of the song.