I am about to fail at that.
This post is in response to a question. I am teaching a class about music for swing dancers this month. I intended to stick to basic, helpful topics about which almost no one could disagree. But... One person asked "Why do dancers love this one song so much." I thought it was a great question, and I promised to try to answer.
There are at least two problems. One is familiar to anyone who has read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The other is that I don't like this song. I mean, I don't hate the song itself. It's kind of cute and catchy, but it's no great song. And I don't hate the recording that I hear at dances all the time, but I hate hearing it at dances all the time, and I don't like to dance to it.
But the second problem (me not liking it) actually makes the question very interesting. It's a real challenge to lay aside one's feelings and try to understand why other people like something. In trying, I am learning a lot.
The song in question is "I Like Pie, I Like Cake."
By Little, Sizemore, and Shay. It took three people to write this.
I've known it for a long time from the 1925 Goofus Five version, which is no great work of genius, but pretty good. (It uses a whole different bag of tricks from the version I will be discussing, and is musically more interesting.) I now know that there are a few other versions from the 20s, and one version from the 40s that is actually kind of appealing. But it's still a dumb song, and it was never well-known, as evidenced by how (relatively) few recordings were made. However, a few years ago the song was brought into the Lindy scene by Gordon Webster, a favorite musician among Lindy hoppers all over. It is his version that I've heard at many dances. Even so, I never realized the widespread affection dancers had for it. This, to my surprise, is a beloved song to many:
So, the question is: Why?
Let's look at the song. It's a 16 bar structure. That's a little unusual. Swing music most commonly has a 32 bar structure. Does that matter? Yes, I think it does. It makes it simpler and more repetitive. Instead of an AABA structure, where each letter represents 8 bars, it's more like AA. To me, this makes it boring, and when it's stretched out to five minutes or more it seems endless. But endless to one person can be groovy or hypnotic to another. How do you write a hit song? Making it repetitive is not a bad place to start.
Next, the melody. It is seriously one of the most repetitive and least interesting melodies you could write. It starts with a pickup on the 5th and 6th notes of the scale, and it jumps up to the tonic. (A pickup is when the melody starts a few beats before the chorus that it is part of. The pickup leads us to the first real note of the melody.) In this case, that first note is the tonic. This is unusual because the tonic is the note that we want to return to. For that reason, songs usually avoid it for awhile, so that when we finally arrive there, it feels like a satisfying resolution to the melodic journey. Here, no journey. Instant gratification. In that way, it's as close to a one-note song as you would want to write.
That tonic note is drawn out, and sits on top of beat one, which is a very strong place. However, it starts on the "and" before the beat. This adds interest for a dancer, and creates a feeling of drive, by displacing this rather predictable event to occur slightly before the beat. (Gordon Webster's version treats this rhythm loosely, and loses most of the effect. It is clearer in the 1925 version. Gordon's version sounds less syncopated, also tending to treat the 8th notes and syncopated quarter notes as straight quarter notes.) What happens after that? The same thing, but instead of jumping up to the tonic, it jumps down to the tonic an octave lower. Surprise! But the surprise is no surprise at all, it's still the tonic. The best of both worlds, surprise and comfort.
Did I say something about repetition? There are 14 lyrical phrases in this song. This 5-6-1 melody accounts for 11 of them. About 80% of this song (depending whether you count phrases or beats) is the same three note phrase. There is just enough variation to give it some form. This song is like something you would sing in kindergarten. Is that bad? No. To me, it's boring, but it makes it a song that you can't get out of your head. That is basically the definition of a hit, right?
(Some other dumb or repetitive songs you might remember: Da Da Da, De Do Do Do, Tom's Diner. You remember these songs because they're musically dumb, but they're lyrically better than I Like Pie.)
Meanwhile, there are places where the melody repeats, but the chords underlying it change. Like the surprise/no surprise, this is a good trick. We can latch on to that melody which just repeats over and over, but the context keeps changing. Re-contextualizing the melody by changing the chord that accompanies it adds some interest for the listener, but at a sort of subconcious level. It makes the notes in the melody sound different because they are functioning differently in relation to the chord, yet they are not different, so the listener (or singer) is in no danger of getting lost.
And that, basically, is the song. There's almost nothing to it, and it's catchy probably because of that.
But wait, there are lyrics too!
Here is the first chorus:
I like pie, I like cake
Anything that they bake
I like crackers too, broken up in a stew
When I see jellyroll I lose all my control
But of all those things I like you best of all
There are also verses, and a second chorus, but those aren't used in the Gordon Webster version, so I'm not going to talk about them. (Using only the one chorus is a smart move. The theme here is: simple is catchy!) Anyway, take a look at those lyrics. They're like the melody. Dumb, simple, but appealing. I like pie and cake and stew and I like liking people. All good stuff!
So that's the song. But a song is nothing on its own. Let's look at the performance by Gordon Webster. First, let's notice that the lyrics are subtly changed from the original:
I like pie, I like cake,
I like anything you bake
I like your crackers too, crumbled up in chicken stew
When I see your jellyroll, mama I lose my self-control
Oh, honey, that's all I've been askin'- oh, for more! (Sometimes this line is as in the original)
So, what happened here? It's effective. It has become more personal. Now it's anything you bake. Now it isn't just that pies and cakes are baked by people in the world, it is someone I'm talking to. Maybe this person is baking just for me. Next, not just any crackers, but YOUR crackers. Then the stew becomes more specific, too. This helps us identify with the singer at each line. Finally, jellyroll. In the original, this might have referred to a cake. Now, the alternative meaning is clearer. I am sadly certain that this double-entendre is part of why people love this song. The singer sometimes reinforces the impact of this with the newly-created "asking for more" line.
Now let's talk about how the song sounds. In a word: good. It's well played, and nicely sung. There is nothing to complain about here. It's got a nice groove, a solid beat, and the singer puts a lot of personality into it. The solos are well-played, with a good balance between surprise and expectation. They are lively but not far-out. It's all fun and appealing. It doesn't move me emotionally, but it's good music.
Next, let's look at the structure of the song.
The song starts off gently with 8 bars of guitar that might even make you feel a little sophisticated. Next, 8 bars of piano, with the drums and bass sneaking in quietly and then asserting themselves. It's a nice introduction. More importantly, it builds the energy in a gradual and controlled, yet obvious, way. The only problem I hear is the dancers clapping. I wish dancers would stop doing that, but in this case I am almost certain that the band encouraged them to. This is another smart move by the band, because it builds energy and connection between the band and the dancers. This energy will come through on the recording, whereas the clapping won't once the band gets going.
Next, one chorus of vocals, with a nice energy. After that, another chorus, the same but this time the band is singing the tune straight and the lead singer is really playing with the rhythm. This is a really nice effect, and sure to appeal to dancers. This sort of rhythmic displacement is great fun to dance to, but having the straight melody there underneath keeps one from getting lost. Very smart.
Next, an ensemble chorus from the horns. They are playing here in a traditional New Orleans type of collective improvisation, but they are holding back a bit. This is another smart move. This is a sure way to build energy and excitement, but they keep the texture clean and uncluttered, and they keep the energy moderate so they still have somewhere to go.
Next, a one-chorus solo from the trumpet, one from the trombone, another from muted trumpet, and one from the sax. All very nice. (All of these solos benefit from the 16 bar structure; no worries about how to divide a chorus to keep the solos from getting too long, no need for a lot of ideas to fill a longer solo.)
Next, vocals again. Same as before, but a little more energy. A reminder of where we started.
Next vocals again. But this time, the dancers are asked to sing along. We can't hear them much on the recording, but what we can hear is some nice backbeats from the drummer. That always adds to the energy and motivates the dancers.
Next, that same thing again. But this time the singer really wants those dancers to sing. It's exciting to hear how he urges them on. Yeah!
Next, more singalong. But now we add collective improvisation from the horns, a little freer than earlier. The backbeats return and they're more assertive. This is really getting exciting.
Next, the same thing again. But louder! The horn players are perhaps pushing the beat a little. The energy is really building to a peak now!
Next, big exciting ending! All kinds of stuff going on here. You've heard it a million times, but that's because it works.
Ok, that was a lot, but I wanted to point out two things. First, the band is extremely smart about how they continually build the energy throughout the song. Secondly, that's a lot of choruses. We already saw how repetitive the melody is. In this recording, there are 14 choruses, if you include the introduction. That's a lot. This is another smart move; the short structure of the song allows it to repeat twice as many times as a usual 32 bar song would, and that repetition can make it catchy/groovy. One of those choruses is the introduction and 5 are instrumental. That leaves 8 repetitions of the lyrics and melody. That's about 6 more than usual. It also means we hear that three note phrase about 88 times.
That's my analysis, but you're probably still asking why dancers like this song, and why I don't.
I don't like this song because, although it's an energetic performance, it's a boring song, as I explained above. I additionally don't like this song because I hear it played a lot. I'm tired of it. Finally, I don't like this song because it isn't the kind of swing music I like to dance to.
Why do other people like it? Basically the same reasons.
It's got a good energy and it's repetitive. That's a good recipe for a hit.
It gets played a lot. This is a major reason. People love familiarity. Many dancers love dancing to recordings they know well. You can really express the song when you have heard it many times. I personally don't like to hear the same recordings all the time, because I am used to dancing to live music and I want to be surprised. But, not everyone feels this way. It depends what you want from dancing.
However, there is more to it than that. Why did it start getting played so much? Well, partly because dancers love Gordon Webster and he features this song. Also, the vocalist on this recording is Steven Mitchell, who is an almost legendary dance teacher. (Yes, I will deal with this. See the end). Many dancers love this song because they associate it with two people who have been a big part of their dance experience. Additionally, it may remind them of an event they went to where Gordon played this and had all the dancers singing along; a strong memory of a great time. Other dancers may not know much about Gordon or Steven, but they hear the song a lot. See above about familiarity. The swing era - and every era - produced a lot of similarly dumb songs. Only some of them became hits. The extra ingredient that makes a hit is often the adoption of the song by a popular personality.
Finally, there is the question of how the song works for dancing. Here I feel I must be a little careful about what I say. I would say that this song is more rock than swing. Perhaps that sounds strange, but there is a strong relationship between the two. From the 40s into the 50s, jump blues developed out of big band swing. This evolved into rock and roll. The line between the two can be very blurry, and depends greatly on how one defines "swing music." I feel that the basic feeling and beat of this song borrows a little from swing but it leans more toward rock and roll, with a gospel flavor. It's more Ray Charles than Benny Goodman. Now, there are certainly people who would say this is a fault, but I'm not one of them. It is what it is. It's played well, and it's good dance music. Is it swing music? Well, no, not really. Does that matter? That is a matter of opinion. I will say that when I dj for Lindy Hoppers I often throw in some rock and roll, and it is always popular. It is fun and easy to dance to, and I'm not going to say it's wrong to Lindy Hop to it. I think it should be limited to one or two songs a night, but that's not the question here. There are also elements of gospel in this version, and that is also something that I notice is immensely popular with dancers. I personally will not play gospel for dancing, because I have worked on gospel shows and I know how offended many gospel musicians would be, but I hear a lot of it from other djs.
So that's my theory of why this song makes people want to dance: simple, repetitive, good energy, well played, nice solid beat, and presented with personality by a big figure in the dance scene. The tempo is a big factor, too. 160 bpm is a can't-go-wrong tempo for Lindy hoppers. It's no wonder people love it. And I still hate it.
What do you think?
[Addendum: I too like many dumb repetitive songs. Just not this one. I do not claim that my taste is more sophisticated!]
Regarding Steven Mitchell:
Here, I regrettably have to acknowledge the situation with Steven Mitchell. I have never met the man and I don't know much about him, but I've certainly heard his name a lot over the years. He has recently been accused of a series of sexual assaults. I have not kept up with the details of the situation, but he has acknowledged the truth of the accusations. Before writing this post, I did not know that he sang this song, or that he sang at all. I have to say that hearing him sing this song, with these lyrics, and with the tone he adopts... is creepy as hell. This song and the way he presents it is like a distillation of how he used his place in the dance scene and his apparently magnetic personality to victimize young women. Could we stop playing it now?