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Washington Lawyer

Legal Spectator: Will and Last Testament With a Music in the Mix

From Washington Lawyer, December 2013

By Jacob A. Stein

spectatorWith the exception of “Easter Parade” and “White Christmas,” Irving Berlin’s songs are rarely played. Berlin (1888–1989) was one of the few popular songwriters in the 20s, 30s, and 40s who wrote both the words and music. George M. Cohan (1878–1942) was another and so was Cole Porter (1891–1964).

I thought of this as I read an old clipping that appeared in a 1916 New York Times column reporting on a conversation between Berlin and Wilson Mizner (1876–1933). Mizner told Berlin a story about a will that the former thought would make a good lyric for Berlin. A penniless Chicago lawyer, so it seems, devised in his will and last testament that those who survive him shall receive wonderful, priceless things such as the sunshine and flowers in the springtime. Berlin said it sounded good and he would look into it. Berlin found that there was a lawyer, Charles Lounsbury, whose will it was.

Berlin used the will as the lyrics along with the music. He named it “When I Leave the World Behind:”

I’ll leave the sunshine to the flowers,
I’ll leave the springtime to the trees;

And to the old folks, I’ll leave the mem’ries
Of a baby upon their knees.

I’ll leave the nighttime to the dreamers,
I’ll leave the songbirds to the blind;

I’ll leave the moon above
To those in love
When I leave the world behind.

Al Jolson (1886–1950) recorded the song. It was a big hit. Pull it up on YouTube where you can see Jolson sing the song.

Cohan, in the early days of the 20th century, was the Prince of the Theatre, the Yankee Doodle Dandy. Cohan wrote his own songs, the words and music. He also wrote musical comedies and straight plays.

One day while in a sullen mood, probably because the Actors Union was demanding a contract, Cohan sat down at his piano (he played by ear) and put words to a song titled “Life’s a Funny Proposition After All:”

Life’s a very funny proposition after all,
Imagination, jealousy, hypocrisy and all.
Three meals a day, a whole lot to say;
When you haven’t got the coin you’re always in the way.
Ev’rybody’s fighting as we wend our way along,
Ev’ry fellow claims the other fellow’s in the wrong;
Hurried and worried until we’re buried and there’s no curtain call.
Life’s a very funny proposition after all.

Again, you might hear Cohan singing his song on YouTube.

Now back to Mizner. In the 1930s, he wrote plays in New York and screenplays in Hollywood. His brother, Addison, was the architect who gave that special Spanish touch to the houses and buildings in Boca Raton, Florida. There are three biographies of Wilson Mizner recounting the ups and downs of a life displaying all his questionable talents.

Mizner’s wisecracks can be found in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations and other quotation books. Here are samples:

  • Stealing from one is plagiarism, stealing from many is research.
  • I want a priest, a rabbi, and a Protestant minister. I want to hedge my bets.
  • You can’t be a rascal for 40 years and then cop a plea the last minute. God keeps better books than that.

Porter was another songwriter whose songs were his own words and music. He graduated from Yale and entered Harvard Law School. He quickly understood that he was not the type to be a lawyer. He made the right choice. His songs had a winning style that satirized the upper class, songs such as “You’re the Top.”

Lawyers and judges have not had much success writing songs, but they have had some success in writing poetry. Judge Wendell Stafford, a local judge, liked to write poetry. Judge Stafford was appointed in 1904 to the Supreme Court of the District, later the federal court. He served here for 27 years. He wrote several books of poems. Here is one of the best:
                
The Courthouse

This is that theater the muse loves best.
All dramas ever dreamed are acted here.
The roles are one in earnest, none in jest.
Hero and dupe and villain all appear.
Here falsehood skulks behind an honest mask.
And witless truth lets fall a saving word,
As the blind goddess tends her patient task
And in the hush the shears of fate are heard.
Here the slow-shod avengers keep their dates;
Here innocence uncoils her snow-white bloom;
From here the untrapped swindle walks elate,
And stolid murder goes to meet his doom.

There must be a lawyer around here who can sit down at the piano and play by ear, just as Berlin, Cohan, and Porter did.

Reach Jacob A. Stein at jstein@steinmitchell.com.