On Not Knowing: Innocence, Dearie

by Emily Ogden

Blossom Dearie: incredibly, it was her legal name. The pianist and jazz singer was born Margrethe Blossom Dearie in 1924; all she had to do to get her stage name was to drop the Margrethe. The name perhaps overdetermines the voice. But you’ve got to hear the voice. Light and slim, with little to no vibrato, Dearie’s voice is ingenuous to such a degree that you begin to wonder whether it isn’t, in fact, the least ingenuous thing you have ever heard. It echoes with the four-square court—or was that the tomb? Imagine a sphinx posing her fatal riddle to Oedipus. Then ditch the immortal growl and try hearing, instead, a girl. That’s Dearie, singing her riddles of love and disaster. But unlike the sphinx, she wagers her own life, not other people’s. She knows the stakes, and still, that light, slim voice, with no vibrato, comes floating onto the air.

Hearing Dearie sing, you might find that innocence means something that it never meant before. We tend to think the innocent are young, and the jaded are old. Not so. The age we ought to calculate is not the questioner’s, but the world’s. The jaded think the world is in its adulthood, maybe even its senescence. An old world won’t change much. But a young world—now, such a world could change; it could metamorphose, even. The innocent think the world is young. Whatever they might have come to know about this life, and to their cost, they live as though there’s another world coming, right around the corner. It just hasn’t come as yet. The odds of change are bad, says Experience. They’re pretty good, says Innocence. Who’s making the better bet? Nobody knows. They’re only odds.

The first time I heard Blossom Dearie, she was playing on the radio when I was driving home. DJ Baby Shampoo was at the controls (here you can see the playlist for one of her recent shows). That handle, which is not the DJ’s legal name, has something of Dearie’s off-kilter girlishness: Johnson & Johnson, sweetness & fluorescent light, infant tears & corporate hostilities. The 1950s, in short, when No More Tears baby shampoo first appeared on the market, and when Dearie released “Give Him the Ooh-La-La.” The song the DJ played came from that record. “I Walk A Little Faster” was written by Carolyn Leigh and Cy Coleman, and Dearie was the first to release it in 1958. There was scarcely any point in recording it again, after that, though people did. Here are the lyrics:

Pretending that we’ll meet each time I turn a corner, I walk a little faster

Pretending life is sweet, ’cause love’s around the corner, I walk a little faster

Can’t begin to see my future shine as yet

No sign as yet

You’re mine as yet

Rushing toward a face I can’t divine as yet

Keep bumping into walls

And taking lots of falls

 

But even though I meet at each and every corner with nothing but disaster

I set my chin a little higher

Hope a little longer

Build a little stronger castle in the air

And thinking you’ll be there

I walk a little faster

Dilatory, dreamy, unevenly phrased, “I Walk a Little Faster” sounds like a songwriter’s jottings toward a love ballad. She’ll finish the ballad when she’s been in love, which she hasn’t been—as yet. That phrase “as yet,” repeated eight times all told, aspires as sweetly and as foolishly as an affirmation written one hundred times in a school notebook: I will fall in love. It scares you that way, too. What will become of a person who hopes this much and judges this badly? Whose faster keeps rhyming with disaster? Dearie plays a thundering trill on the piano under the word disaster, like they used to play on the silent movie scores when the villain entered the picture. But then it’s chin up: let’s race back to the brink; let’s walk around the corner.

This innocence is heroism. It’s the determination to turn our steps back to the very cusp of life, each time we overshoot it. Innocence is swimming back out to where the waves break, so that you can surf another one. It’s starting again. If there’s a truth to the idea that innocence belongs to the young, that’s mainly because these returns are so terribly hard. The water’s cold. The undertow is strong. Past twenty-five, you get tired.

Few can do what Dearie’s lyric voice could do, and hold death and renewal in their throats at once. Dearie’s contemporary, the actress Giulietta Masina, was among these few. At the end of Le Notti di Cabiria (Nights of Cabiria), Federico Fellini’s 1957 film, a prostitute played by Masina thinks she has started a new life. But it turns out she hasn’t. The new husband on whom Cabiria had pinned her hopes proves to be a flim-flam man interested only in making away with her paltry, and laboriously earned, life’s savings. When they walk to the edge of a cliff to see the sunset, he tries to push her off. She saves herself, only to collapse in despair at his treachery. She screams to him over and over, “kill me! kill me! I don’t want to live any longer!” He only runs away, and she doesn’t get to die.

Instead, Cabiria faints, and after the briefest fade to black, she wakes up again in the twilight. The sunset she had gone to see has already happened. Dry leaves cling to her cape, and some mascara has smudged into a tear shape in the corner of her left eye. There is nothing left to do but to walk back, slightly uphill, through a stand of illuminated birch trees. She could be under water; she could be under the world.

Then Cabiria reaches the road and at the same time confronts the problem of hope again. Fellini stages a sudden festival of spring: dancers, an accordion player, and that mainstay of modern Italian courtship, the moped, thread themselves joyfully around Cabiria. The accordion player sings to her. The dancers weave about her. The moped couple smiles at her.

Life doesn’t merit the attention it now solicits from Cabiria. But she’ll give her attention anyway. Something changes in Masina’s bearing. Though she does not actually dust herself off, she appears to do so. It’s like watching a songbird puff out all her feathers. You can still see the tear-shaped smudge of mascara in her left eye, but she cheers up. Masina jerks her chin in acknowledgment, almost jauntily, toward each of the young dancers. The camera gets the nod, too. You could misread this scene—as you could misread “I Walk A Little Faster”—as being only about the woman’s hopes and interests, and maybe her self-delusion. Chin up! Let’s start off again on the old fool’s errand. But no: in Masina’s hands, the upward jerk of the chin is a gesture of magnanimous recognition, even of forgiveness. She won’t punish the world with the silent treatment it deserves. She extends to the dancers, and to the camera, the grace she could so easily withhold.

“I Walk A Little Faster” and Le Notti di Cabiria were released within a year of each other, and Masina and Dearie were both around thirty-five years of age at the time of recording. Both artists had something in common with an ingenue from central casting: they were small, blonde, cute. They lived at a moment when, in spite of the gathering forces of sexual revolution, the expectations of an early marriage and reproductive sex were still strong. They each made something extraordinary from these accidents of birth. Knowing that the idea of a thirty-five-year-old ingenue with sexual experience was to many of their contemporaries either shameful or impossible altogether, they turned the problem of allegedly deluded innocence back on the judging world. It wasn’t that the woman needed to answer for her illusions. It was that the world needed to acknowledge its dependence on her extraordinary faith. Behind the flawed dreamers they imagined was a merciful mother, blessing her son on the gallows, or taking him down from the cross. In Dearie’s and Masina’s hands, blind Eros had the same regenerative power as did spotless maternal love. These women’s innocence was inexhaustible, their forgiveness ever forthcoming. They weren’t virgins. Neither was the world. Yet even that old sinner became in their eyes a corrigible child, the object of tender care. No more tears.

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