In Finegan’s Wake – Part 2 – Counterpoint/Counterpoint “The Song of the Volga Boatmen” (1941) and “The Keel Row” (1952)

The story: In this, the second installment of our salute to arranger Bill Finegan, we present two different Finegan arrangements on two separate melodies, done at two different times for two different bandleaders. Nevertheless, there is a good bit of similarity between the two arrangements, largely because they both contain segments of counterpoint. “Counterpoint” is defined as: “The ability, unique to music, to say two things at once comprehensibly. The term derives from the Latin expression punctus contra punctum, i.e. ‘point against point’ or ‘note against note.’ A single ‘part’ or ‘voice’ added to another is called ‘a counterpoint’ to that other, but the most common use of the wordi s that of the combination of simultaneous parts each of significance in itself and the whole resulting in a coherent texture. In this sense, counterpoint is the same as polyphony.” (1)

“The Song of the Volga Boatmen”

Russian folk song arranged by Bill Finegan.

Recorded by Glenn Miller and His Orchestra for Bluebird on January 17, 1941 in New York.

Glenn Miller, first trombone, directing: R.D.McMickle, first trumpet; John Best, Ray Anthony, Billy May, trumpets; Jimmy Priddy, Paul Tanner, Frankie D’Annolfo, trombones; Hal McIntyre, first alto saxophone; Wilbur Schwartz, alto saxophone; Al Klink and Tex Beneke, tenor saxophones; Ernesto “Ernie” Caceres, alto and baritone saxophones; J.C. MacGregor, piano; Jack Lathrop, guitar; Herman “Trigger” Alpert, bass; Maurice “Moe” Purtill, drums.

It is not clear how the first of these arrangements, the one Finegan wrote for Glenn Miller in 1940 on “The Song of the Volga Boatmen” came to be, though there is at least a partial explanation. As 1941 began, the simmering dispute between the nation’s then powerful radio networks and the American Society of Composers Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) boiled over.The vast majority of the music Glenn Miller played on radio (and he was on radio a lot – that was the key to his great popularity), ASCAP decreed that radio networks should not play any ASCAP music, starting on January 1, 1941. (The dispute was over, what else? money.) For any band then, radio exposure was essential. Miller was suddenly faced with the daunting challenge of coming up with a lot of new non-ASCAP music to be played by his band in its radio broadcasts.

Miller in a musing mood.

The initial approach used by Miller and many other bandleaders was to use traditional songs or melodies that were familiar to people, yet were either outside of copyright protection or not written by ASCAP member composers, as the basis for arrangements specially written for their bands. (Coincidentally, Miller had recognized long before 1941 that his audiences liked a sprinkling of traditional, indeed old-fashioned tunes, like “Little Brown Jug,” and “Danny Boy/Londonderry Air”(2), mixed with current pop tunes like the non-ASCAP “Frenesi”), and standards.Thus the flood of swing arrangements/broadcasts/recordings of “Swanee River,” “Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair,” and many adaptations of “classical” themes began.

As the dispute dragged on through most of 1941, bandleaders increasingly allowed their arrangers, most of whom had no connection to ASCAP, to compose original music.This eventually turned into a small bonanza of brilliant, memorable swing music. Among the classic swing compositions created during this time: “Take the ‘A’ Train,” written by Billy Strayhorn for Duke Ellington; “Clarinet a la King” by Eddie Sauter, and “I’m Here” and “The Earl,” by Mel Powell, all for Benny Goodman; and “A String of Pearls,” by Jerry Gray for Glenn Miller, among many others.

Bill Finegan.

Knowing Miller’s propensity for organization and preparedness, I think that as he saw the ASCAP ban approaching in late 1940, he began mulling what non-ASCAP tunes might work as the basis of arrangements to be written for and broadcast by his band. He likely assigned “The Song of the Volga Boatmen” to Bill Finegan to arrange at that time. Whether they discussed the use of counterpoint in it is unlikely. If an approach was discussed at all, it may have been in the context of Miller asking Finegan to come up with an interpretation of this often dirge-like melody that was different and up-beat. When Finegan passed out his arrangement of “Volga Boatmen” at its first rehearsal, there was probably much glee among the sidemen. Miller himself was probably delighted with Finegan’s brilliant arrangement, though true to form, he likely said nothing about it.

We know that Bill Finegan’s arrangement on “The Song of the Volga Boatmen” was first performed by the Miller band on an NBC broadcast from the Cafe’ Rouge of Hotel Pennsylvania in Manhattan on Saturday evening December 7, 1940, more than a month before he recorded it for Bluebird. (3)

Miller’s Bluebird record of “The Song of the Volga Boatmen” became a hit. It reached no. 1 on the Billboard pop singles chart in a 10-week chart run. (4)

The music: Here is a part of the score written by Bill Finegan in 1940 for Glenn Miller on “The Song of the Volga Boatmen.”

A part of the score for Bill Finegan’s arrangement on “The Song of the Volga Boatmen” written in 1940 for Glenn Miller’s band.

Finegan’s arrangement of “The Song of the Volga Boatmen” opens with a humorous musical segment that evokes burlaks, or barge haulers, on the cold Volga River in old Russia. One can tell immediately that the sidemen in Miller’s band were having fun as this arrangement gets underway.  But that does not in any way diminish their first-class musicianship throughout this performance. Then the low trombones state the melody giving the listener some musical orientation. Trumpeter Billy May performs his solo as directed in Finegan’s arrangement (cup mute plunger written to sound ad lib). Then the powerful Miller ensemble takes over, playing melodically atop Moe Purtill’s high-hat cymbals. The raspy trumpet at the end of this segment is once again played by May. Ernie Careres, who usually provided excellent playing in the ensemble on his baritone saxophone, here switches to alto for an interlude of jazz, backed by oo-ah trombones and syncopated beeping muted trumpets. I must mention bassist Trigger Alpert’s playing at this point, which is excellent throughout this performance. His support behind Caceres is first-rate.

The next phase of the arrangement, including more of Purtill’s high-hats and some rhythmically clapping by the saxophone players who were not otherwise engaged then, sets up the counterpoint between the open unison trombones and then the open unison trumpets. This counterpoint moves the music upward toward the climax of the arrangement, where the entire band plays forte with Billy May’s trumpet adding high-notes above the ensemble. (At right, the Miller trumpet section that played “The Song of the Volga Boatmen”- L-R: Ray Anthony, John Best, Mickey McMickle and Billy May.)

This arrangement is not only one of the most creative of the swing era, it was a commercial success for Miller. Although Miller’s relationship with Finegan was strained at times because Miller felt he had to control Finegan’s sometimes avant-garde musical impulses, and Finegan, at age 23, had something of a problem with Miller’s authority over him, ultimately their relationship was a win-win. Miller benefited from many brilliant arrangements written by Finegan, and Finegan benefited (in many ways and over many years) from being with one of the most successful and popular bands of the swing era.

(1) The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music (1996) 165.

(2) Once when I was speaking with Miller’s star trumpeter John Best, who had a lively sense of humor, he mentioned to me that “Londonderry Air” was known in the Miller band, outside of Miller’s hearing, as “London derierre.

(3) Moonlight Serenade, a Bio-discography of Glenn Miller’s Civilian Band (1972) by John Flower, 253.

(4) Hoffmann, Frank (May 23, 2016). Chronology of American Popular Music, 1900-2000.  93.

“The Keel Row”

Composed and arranged by Bill Finegan.

Recorded by Tommy Dorsey and His Orchestra in mid-March 1952 for Standard Transcription Service in New York.

Tommy Dorsey, first trombone, directing: Charlie Shavers, first trumpet; Art DePew, Nick Tancredi, George Cherub, trumpets; Nick DeMaio, Sam Hyster, Obie Massingill, trombones; Eddie Scalzi, first alto saxophone; Marv Koral, alto saxophone; Sam Donahue and Gene Cipriano, tenor saxophones; Teddy Lee, baritone saxophone; Gene Kutch, piano; Sam Herman, guitar; Mert Oliver, bass; Eddie Grady, drums. Scalzi and Koral doubled on B-flat clarinet; Cipriano on flute; Lee on bass clarinet.

Bill Finegan at the piano – early 1950s.

The story: I have some informed speculation about how the second of these arrangements, the one Finegan wrote for Tommy Dorsey on Finegan’s own original melody called “The Keel Row” came to be. If we rewind history about 66 years, Tommy Dorsey is having a conversation with Bill Finegan. It might have gone like this: TD: Billy, do you remember that arrangement you wrote for Glenn on “Volga Boatmen?” BF: Yes, I do Tommy. Why do you ask? TD: Because I liked that counterpoint you put into that arrangement. It was a very different touch for a dance band arrangement. BF: Thank you Tommy. TD: I want you to write an arrangement like that for me. BF: Really? On what melody? TD: I don’t care about the melody. What I want is an arrangement built around a counterpoint. Oh, and Billy, the counterpoint has to have a great part for the trombones. BF: OK Tommy. I’ll see what I can come up with.

In the early 1950s, Tommy Dorsey, one of the biggest stars of the swing era, continued to lead a band of remarkably high quality despite the fact that the market for swing music was shrinking. Tommy’s dynamic personality, high musical standards, and aggressive business style allowed him to survive in those perilous times, though not without major challenges and costs. The challenges lay in simply securing enough work for his band to continue operation. Tommy accomplished this by operating as his own booking agent (after 15 turbulent years with Music Corporation of America [MCA], with whom he severed ties in late 1950) (1), and with a three-year recording contract with Decca Records, running from August of 1950 to August of 1953 that guaranteed him $52,000.00 per year. (Multiply by at least 10 to get the value in today’s dollars.) The Dorsey booking office, run out of the penthouse suite of offices Tommy maintained in the Brill Building in Manhattan, was called Tomdor Enterprises, Inc., and was operated by ex-saxophonist Vince Carbone. After running through a series of personal managers, Tommy finally settled on the young (age 26), smart and aggressive Tino Barzie, another former saxophonist, as his personal manager at the end of 1950. (2)

TD somewhere on the road in the 1950s.

Although the business side of Tommy’s operation was solid, something he insisted upon and monitored obsessively, it was nevertheless an up-and-down ride on a speeding emotional roller-coaster for those who worked for him, no matter how good their performance was in their jobs. (At right, Tommy Dorsey in the 1950s on the road, surrounded by the young men who were members of his band.) This was the case because TD’s personality was such that he had not only to lead, but he had to dominate those who were associated with him. In addition, after Tommy stopped drinking in the 1940s, he began using various other stimulants to keep him on the razor’s edge where he felt he functioned best. These included “uppers as well as codeine and turpenhydrate…” (3) This increased the frequency of his emotional outbursts. Once, during the early days of his association with Tino Barzie, he became enraged at Barzie, grabbed him and began banging his head on a wall. (4)

Those close to TD observed that the uppers had such a powerful effect on him that he found it difficult to sleep. When he felt ready to crash from exhaustion, he would take sleeping pills so he would get a full night of sleep. He did this on the night of November 26, 1956, and as always, slept soundly. (Tommy also had resumed drinking by then, but limited it to a couple of glasses of wine with dinner.) Unfortunately, while he slept, he became nauseated and began to vomit, but was unable because of the pills and wine to wake up sufficiently to deal with that. Consequently, he aspirated the vomit, and suffocated to death. A bizarre end no doubt to one of the most spectacular musical careers in American show business history.

The music: Several things are immediately apparent when one listens to this recording of “The Keel Row.” First, Finegan’s arrangement is brilliant. By the late 1940s, he had begun using the flute as an instrumental color, often blending it as he does here, with one or two B-flat clarinet(s) and a bass clarinet. He also took to blending the sound of a flute with a Harmon-muted trumpet. This created a trend among jazz and pop music arrangers of writing music for “flutes and mutes” that continued well into the 1960s. In addition to these somewhat unorthodox (for the time) instrumental colors and blends, there is the sheer tunefulness of this curiously Irish sounding melody (Dorsey and Finegan shared Irish ancestry), and joyful exuberance of the music, which is vivified by the superlative performance Tommy Dorsey’s band gives to it.

Listen for the adroitness with which TD’s reed players handle their various instruments at the beginning of the arrangement. After the jaunty melody exposition using mixed woodwinds, there is a splendid saxophone soli. This is followed by a patented whole-band Finegan fanfare, which leads into the counterpoint, which is brilliantly played by the unison trumpets, led by Charlie Shavers, and the unison trombones led by TD. The counterpoint is followed by the room-shaking ensemble climax of the arrangement. Bravo Bill Finegan, and Tommy Dorsey!

Charlie Shavers – 1952.

This arrangement does evoke “The Song of the Volga Boatmen” in its brief use of oo-ah brass early on, and the hand-clapping that established the rhythm for the counterpoint. Beyond that, “The Keel Row” is exactly what Tommy ordered from Finegan, but on steroids. (Trumpeter Charlie Shavers is shown at right – 1952.)

Bill Finegan’s composition/arrangement of “The Keel Row” is another timeless piece of music that would challenge any band today, and still sound great if it was well performed. It, like all great music, inhabits its own present tense. (5)

Despite Tommy Dorsey’s mercurial behavior toward many of the musicians in his band and his business associates, Finegan seemed to be spared from any ugly encounters with TD. This is very likely because Tommy obviously admired Finegan’s great musical talent, and Finegan wisely stayed out of his way, appearing only at rehearsals where he would pass out new arrangements to the Dorsey band, and lead them through the first run-throughs of them to get the music under their fingers.

(1) After Tommy and MCA parted company, he quickly obtained a vanity license plate for his black Cadillac that read: “4Q MCA.”

(2) Tommy Dorsey …Livin’ in a Great Big Way, by Peter J. Levinson (2005), 239. Vinnie Carbone was also young, 29, when he began to work for TD. Dorsey’s band members, and increasingly his business associates were young men as the 1950s began. Tommy himself was 45 years old in 1950, and had been leading his own band for 15 years by then.

(3) Ibid. 252.

(4) Ibid. 240.

(5) Tommy Dorsey and His Orchestra also recorded this piece for Decca on March 10, 1952. I prefer the Standard Transcription performance because its tempo is a little slower, which allows for a more distinct performance by the various instruments. Also, the Standard recording seems to have a more vivid, alive sound.

P.S. Here is a wonderful interview Loren Schoenberg did with Bill Finegan in the early 1990s. There is much information in this interview about Bill’s early years. Great stuff for which we all owe Loren a big Thank You.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8kyBqcpDPXU

The recordings presented in this post have been digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.

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11 Comments

  1. HI Mike…. Excellent post as always–we can’t have too much Bill Finegan! I do think, though, that you’ll find that “The Keel Row” has been around for many years, and is a Georgie/Scots boatman’s tune that supposedly had its origins among bargemen on the Tyne River. There are lyrics as well. I’ve heard it in many forms–pipes, marching band, and even an operatic soprano. It does lend itself to the round/canon treatment for sure, a form that Bill excelled at.

  2. There is the old quip, attributed to any number of people: “Too bad Miller didn’t live and hit music die.” Very witty, but certainly not true. Miller recorded a fair amount of treacle, but so did other bands, including (dare I say) Benny and Duke. Accept the fact that a lot of what Miller played was outstanding dance music, which was what a war-frightened population wanted, and much of the jazz that remained was top-notch in terms of both arrangement and performance. And a tip of the hat to my buddy Ray Anthony, the last remaining member of the Miller band to be still with us.

  3. Interesting that just 2 days before Miller recorded “Song of the Volga Boatman,” John Kirby recorded “Beethoven Riffs On” which also makes heavy use of counterpoint. Also, it appears that Les Brown’s recording of Ben Homer’s “Bizet Has His Day” on September 17, 1941, was a successful attempt to capitalize on the success of the Miller recording.

    • Michael, great observations. I think the Kirby arrangement was done by Charlie Shavers, a giant among trumpeters, but somewhat overlooked as an arranger. Also, the 1941 recordings you mentioned were all non-ASCAP.

    • Ken, let me look around a bit. I have many pictures of the Casa Loma band. I will try to get a nice, clear photo of Fritz Hummel for you. P.S. was your father a professional musician?

  4. I’m wondering to what degree, if any, Finnegan’s arrangement of “Song of the Volga Boatman” may have been inspired by Benny Goodman’s December 15, 1938 recording of Alec Templeton’s “Bach Goes to Town.”

  5. Here’s an interesting story involving Finegan’s arrangement as related by George Simon in his bio of Glenn Miller. In May 1945, just weeks after the end of the war in Europe, the Miller AAF orchestra, under the direction of Ray McKinley, played at a luncheon for top American (e.g. Omar Bradley) and Russian top brass. According to Simon, “The impact of the band upon the Russians was tremendous, though (band manager Don) Haynes had been warned that it shouldn’t pay its famed version of “Volga Boatmen” for fear of creating an international incident!” I assume the band complied.

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