(Host) It’s likely that somewhere on New Year’s Eve, when the lights dimmed on the dance floor, a Vermont musical icon made an appearance. In 1944, a new popular song gave the world an image of Vermont that included falling leaves, ski trails and the evening summer breeze. The 13-line song became a standard that is still sung today.
VPR’s Neal Charnoff discovered how the enduring “Moonlight in Vermont” gained its popularity.
(Sound of “Moonlight in Vermont” versions by Willie Nelson and Johnny Smith)
(Charnoff) That tune came into composer Johnny Blackburn’s mind almost 60 years ago. He had attended Bennington College in the mid-1930s and then moved to California, but the memory of Vermont stayed with him.
Blackburn, who’s now 87, remembers the day he was working at Lockheed-Martin and he met Karl Suessdorf for a historic collaboration:
(Blackburn) “One day I was out there working and this guy walked up to me and he says, ‘I understand you write lyrics.’ I said, ‘I write music.’ ‘Why don’t we get together?’ I said, ‘Okay, fine.’ So I went over to his house he said, ‘I’ve always felt if we wrote a song about a state it would always be there.’ I said, ‘How about Vermont? How about Moonlight in Vermont? And that’s how it all started.”
(Chet Baker version of song plays.)
(Charnoff) “Moonlight in Vermont” built upon bucolic country images of New England already established by other songs like Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas.” “Moonlight” was first performed in 1944 on the radio program “Hit Parade.” Margaret Whiting was the vocalist with the Johnny Mercer Orchestra:
(Whiting) “I was so busy trying to capture the style of what the song was – in other words, tell the story. And I said ‘Johnny, help me with this.’ And he said, ‘Look, think of the smell of waffles cooking and maple syrup. That’s what Vermont, one of the things they’re famous for. So smell maple syrup in the air.’ Then he said, ‘Think of the lakes in the summer, and think of the beautiful trees that people drive miles to see, that are so gorgeous in the fall, and start looking at the pictures of the song.’ So I got conjured up by him, and I think I got very lucky that I could maybe tell the story of that song.”
(Sound of Margaret Whiting’s vocals of “Moonlight” followed by instrumental version of the song.)
(Charnoff) Margaret Whiting’s version of the song became a huge hit. With the United States at war, Vermont became an iconic hometown for the men and women stationed overseas.
(Whiting) “You know, like the guys overseas, they didn’t come from Vermont. They may have come from New York. But that made them think of home, of our country, and they felt very patriotic about it.”
(Charnoff) Vermonters note that some of the images are not exactly true to life. We see few sycamore trees here. And the song has some idiosyncracies, like non-rhyming lyrics.
Still, “Moonlight in Vermont” has been recorded hundreds of times, and has settled into a role as a jazz standard and unofficial state song. State Senator and performer Dick McCormick often gets requests for the song:
(McCormick) “It’s interesting though, I don’t think I’ve ever gotten a request from a Vermonter for it, it’s a tourist’s request. It’s the flatlander’s appreciation of Vermont, it’s a postcard image of Vermont. I think Vermonters are proud of it, but I think it really is the flatlander’s image of Vermont.”
(Charnoff) Singer Jenni Johnson lives in Burlington and the song is part of her show. For her, it’s an honest and meaningful tribute:
(Johnson) “The lyrics, they tell a story. And the story is for anyone who lives in Vermont, you can drive down the Interstate and see what they’re talking about. Seeing the telegraph cables, they really do sing down the highway, and the song is a living experience for me. It’s the true view of what you get in Vermont when you live here. And it’s for anyone, you don’t have to have money to experience it. You can walk, live in the Northeast Kingdom, it’s there for you.”
(Charnoff) And for composer Johnny Blackburn, “Moonlight in Vermont” was a story that had to be told.
(Blackburn) “‘Cause I remembered Vermont, it was beautiful up there. People didn’t know too much about Vermont at that particular time. The people up there were wonderful, it was just so relaxing, and the way people were treated, it was all that that got me into it. I had to explain it that way, that’s the only way I could tell about how Vermont was.”
(Sound of Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong’s version of “Moonlight.”)
(Charnoff) For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Neal Charnoff.
(Fitzgerald and Armstrong continue and song concludes.)
(Host) “Moonlight in Vermont” was performed by Margaret Whiting, Chet Baker, Willie Nelson, Ella Fitzgerald, and Johnny Smith with Stan Getz.