October 11, 2005

Asylum Song

By: John Berlau

In a New Orleans public school, Lois Tilly plays the organ and leads 5- and 6-year-olds in “Sing a Rainbow,” their favorite song about colors. It begins, “Red and yellow, and pink and green / Purple and orange and blue / I can sing a rainbow / Sing a rainbow / Sing a rainbow too.” Miss Tilly, a roving music teacher for the Orleans Parish School Board, has been teaching the song ever since she read it in a music text-book, The Spectrum of Music, twenty years ago. The very first time she played it on her organ, she recalls, “the kids fell in love with it.” Today, she says, her students request the tune “over and over and over.”

Across the country and around the world, the scene is pretty much the same, with the same gleeful children singing the same unabashedly cute lyrics. Children’s choirs constantly perform “Sing a Rainbow,” and it has been recorded countless times. The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences features the song on its “Kids Pages” website. The bureaucrats at NIEHS suggest that kids “draw a picture of a rainbow, and then write the song within the arch of the rainbow. Children can then color the ‘color’ words in the correct colors.”

The government of Australia also likes the song. Last year, the Tourist Commission launched an international ad campaign in which teenaged Aussie pop star Delta Goodrem proved she, too, can sing a rainbow, to a reel of outback footage. The award-winning ads have been credited with boosting tourism, but still have their critics.

The British advertising magazine Campaign included the “Rainbow campaign” in their “10 Top Turkeys” of 2004, saying Australia shouldn’t be promoted with an “annoying nursery school song.” But “Sing a Rainbow” was not created in a nursery school. Where it came from, there were no children. The place was a dark hall in an insane asylum. A middle-aged blonde woman in a baggy gray dress softly crooned “I Can Sing a Rainbow” to a doll she believes is her daughter. This scene of misery comes from Pete Kelly’s Blues, a 1955 film about jazz and gangsters in the ’20s. The woman was Rose, a vocalist undone by alcoholism played by the great popular singer Peggy Lee. And while the songwriter, Arthur Hamilton, was trying to write a song that might be sung to children, he didn’t imagine it would be.

“I was shown the script, and the scene was three or four pages long, and it was all what happened in that asylum she was in,” Hamilton recalls. “She was singing to her doll, and it called for a song of that nature, a nursery rhyme song. . . . For a small song like that, it’s had a remarkable life.”

And a pretty long one. At 50 this year, “Sing a Rainbow” shows no sign of slowing down. Google the song’s title, and you’ll get over 9,300 entries. It has become shorthand for the innocence of childhood. In the first paragraph of the 2002 Irish novel The Rainbow Singer by Simon Kerr, a prisoner recalls, as a child, hearing “Sing a Rainbow” at his church. An article in a Florida newspaper criticizing the color-coded terror alerts asked, “I wonder what children think about today when they hear that song.”

Hamilton says he’s never promoted the song for children. After the movie came out, the struggling song-writer never really plugged the song at all, concentrating on other work. Around the same time as Pete Kelly’s Blues came out, singer Julie London had a big hit with another of Hamilton’s songs, “Cry Me a River.” Hamilton continued writing for movies and television, scoring the musical segments of programs such as the Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour and garnering several Oscar and Emmy nominations. He says he stopped keeping track of “Sing a Rainbow” after there were more than 50 recorded versions of the song by 1975.

But Hamilton fondly remembers how the song came to be. In 1954, when Peggy Lee was performing in Las Vegas, Hamilton sent her a telegram saying simply, “Sing a rainbow.” Lee, a songwriter herself, suggested Hamilton make that into a song. “She called me from Las Vegas to tell me how much she liked the wire, and she thought that was such a wonderful thing to say to a singer going on stage,” Hamilton says. “But then she said, ‘It’s a wonderful title for a song; which of us is going to write the song?’ I said, ‘I’ve given you the title. It’s yours now. Go ahead and write it.’ She said, ‘Oh no. Those words are yours. The title is yours.'”

The title came to Hamilton again when he had to write a song for Lee’s movie character to sing in the asylum, after she had been jilted (physically abused, the movie implies) by her gangster lover. “I was sitting in my office saying, What would this woman sing to a doll? And then it just sort of crystallized,” he recalls. “I said, maybe I could try something there with colors. So I just started to write that, and I did that in one day.” One of the original lyrics was, however, changed, and he was glad about that. He had written “Red and yellow, and brown and green.” Hamilton recalls: “Thank God somebody corrected my view of rainbows, and said, ‘There’s no brown in a rainbow.’ And I said, ‘Okay.’ I take my help wherever I can get it.”

Pete Kelly’s Blues was, however, an uneven movie. Jack Webb directed and starred as Pete, the hero bandleader who takes on the mob. But Webb’s character seems like nothing so much as the deadpan Joe Friday he was then famously playing on television. Not surprisingly, the flick was not a big success.

How did a tune sung in an insane asylum in a movie that’s not for children and is not a widely seen block-buster become one of the most popular children’s songs around? Most important, it had an infectious quality that allowed it to be transmitted widely, in the very manner Malcolm Gladwell describes in his book The Tipping Point.

Gladwell’s subject is the seemingly spontaneous circulation of ideas, behavior, messages, and products to large numbers of people. The Hush Puppy shoe, for instance, made a mysterious comeback in the mid-’90s without any marketing campaign. Free-market economist Friedrich Hayek called this unplanned process the “spontaneous order.” Gladwell characterizes the phenomenon as a “social epidemic,” in which trends are spread to so many people that a “tipping point” is reached and the whole culture is “infected.”

This, more or less, is how Hamilton’s “Rainbow” made the trip from film noir to Barney-world.

Gladwell argues that in the transmission of trends, some people are more important than others. These people, who enjoy “a particular and rare set of social gifts,” he calls mavens and connectors. A maven is one who accumulates extensive knowledge and can’t help sharing it with friends. A connector is one who knows and brings together people in diverse fields.

The most important person in this regard would be Peggy Lee. Her performance as the down-and-out singer Rose was the best part of Pete Kelly’s Blues, and it earned her an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. And the high point of her performance was “Sing a Rainbow,” which she rendered in an almost catatonic monotone to illustrate the character’s break-down. “She really acted it wonderfully,” Hamilton says. “I think that scene in which she sang the song is what got her an Oscar nomination.”

Lee, who died in 2002, always felt a special connection to “Sing a Rainbow.” “She actually loved the song; she really did,” says Lee’s daughter, Nicki Lee Foster. Foster recalls that her mother sang it to her grandchildren and performed it at concerts, making Lee an important “connector,” as she kept up with the times and had multiple generations of fans. When the rock era hit, Lee recorded bluesy numbers such as “Fever” and “I’m a Woman.” She was the only female singer to have Top 10 hits in the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s.

Enter Ginni Clemmens, the late folk singer and children’s performer, a big fan of Peggy Lee who was instrumental in spreading “Rainbow” even further. Born in 1936, Clemmens was the daughter of a big band saxophonist. After earning a degree in nursing, Clemmens worked with retarded children in California. She tried to reach the kids with music. After about five years, she moved to Chicago and became part of the folk music scene. She opened for Bob Dylan at the Mother Blues night club, became friends with John Prine and Steve Goodman, and taught at the Old Town School of Folk Music.

But she never gave up singing for children, and in 1965 released an album of kids’ songs on the Folkways label. The album was called “Sing a Rainbow & Other Children’s Songs.” It mixed Hamilton’s “Sing a Rainbow” with such kids’ classics as “I Knew an Old Lady.” Ten years after Pete Kelly’s Blues, this record constituted the first major instance of “Sing a Rainbow” being presented as a children’s song.

Clemmens died in a car accident in 2003. But her sister, Maxime Friday, notes that Clemmens “just worshipped Peggy Lee.” Friday imagines that Clemmens “either saw the movie or heard the recording” on one of Lee’s records. “When I was going through my sister’s stuff, there were all kinds of Peggy Lee albums,” Friday says. “She really looked up to her a lot as a singer.”

Clemmens’s own recording gave “Sing a Rainbow” a whole new following by transmitting the song to the world of folk and children’s music. The song became a signature of Clemmens, and she sang it throughout her life at folk festivals and schools. Friday says she also reached children through appearances on “Bozo the Clown,” which was nationally syndicated from Chicago.

Connectors and mavens, however, are just one part of “the tipping point.” Trends are also fueled, according to Gladwell, by the “power of context.” And it was the “rainbow” spirit of the ’60s that caused “Sing a Rainbow” to take off more than it ever had in 1955. It became a Kumbaya song where the colors of the rainbow represented different ethnic groups living in harmony.

In Great Britain, pop glamour girl Cilla Black, a protege of Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein, sang a soft, hypnotic version on the BBC’s “Sunday Night at the London Palladium.” It became the inspiration for the title of her 1966 album “Cilla Sings a Rainbow,” which reached #4 on the British charts. Black sang it in live shows for many years.

Back in America, “Sing a Rainbow” was about to be incorporated into a surprise pop hit. The Dells had been a doo-wop group in the ’50s but were changing into a funky soul band. In 1968, they had a comeback hit with “There Is,” which reached #20 on the Billboard pop charts. But the song was knocked out of the Top 20 by a symphonic version of the song “Love is Blue.” According to Dells member Chuck Barksdale, the band then decided to cut its own version of “Love is Blue” to avenge themselves. But they needed a way to put their own stamp on the song. Then one night, Barksdale caught a showing of Pete Kelly’s Blues on television.

Barksdale recalls watching the scene of Peggy Lee in the mental institution with her doll. “She’s sitting there in the nuthouse and she’s singing, ‘Red and yellow,’ and I said, ‘Oh My God, that’s the intro for ‘Love is Blue’!”

He then called up the brilliant funk arranger Charles Stepney, who would later go on to great success working for Earth, Wind & Fire. “I said, ‘Step, I got it, and you got to write it,'” Barksdale recalls. “So I sang it to him. He said, ‘Oh, that’s fantastic. That will just tie into that whole situation, and this will give us another stand at that song.’ And the rest is history.” The medley that resulted, “I Can Sing a Rainbow/Love Is Blue,” made use of the two tunes to contrast happiness and sadness in a relationship. It went to #22 on the pop charts, and #5 on the Rhythm & Blues charts in 1969. That same year, almost 15 years after she first recorded the song, Peggy Lee took another crack at “Sing a Rainbow.” On the album “Is That All There Is?,” the title track of which became Lee’s comeback hit, she included a new upbeat version of “Sing a Rainbow” with a light Latin beat.

The Dells, Black, Clemmens, and Lee all played a role in making “Sing a Rainbow” the popular children’s song it is today. Music teachers are often former or aspiring professional musicians who pay attention to popular trends. And these latter arrangements of “Sing a Rainbow” fit quite nicely with the flower-power spirit of the ’60s. But that’s not all the song had going for it. Its melody and lyrics possessed the “stickiness” Gladwell says is essential for a trend to travel, particularly when it comes to the preferences of children. “Stickiness means that a message makes an impact,” Gladwell writes. “You can’t get it out of your head. It sticks in your memory.”

So what makes “Sing a Rainbow” sticky? The simplicity is certainly key. Only one word in the entire song is longer than two syllables. And the whole thing is only 24 lines long. “It’s easy to play,” Hamilton says. “It’s easy to remember. It names the colors that we all know, and it sounds childlike. And I guess it just buries itself in the listener’s mind. It’s not as simple as ‘Happy Birthday,’ but it’s a simple song to remember.” And Peggy Lee, as Rose, emphasized the song’s simplicity for those who first heard it. “She just sang it in a very soft voice of somebody who was only about three quarters there,” Hamilton recalls.

Lee’s daughter, Foster, gives another reason for the song’s stickiness. It captures a special emotion, a sense of wonderment, in children. “Think about a child lying on his or her back and looking up at the sky,” she says.

“That’s the only time when we are really allowed to have that freedom to do that, and really listen with our eyes, as the song says. He [Hamilton] has really captured a lovely feeling there.”

It’s kind of a corny feeling by most adult standards, but one its fans cherish. New Orleans music teacher Tilly remembers a 9-year-old girl in a wheelchair who had trouble speaking but suddenly began singing the song. “It became her favorite song,” Tilly says. “She learned to speak through singing ‘Sing a Rainbow.’ . . . She died, and I do it now in her memory every year.”

It’s that kind of song.

One more reason it has traveled as far and for as long as it has may be Hamilton’s lack of attention to its use. “Sing a Rainbow” is often treated as if it were in the public domain. Many websites refer to it by other names, such at the “Rainbow Song,” and some have even called it an old American folk song. The Library of Congress’s Copyright Office lists a few other song-writers trying to register “Sing a Rainbow” after Hamilton’s 1955 registration, and some recordings of the song have mistakenly attributed it to the wrong songwriters. A 1992 album by children’s artist Jack Grunsky credits the song to a composer named “Rodriguez.” The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences listed the writer of the song as a “Jane Currie” until DOUBLETHINK asked about the error.

Hamilton just laughs. “Those things are dependent on how much damage they’re doing to you,” he says. “If it costs you $500 to hire an attorney, and you’ve only lost $300, why bother?” Besides, he says, in the grand financial scheme of things, “the more it has been done over the years, the more it increases the amount of value the song has.”

Currently working on a song he’s discussing with Tony Bennett, Hamilton, who refuses to give his age, says, “I’m busy writing. I don’t have the time to keep a list and say Charlie Jones just recorded [“Sing a Rainbow”].”

Yet he pauses for a moment to consider the simple ditty he wrote 50 years ago. “For songwriters, it’s kind of a miracle,” he says. “You’re sitting in your home and you’ve written the song and then suddenly it is handed to other people. It ends up being recorded by people you never even meet.”

And heard by millions.

John Berlau is the Warren T. Brookes Journalism Fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.