Too Marvelous for Words

The greatest financial mistake of my life occurred on the day my father offered to bet his entire net worth against mine that the great Johnny Mercer had written the song Don’t Fence Me In. Now “Don’t Fence Me In” is a marvelous song, and Johnny Mercer could have been justifiably proud to write it—if only Cole Porter had not written it first. I happened to know this about Cole Porter; I knew it as surely as I know the authors of Romeo and Juliet and The Wealth of Nations. But for some reason I’ve never understood, I refused the bet, thereby condemning myself to a life of poverty. Still I console myself with the knowledge that you don’t have to be rich to be touched by the grace of Johnny Mercer, who was born one hundred years ago today.

The guy was a phenomenon. He wrote the lyrics for over 1500 songs, and the music for at least a few hundred. And he was a singer-songwriter decades before the likes of Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs and Joni Mitchell allegedly invented the genre. God, he was smooth. By and large, I’d rather hear Johnny Mercer sing his own songs than any of the myriad covers that have become American classics—and that’s saying something for a guy who was covered repeatedly by the likes of Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald.

If you’re looking for a treat and your music collection is not yet Mercerized, start with the Capitol Collectors Series disk. But be careful where you listen to it, because you will get up to dance. Or, if you can find a copy, settle down with a tall cool drink and bask in An Evening with Johnny Mercer. (My rare and valuable copy got left behind at the Boston Park Plaza a couple of years ago; fortunately I’d already ripped it to MP3.)

Johnny Mercer would be celebrating his hundredth birthday with a song if he were alive today. Which, dammit, he should be.


8 Responses to “Too Marvelous for Words”

  1. 1 1 MattF

    Johnny Mercer was the theme of last Sunday’s NYT crossword– constructed by the one-and-only Liz Gorski (who was also the constructor of the recent eye-popper celebrating the Guggenheim Museum’s 50th anniversary).

  2. 2 2 Ben Alexander

    I think there must be an economic lesson in your story… something about the evaluation of risk; or perhaps the moral and financial calculus of taking your father’s entire net worth, weighed against him surely becoming your dependent and getting access to it all again.

    You didn’t mention what your relative net worths were, nor your (relative?) expected future income which should surely come into play in evaluating the cost of the risk.

    Too bad, though. Now you have to work for a living. All of a sudden I’m reminded of the immortal words of Tom Lehrer: “I don’t like people to get the idea that I have to do *this* for a living. I mean it isn’t as if I had to do this you know. I could be making $3000 a year just teaching!”

  3. 3 3 Nigel Hawkins

    This is just my sort of my music, thank you! I’ll be back!

  4. 4 4 dullgeek

    I don’t mean to channel Russ Roberts with this comment, but I marvel in the fact that I could easily pull out my phone, start up pandora, type in “Johnny Mercer” and listen immediately to determine if I liked him or not.

    To me, that’s nothing short of a miracle. Something that couldn’t even have been imagined 10 years ago. And in that incredibly short time, not only was it imagined, it was built, given away for free. And all of this was commanded and directed by… NO ONE. Amazing!

  5. 5 5 Patrick R. Sullivan

    My guess is that you missed the bet because you weren’t sure whether Mercer wrote ‘Fence’ or ‘I’m an Old Cowhand’.

    There’s another similarity between Cole Porter and Johnny Mercer. Porter bought the poem that Don’t Fence Me In is based on for $250 from a Montana DOT engineer named Robert Fletcher. Then he reworked the lyrics and produced a song for a Roy Rogers movie, which became a surprise hit. Porter then cut Fletcher in on the royalties (he could afford to).

    One day Mercer opened an envelope addressed to Johnny Mercer/Songwriter/New York City, to find a request from a woman who worked in a hardware store in Youngstown, Ohio. The request was that he write a song with the lyric, ‘I want to be around to pick up the pieces when somebody breaks your heart’. Which he later did, and thinking that suggestion was half the song, he cut her in for 50% of the royalties.

  6. 6 6 Steve Landsburg

    Patrick R. Sullivan: Actually, my guess is that it was my dad who was confused by “I’m an Old Cowhand”; I did feel 100% certain about who wrote “Fence”. Thanks for the colorful history!

  7. 7 7 JolietJake

    What a marvelous post, Mr. Landsburg! Thanks for sharing!

  8. 8 8 Warren Wimmer

    Terry Gross of NPR’s “Fresh Air” ran a wonderful show last night on the Johnny Mercer centenary with a talented couple singing medleys and individual classics. Here’s the link:

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