The Song in their Hearts

In Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, Amy Adams sings "If I Didn't Care" as if it's her story. Alicia Van Couvering discovers the real story behind the song.

The pivotal moment of Miss Pettigrew Lives for A Day occurs when Delysia La Fosse (Amy Adams), a glamorous, emotionally calculating American movie star, sings "If I Didn't Care" in a 1939 London nightclub. She has taken the stage with her mind made up, sure that she must choose as her suitor one of two callous yet well-off cads instead of her poor but big-hearted accompanist, a piano player named Michael (Lee Pace). Delysia begins to sing: "If I didn't care would it be the same? Would my ev'ry prayer begin and end with just your name?" But with Michael playing beside her, she can't hold it in - tears flow down her face; she does care.

In her discovery of the bittersweet emotions lying within the song, Delysia was not alone. In 1939, when the film takes place, "If I Didn't Care," sung by the Ink Spots, was an international hit, and it would remain a standard of the Great American Song Book for years to come. And while the song provides a way for the film's characters to express the emotions they can't otherwise own up to, its history illuminates the complicated cultural moment in which the movie takes place. "If I Didn't Care" and compositions like it were popular songs that allowed their listeners to find their own values and identities within popular music. In 1939, with the Depression still hanging on, a World War looming ahead, your music - be it carefree, romantic, or political - sang your point of view.

"If I Didn't Care," a song that expresses the conviction of its beliefs by asking its audience to believe in its conviction, almost never got made specifically because its own writer had a crisis of conviction. For its composer Jack Lawrence, who at the time was under contract as a movie scorer to Republic Pictures, the song was an experiment. As he explains, "In between film assignments, there were many idle days when I found myself in my Hollywood apartment noodling on the piano, going back to my beginnings, writing my own words and music." He jotted down the music and lyrics to the song, sent it to a friend at Decca Records in New York, and then realized he never tested it out. So he corralled two of his colleagues to listen and received a big thumbs down from both. Eliot Daniels, Rudy Vallee's pianist, told him bluntly, "Forget it. It stinks." Arranger Archie Bleyer scolded him that he written it all wrong. Dejected, Lawrence wrote Decca's Dave Kapp with a new version, and quickly got a reply by telegraph: "Too late. Song already recorded by new group called The Inkspots. You have a smash hit."

"The Ink Spots did that song originally," confirms the film's composer, Paul Englishby, whose fingers stood in for Pace's when the scene was shot. It was the first big hit for the four-man African-American singing group from Indianapolis. But, according to Jay Warner in American Singing Groups: A History from 1940s to Today, the Ink Spots almost never made the song: "They were on the verge of calling it quits as bookings were down and record sales had never been up." They were supposed to be trying out a new jive song, "Knock-Kneed Sal," but were handed "If I Didn't Care" instead. While the group would go on to score many other hit records—"I Don't Want To Set The World On Fire," "I'll Never Smile Again," "It's A Sin To Tell A Lie"—"If I Didn't Care" remained their most successful song, selling over a million copies the first year and over 19 million in their life time.

In 1939, the year of its release, the tune was also recorded by Count Basie, Harry James and his Orchestra, and Chick Webb. In the decades that followed, everyone from Connie Francis, Brenda Lee, Glenn Miller, and The Platters to Bobby Vinton and Frank Sinatra picked up the mic to record it. Later it was often featured in the sitcom Sanford and Son as a favorite of the show's Fred Sanford (and its star, Redd Fox), and these days it's frequently remembered as the song that plays over the opening of The Shawshank Redemption. An individual song doesn't get covered like that anymore. Recorded by one artist after another until its identity grew beyond any individual recording, "If I Didn't Care" and songs like it became ingrained in the American consciousness.

Over the years, "If I Didn't Care" seems to have had an almost like a talisman quality, bestowing gifts on all who came in contact with it. A few years after "If Didn't Care," Jack Lawrence wrote "Linda," a sweet ditty composed for his lawyer, Lee Eastman's daughter. Linda Eastman, of course, went on to marry Paul McCartney, who later bought the rights to "If I Didn't Care" for half a million dollars.

"'If I Didn't Care' was [director] Bharat's choice," says Englishby. "We always knew [the song for that scene] would be a classic American Songbook number." The Great American Songbook is the term given to a group of sophisticated popular songs by songwriters like Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, and Rogers and Hammerstein that appeared across Broadway shows, Hollywood musicals and phonograph recordings from the early 1930s to the beginnings of the '60s rock era. In his book, The Poets of Tin Pan Alley: A History of America's Great Lyricists, Philip Furia points to Cole Porter's 1934 "You're the Top" as the epitome of the GAS's best lyrics, being "urbane yet casual, literate yet colloquial, sophisticated yet nonchalant... [they] radiate the stylish verve of society verse." These writers, many of them Eastern European immigrants for whom English was a second language, constantly employed popular idioms and vernacular turns of phrase, as in "Just One of Those Things," "It's All Right By Me," and "Ain't Misbehavin."

While these songwriters set the tone for a certain universal sense of style and sophistication, their music was also a product of the times in very specific ways. Before the development of new microphones in the mid-'20s, singers needed bright, enunciating voices to make it to vinyl. But as Mac, the host of "The Antique Phonograph Music Program" on WFMU notes, "When they started using [new] microphones in 1925, that's when the age of the crooner began. Finally someone could get on a mic and sing quietly, with feeling." To match the technology, composers evolved their song styles to allow them to feel more intimate and personal and to create songs like "If I Didn't Care," which felt they were being sung to you directly.

Ironically the very technology that made songs feel so personal also allowed them to reach a universal audience. As new recording quality improved their sound, Hollywood movies often included these popular songs in their stories, and the songs were often sung on the record by the star of the film. Indeed Delysia La Fosse's double career as both singer and actress reflected a Hollywood trend in which actresses could make the most of their career by marketing their songs in their films, and vice-versa. Her character has plenty of real-life counterparts—nearly every popular actress of the time had a recording career to match. Mae West, Alice Faye, Dorothy Lamour, Marlene Dietrich and, of course, Shirley Temple all released songs that were prominently debuted in their films.

Part of the reason that songs like "If I Didn't Care" can work so well in films is their dramatic sensibility. Not only do they tell a story, but they imagine both a character and an audience. Indeed over the years, "If I Didn't Care" has proven to be such a popularly requested song on the radio and at weddings primarily because its sentiments speak for individuals who don't know how to say it themselves. This very slippage between what the song says and what the songs say for the singer makes the song scene in Miss Pettigrew so meaningful. Delysia starts singing in stage persona but ends by singing the song for herself and to Michael. "Tin Pan Alley songs were often written as show tunes, to move a story forward," comments Ronald Kaplan, the executive director of the American Songbook Preservation Society. "When you sing them you have to actually tell the story. You need to find something of your own experience and peel away the layers of yourself to convey them to an audience—you need to act them." And in acting them out, the singer acts for the audience who feels the singer is singing their song.

To get "If I Didn't Care" to serve as the medium for Delysia and Michael's feelings for each other, composer Englishby needed to tamper with the historical accuracy of his variation. Admitting to taking liberties with the musical arrangements, Englishby explains, "The music had to have so much energy. At that time in London, what was mostly popular was the dance band—Jack Parnell stuff, which was very sophisticated and very nice, demure. I wanted this be more immediate, less refined." The composer looked to the style of bandleaders like Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman and Jimmy Lunsford who, in America, were employing jazz rhythms to create the new style of swing. "Before swing came in from America, in these traditional [English] dance bands everything was played very straight and steadily," continues Englishby. "Even uptempo numbers were all one volume, one rhythm. To make it 'swing' means to make it a bit looser, to add the quavering rhythm of jazz and syncopation. With swing you get much more dynamic ranges within phrases - a huge 'pow!' in the middle of a verse. That's when music starts to have some kick, when you can start to add personality to it."

"These melodies are so durable," concludes Englishby. "Delysia's big theme, which I secretly developed throughout the film and which swells just as they get together is actually the first notes of 'If I Didn't Care,' just played in reverse order. These melodies are always lurking in the background, whether or not the audience is aware of it."