“Moonlight in Vermont” is one of my favorite ballads to play on the sax. Written by John Blackburn and Karl Suessdorf and published in 1943, it’s a gemstone of the American Songbook with its sensory, impressionistic lyrics and evocative melody. Simple as it is, nevertheless it’s also a tune with a few surprises, notably its cadence to an altered V7/vi chord, which injects color into the otherwise static harmony of the A section; and also its six-bar form, again in the A section.
Having finally given myself credit as a vocalist as well as a saxophonist, I recently learned the lyrics to “Moonlight in Vermont” and have been singing it quite a bit in the shower, driving down the road, and of course when I’m playing a gig. Naturally I got to thinking about that odd six-bar A section. It was the first thing that struck me about the tune when I acquired it years ago as a developing jazz musician seeking a nice ballad to improvise on. Why write a six-bar A section? Not that one can’t, not that one shouldn’t, but why abbreviate the usual, deeply ingrained eight-bar phrase? How strange, yet how effective.
Yesterday the answer finally dawned on me in an inspired flash. I started counting syllables to make sure–five syllables in the first line…seven in the second…and, sure enough, five in the third…why, the song lyrics were written as a haiku!
Now, I realize that this discovery is probably no news flash to some of you, but it was to me. Each of the three stanzas in the A section is a little haiku gem which, married to the limpid melody, flows beautifully and demonstrates just how evocative compactness can be. The pentatonically derived A section, steadily descending, pausing at the end of each line, reminds me of a stream flowing through the woods, tumbling over little waterfalls and reposing in quiet, reflective pools before commencing the next phase of its journey.
“Moonlight in Vermont” is a song of the seasons, painting the annual progression in three-line daubs of verse. The first tercet gives us “falling leaves, a sycamore”; the second stanza moves us into winter with “snowlight in Vermont”; and the last one brings us a summer evening filled with meadowlark song.
The first half of the tune’s bridge continues with the word pictures while providing a digression into standard, eight-bar phrasing. The second half injects, for a brief moment, a human element into a tune whose romantic images have hitherto mentioned nothing of romance or of people.
Songwriters who contributed to the body of music we call the American Songbook were masters at their craft, and “Moonlight in Vermont” is exquisite proof. For more on the tune, read this commentary in Jazz Standards. A Wikipedia article also does a good job of addressing the haiku aspect of “Moonlight in Vermont,” though it incorrectly attributes two inaccuracies to lyricist Karl Suessdorf. Vermont is in fact well within the range of the eastern meadowlark, and while sycamores may be uncommon in the state, the southern part lies within range of the tree.
And that’s enough about that. I don’t know whether Vermont was moonlit last night, but it’s presently a cloudy Saturday morning here in Michigan and time I got on with my day.