Seven Dreams

Gordon Jenkins
featuring his orchestra, Bill Lee (Dreamer), The Ralph Brewster Singers

Tracks: 1 — The Professor; 2 — The Conductor; 3 — The Caretaker; 4 — The Cocktail Party; 5 — The Pink Houseboat; 6 — The Nightmare; 7 — The Girl on the Rock

Tags: Musical, Program Music, Concept Album

Release Date: 1953

Rating: ★★★★★

This “musical for record album” features the experiences of the Dreamer (sung by Bill Lee) as he experiences each environment. We follow him through each dream, and every morning, he wakes to the raucous, jangling alarm ringing and the spoken, sing-song litany of, “Wake up, brush your teeth, wash your face, comb your hair, eat your breakfast, go to work…” until, with the last dream, he lets himself stay in the last, best dream.

A concept album similar to Jenkins’ own Manhattan Tower and emulated in The Moody Blues’ Days of Future Passed and similar works, Seven Dreams remains its own brilliant gem that set a standard for the modern song cycle. Rereleased several times over the past half-century, the work originally released by Decca Records has survived both well-meaning and loving re-mastering, being reconstructed from mono into stereo and having its tone and balance massaged by sound engineers who want to bring the original forward. I listened to the original mono vinyl frequently as a pup, and my sire painstakingly transcribed the wedding music from the fifth track, “The Pink Houseboat”, for my sister’s wedding. Some have criticized the re-mastering as being “jarring”, but what few flaws I might quibble with are overshadowed by the genuine treat of finally having this music back, available on CD or MP3.

In the whimsical first dream, a college professor explains that he’s going to teach his class how to fly. With a one-two-three, knock on wood, the entire class flies out the window singing a chorus worthy of any full-scale musical.

In the second dream, our dreamer is a conductor on a train who meets some interesting characters. One of these is a “demon salesman”, played by Thurl Ravenscroft performing a patter-song that suits this voice of Tony the Tiger perfectly. We also get to hear from a politician whose over-complicated, meaningless rhetoric is met by one voice hollering, “Whaddiddy say?!” At the end of sequence, we hear the bluesy lament of a girl wishing that she could get away from Crescent City “and let that lonesome whistle blow my blues away.” The song, “Crescent City Blues”, is crooned by Beverly Mahr and is the source for Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues”.

The melancholy third dream finds the Dreamer as a cemetery caretaker. He tells of those who are buried there, and how he will one day join them. The tales are backed with the sighing strings of the wind and the caretaker’s sad remembrances as he, like the dead under his care, are now mostly forgotten. I have no knowledge, but I wonder if this piece is in part responsible for the far more upbeat song “Corey’s Coming” by Harry Chapin. The story of “old John” brings Chapin’s song very much to mind.

The fourth is a waking daydream, as our dreamer suffers through the tedium of a cocktail party, “modern society’s alcoholic refuge for the insecure”. Engaging in “the uneven battle of man versus martini”, he endures blowhards, glad-handers, and shallow thinkers, each time followed by a brief musical aside that brings to mind his own thoughts and his memory of a girl he once loved. An aside: Since there is a brief pause after each interlude, the vinyl album was able to split the two sides of the disc during this party sequence without ruining the continuity.

The Dreamer finds himself visiting a pink houseboat in his fifth dream, looking in on a couple who live there. Played by the legendary Jeannette Nolan and John McIntire (who were husband and wife in real life), it’s a simple and sweet tale of two people who, having lived together so long, wish finally to marry. Since they don’t live in a town nor belong to a church, the woman suggests that the angels — who she has seen since they moved onto the boat — would marry them. It is the angels’ song that my sire transcribed for my sister, and it is a choral work of brilliance and beauty that will last the ages. If you’ve still got dry eyes after listening to this track, I need to check you for a pulse.

The sixth dream is a nightmare of sheer mindless paranoia. “They’re after me, they’re after me…!” the Dreamer cries, trying to run, trying to scream, even turning to familiar people — his teacher, his priest, his mother — none of whom recognize or help him. “We’ve got you now, we’ve got you now,” the demons cry, “we need some blood that’s fresh, and you will feel our blades of steel tearing through your flesh; we’ve got you now, we’ve got you now, we’ll slice off both your ears — you won’t need them anymore, and we want souvenirs!” Only the ringing alarm saves him from his fate.

In the final dream, he finds himself alone in a New England countryside. He is about to leave when he sees a girl (Laurie Carroll) on a rocky ledge and, looking into her eyes, finds himself falling instantly in love. She feels the same about him, and two launch into a romantic duet, interrupted suddenly by the alarm clock. This time, however, instead of hearing the tiresome, quotidian litany, the Dreamer stays in his dream as his new love tells him, “This time… let it ring.”

There’s no question that my younger readers will find the work “corny” by today’s standards. What I promise you is that, if you experience the work for yourself, you’ll hear and know the essential joys and triumphs of the album. It is, as I say, a 1950’s musical made for the medium of the record album, where the only theater is that of the mind. I’ve include this album under “Program Music” despite my stretching the term a bit; at its root, program music is without lyrics, telling its story only through the music (usually orchestral) and the description of each movement in the program notes (best example, for me: Hector Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique). It seems to me, however, that this type of story-in-song is directly associated with program music, and I feel that the work deserves the credit.

I will confess to Prejudice By Nostalgia, but I continue to give this work a full five stars if only for its beautiful concept and brilliant presentation. It may or may not be the first of its kind, but it is certainly the best. Experience it for yourself.

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