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from The Serpentine Muse, vol. 9, no. 3, 1991


Paul Singleton

From time to time, essays and articles have emerged to dispel popularly held misconceptions. These misconceptions have origins dating back to prehistoric times (the stegosaurus has two rows of armored plates on its back and a spiked tail which trails the ground); others are more contemporary (Donald Trump has money). Still others are of a Sherlockian nature (that the song “We Never Mention Aunt Clara” is “The ASH Song”; that it was written by James Montgomery; that it has been sung with few revisions for years; that it’s known only to Sherlockians).

Old SOB member W. T. Rabe has emerged to dispel this last set of misconceptions with his book We Always Mention Aunt Clara, published last year by The Old Soldiers of Baker Street of the Two Saults. His book reveals that the song was not written by James Montgomery, that the words have not always been the same, and that the song was more well-known than previously thought.

The book opens with the original lyrics, written over fifty years ago. Those familiar with the version sung at ASH and BSI dinners, various cocktail parties and Shaw Workshops will readily see that some lyrics are exactly the same, others have a familiar ring to them, and a few are totally unrecognizable. The story begins there.

The song was composed by Ruth Willis, I. Eugene Willis, and another couple (who have escaped identification) in South Philadelphia on Christmas Day, 1936. The two couples, under the influence of Glögg, a traditional Scandinavian punch (a recipe is reprinted), reminisced about skeletons in family closets, and decided to immortalize them in a song, embodying them in a certain Aunt Clara, who “lives on the French Riviera,” though “Mother says that she’s dead to us all.” The lyrics were written after much discussion and much more Glögg. The tune was plunked out on a piano, with the music being recorded as letter notes, since none of the composers could write music on a staff. The song was later sung by the creators at private parties and gatherings. From the beginning, others would make a claim to Aunt Clara. Listeners would remark that the song was an old one, and one that they remember their father (or grandfather) singing to them “when I was just a lad.” Upon hearing it, a Princeton graduate insisted that “We Never Mention Aunt Clara” was a Princeton song. The song started to criss-cross the country, aided in part by a Hollywood personality who heard the song in Philadelphia and took it with him to Los Angeles. While the Willises were serving in the Navy in Washington during World War II, the song gained popularity among Navy personnel, and some “unauthorized” copies were made. From there, the song spread to Navy posts in several parts of the world; it was reported to be quite popular in the South West Pacific Theatre of War. It became known in London through the efforts of General Carl Spaatz of the 8th Air Force.

One of the biggest surprises of the book is the revelation that for years the lyrics have been sung to the wrong tune—a song called “Mush Mush,” published in 1891. The switch is unexplained but can possibly be attributed to Carl Sandburg, who paired the lyrics with the incorrect music for performances during World War II and in a songbook published in 1950.

Enter James Montgomery. The Gilbert & Sullivan singer, Philadelphia Sherlockian and member of the Sons of the Copper Beeches first heard the song performed in the mid-1940s. Immediately drawn to the amusing biography, Montgomery took it to Sons meetings, and to the dinner of the BSI in New York, where it was first sung in 1952. Though many Sherlockians believed that Montgomery wrote the song, he always denied this claim. He is, however, inextricably linked to the work because of the 1955 recording of him singing the song (to the incorrect tune). His rendition was included in the 1961 issue of the album “Voices from Baker Street I,” and has always remained the favorite selection despite the release of two additional volumes. For the next thirty years, the song was passed among Sherlockians and devotees mostly by memory, which accounts for the differing lyrics and notes when the music was written down from time to time. (One of the few facts about the song’s history not included in the book is its connection with the Adventuresses: Evelyn Herzog recalls singing the song to the Montgomery recording at early ASH meetings. Indeed, ASH songsheets of the lyrics have always included the note “as sung by James Montgomery,” since it is his version of the lyrics and tune that has been passed on in recent years. Thus, ASH is in many ways responsible for the popularity of the version that so many have recently held to be authoritative—at least until the publication of this book.)

Mr. Rabe has compiled a wonderfully loose history of the song, its creators and chief catalysts. More of a scrapbook, it jumps around from year to year and from protagonist to protagonist in a manner that might baffle the outsider and exasperate the musicologist but will delight the Sherlockian. One surprising subject is the lengthy debate on registration of copyright, and the thorough correspondence between I. Eugene Willis, Carlos Kelly, Carl Sandburg and their lawyers over ownership rights. The book is lavishly illustrated with drawings, photographs, sheet music of all songs mentioned, and an actual 1951 advertisement for Springmaid sheets employing the lyrics of the song. Also included is James Montgomery’s essay “Art in the Blood,” first published as Montgomery’s Christmas Annual in 1950: Montgomery explains how Aunt Clara was in fact his own Aunt Clara, and that her stage name was Irene Adler.

At the 1991 ASH and BSI dinners, “We Never Mention Aunt Clara” was once again sung. This news in itself is nothing unusual. But thanks to Mr. Rabe’s exhaustive efforts, the song (performed by Ann Byerly at the ASH dinner, and Fred Page and Wayne Swift at the BSI dinner) was heard with the original music for the first time in over forty years.

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