[Ads-l] Antedating of "Torch Song," "Carry the Torch"

Baker, John JBAKER at STRADLEY.COM
Sun Sep 26 20:33:11 EDT 2021


Thinking about this further, I'm still curious about the word "torch" in both "torch song" and "carry a torch."  Damon Runyon's column, based primarily on a letter from the singer Tommy Lyman, asserts that both terms are based on the word "torch," which in the "Roaring Forties" came to mean the object of one's affections.  Is there any other evidence that "torch" ever had that meaning?  Even if it did, "carry a torch" seems to refer to the frustrated lover, not the object of the lover's affections.  Green's Dictionary of Slang suggests that "the 'light of love' is still burning, even if it is unreciprocated."  I suppose that makes more sense, but it isn't clear what evidence there may be for this analysis.

It turns out to be really hard to search for "carry a torch."  There is a far greater number of literal examples of torch-carrying than I would have supposed.  "Carry a torch" was indeed included in the lyrics of the song that Runyan said Lyman wrote, known as When You Carry the Torch and various other names.  The lyrics include the lines "Ev'ry tear seems to scorch, When you carry the torch And the gang's gone home," according to the website quoted below.  However, I don't know how early the full lyrics can be confirmed, and in any case it seems to be unresolved whether Lyman created both terms, or named "torch song" after an existing phrase.

I suppose that "Roaring Forties" is a mistake for "Roaring Twenties,"  the decade of the 1920s.  "Roaring forties" is the original term, but refers to stormy areas of the ocean between 40 and 50 degrees north latitude.

Here is the discussion of When You Carry the Torch, from the website linked in my previous email, including the lyrics:

"The song is called variously:
The Torch That Didn't Go Out
The Kansas City Torch
The Torch of Kansas City
When You Carry The Torch
and was, allegedly, taught to Turk Murphy by Patsy Patton (cabaret
singer and wife of banjo player Pat Patton. We know him from when he
came to Sydney on the Matson Line ships). The first 'jazz' version was recorded by Turk Murphy for a Columbia LP on 19 Jan. 1953. The notes by George Avakian to that 'Barrelhouse Jazz' LP says that Turk came to it from the Castle Jazz Band (who recorded it later in Aug 1957) via Don Kinch and Bob Short, ex Castle band members).

It was composed (music and lyrics) in 1928 by the great Harry Warren
(we all know him) using the name Harry Herschel and originally
published by Robbins Music Corp.

WHEN YOU CARRY THE TORCH
[Verse]:When the gang has turned you down,
And you wander 'round the town,
Longing for someone in sympathy.
As you go from place to place,
Looking for some friendly face,
You can hear the old town clock strike three;
Then you wish you had your old gal back again.
You're lonesome, oh, so lonesome,
And your poor hear cries in vain:

[Chorus]:
Oh, gee, but it's tough,
When the gang's gone home;
Out on the corner,
You stand alone;
You feel so blue
With nothing to do;
You're cravin' someone's company.
The gang leaves you there
With an old time stall,
While you go home and gaze
At the four bare walls.
Ev'ry tear seems to scorch,
When you carry the torch
And the gang's gone home.

[2nd Verse]:
When you haven't got a friend,
And your worries never end,
When the future doesn't look so bright.
As you sit there in the gloom
Of an empty silent room,
As the hallway clock ticks through the night,
Then you long to hear a knock upon your door.
You're weary, oh, so dreary,
And your poor heart cries once more:

[Chorus]"


John Baker


From: American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU> On Behalf Of Baker, John
Sent: Thursday, September 23, 2021 6:49 PM
To: ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU
Subject: Antedating of "Torch Song," "Carry the Torch"

A torch song is a song of unrequited love, especially of longing for a former lover, and is thought to derive from the phrase "to carry a torch" (for someone). The OED's earliest citations for both terms are from 1927, and the citation for the former says that the term "torch song" is said to have been created by Tommy Lyman in reference to his song "Come To Me, My Melancholy Baby." Here is an earlier example from 1926, in a column by Damon Runyon. Monroe (La.) News-Star (Oct. 29, 1926) (NewspaperArchive). The column agrees in giving credit to Lyman for "torch song" and also addresses "to carry a torch."

<<I have a letter from Mr. Tommy Lyman, who is over in that dear Paree . . . .

All persons on Manhattan Island who were carrying the torch invariably wound up in the good Signor's premises to hear Mr. Lyman sing. Carrying the torch describes the sad condition of a person, male or female, who has had a falling out with their loved one, sweetheart, wife, or husband.

Such fallings out produce in the human bosom a terrible burning sensation - phew, how it burns! - but perhaps I am telling you something you already knew. A man carrying the torch has been known to walk ten miles and not realize he has gone a block. He is practically unconscious.

The object of one's affections has come to be described as a torch in the Roaring Forties. Thus Mr. Doaks is said to have gone to the theatre with his torch, meaning his wife or perchance his sweetheart.

It was Mr. Tommy Lyman who, out of the depths of his great personal experience, originated the expression, carrying the torch, to describe the condition of mind and body aforesaid. Also Mr. Tommy Lyman wrote the first really important torch song.

A torch song is the product of a song writer suffering in the manner set forth. Some very good torch songs have been written by Mr. Walter Donaldson, Mr. Billy Rose, and Mr. Roy Turk, among others. But Mr. Tommy Lyman's torch song remains to this day the official anthem of the torch carriers. It runs: "Gee, but it's tough when the gang's gone home," etc.>>

The headings for the column include "The Torch Singer Writer," in reference to Lyman's letter, so this is also an antedating of "torch singer" (1934 in OED). Runyon subsequently used some of this information in his story "The Lily of St. Pierre" (1930). There is some information on the song with the lyrics "Gee, but it's tough when the gang's gone home" at the end of a blog post at https://jazzlives.wordpress.com/2015/01/26/good-for-what-ails-you-steve-wright-ray-skjelbred-dave-brown-mike-daugherty-january-24-2015/<https://jazzlives.wordpress.com/2015/01/26/good-for-what-ails-you-steve-wright-ray-skjelbred-dave-brown-mike-daugherty-january-24-2015>, although the poster thought the song to have been composed by Harry Warren, writing as Harry Herschel, in 1928. Since Runyon, who thought that Lyman wrote the song, was quoting it in 1926, it could not have been written by Warren/Herschel in 1928.

There are earlier examples of "torch song," although these may not be the same usage. From the Los Angeles Herald (July 21, 1908) (Newspapers.com): "The decorations of the house boat, as well as the illuminations used with the torch song, form an effective bit of novelty, and the eight or nine members of the company each do a stunt, which is sufficiently good to make the number one of the best on this week's bill."

>From the Sydney (Aust.) Newsletter (Jan. 23, 1909) (NewspaperArchive): "Hello, Little Boy. Hello, the electric torch song, was first popularised in Great Britain by Violet Loraine, who made her name with it. It has been featured in almost every British pantomime this year."

>From the Boston Globe (Mar. 18, 1915) (Newspapers.com): "Miss Dora I. Brown, dancing exhibition and torch song".

>From the (Mount Vernon, Iowa) Cornellian (Jan. 25, 1924) (NewspaperArchive): "Interest and inspiration in songwriting are waxing more intense as the time draws near for the Torch song contest to be closed. . . . The previous deadline was set for February first, but the Torch has now determined upon February 6th as the last day on which songs can be submitted for the contest."


John Baker


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