Sweet and Lowdown

davemarc davemarc at PANIX.COM
Fri Jun 11 22:22:57 UTC 1999

> From: Kathleen Miller <millerk at NYTIMES.COM>
> I have been asked to get the origin of "sweet and lowdown" for someone
> outside my office. I know its a Gershwin tune from 1926 (or 26?) and a
> musical (1944) but other than that I can't find a thing. Can't actually
> figure out what exactly it means for that matter. Those two words don't
> seem to go together.
> Any help?
According to the Knopf book The Complete Lyrics of Ira Gershwin (edited by
Robert Kimball), Sweet and Low-Down was published December 1925, and Ira
wrote the following in his book Lyrics on Several Occasions:

"Before Ukulele Ike in *Lady, Be Good!* accepted our 'Little Jazz Bird' for
his specialty spot, he had rejected something we'd concocted called
'Singin' Pete'--'the reason for shufflin' feet.'  (We didn't particularly
fancy 'Singin' Pete' but thought Ike would.)  A year later I remembered
from this discarded attempt at something patently popular one line I liked:
 'He's the John McCormack of the sweet and low-down.'  So I salvaged for a
title the portmanteau phrase, arrived at from 'sweet and low' and

"It makes for small philological honor, but one is pleased to note that
invented phrases like 'sweet and low-down' and *Of Thee I Sing*'s 'with a
hey, nonny nonny and a ha cha cha!' are included in *The American Thesaurus
of Slang*."

Singin' Pete was dropped during rehearsals for the 1924 show *Lady, Be
Good*.  A key section of the refrain:

"He looks like a yokel,
But when he gets vocal
He can capture any maid
With a jazzy serenade.
Singin' high--Singin' low--
Singin' fast and then singin' slow--
The John McCormack of sweet and low-down.
When he croons, I bet my hat
He gets the key to any flat--
Women sigh for--babies cry for
Sweet Singin' Pete."

"Sweet and Low-Down" was included in the 1925 show Tip-Toes.  The lyrics of
this song--"Sung, kazooed, tromboned, and danced...at a party, Palm


There's a cabaret in *this* city
I can recommend to you; [alt.:  I have heard about it, too;]
Peps you up like electricity
When the band is blowing blue.
They play nothing classic, oh no! down there;
They crave nothing else but the low-down there.
If you need a tonic,
And the need is chronic--
If you're in a crisis,
My advice is:


Grab a cab and go down
To where the band is playing;
Where milk and honey flow down;
Where ev'ry one is saying,
'Blow that Sweet and Low-Down!'

Busy as a beaver,
You'll dance until you totter;
You're sure to get the fever
For nothing could be hotter--
Oh, that Sweet and Low-Down!

Philosopher or deacon,
You simply have to weaken.
Hear those shuffling feet--
You can't keep your seat--
Professor, start your beat!

Come along, get it in--
You'll love the syncopation!
The minute they begin it,
You're shouting to the nation:
'Blow that Sweet and Low-Down!'"

Also:  In Philip Furia's Ira Gershwin:  The Art of the Lyricist, Furia
writes that in "Sweet and Low-Down" Ira "updated the traditional lullaby
"Sweet and Low" with 1920s "lowdown."

I hope that's useful!

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