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

Thu Sep 23 22:49:04 UTC 2021

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/, 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

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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