Publish Our Love: Fats Waller

Thursday, July 25, 2019 - 9:42am

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Design by Kathryn Halverson

You can never publish my love,” Rogue Wave chants, in the song that the title of this series riffs on. Maybe that’s true, and we can never quite account for our love on paper or in print, but we sure can try. That’s what this series is devoted to: publishing our love. Us, the Arts section of The Michigan Daily, talking about artists, some of the people we love the most. Perhaps these are futile approximations of love for the poet who told us we deserve to be heard, the director who changed the way we see the world, the singer we see as an old friend. But who ever said futile can’t still be beautiful?

What springs to mind when you think of “love”? Most would conjure the image of a loved one (friend, family, secret crush). Others may treasure a memory, a movie or a keepsake. Travel agencies and tourism bureaus advertise white sand beaches and glittering skylines. But when it boils down to the warm, fuzzy truth, nothing elicits dreams of romance more than music. 

Many musicians have placed their stamp on the industries of love, sex and romance. From contemporary artists like Whitney Houston and Aretha Franklin, to old hats like Frank Sinatra and Louis Armstrong, there’s one man who tops them all: The jazzy champion of romance Fats Waller wins the heart, hands down.

Part of Waller’s charm comes from his skill as a songwriter. His lyrics are all at once romantic yet witty, soulful but also sorrowful. Love can shoot someone over the moon, or drag them down into the deep blue. Waller’s music, while at its core always swingin’, is lyrically vibrant and diverse. The Fats Waller signature charm is ever-present, but how Waller portrays love reflects the chaotic, unpredictable nature of romance. In both love’s glory and grief, Waller has covered it all.

Known for both his prowess as a musician and as a performer, more often than not, Waller’s music contains a dose of humor. On “Honeysuckle Rose” he jokes, “Don’t buy sugar / You just have to touch my cup” — a reminder of how love can be light and fun. Romance is taken too seriously sometimes, and Fats Waller not only embraces but celebrates the absurdity of love. “Your Feet’s Too Big” pokes fun at gender stereotypes and vanity, singing “From your ankles up, I’d say you sure look sweet / From there down there’s just too much feet.” Waller’s song is pleasantly ambiguous in which gender owns the “peddelic extremities,” allowing for a laugh at everyone’s expense — an artist truly ahead of his time.

Beyond the simple fact that Fats Waller is an excellent musician whose music deserves a wider contemporary audience, his true significance comes from the newfound relevance of his music in the modern era. Love has become a commodity to be marketed. Whether it be advertisements that goad partners to spend big bucks on flamboyant gestures, to dating apps that twist the grand search for companionship into robotic-like swipes, love has become a competition to appease personal vanity and impress the online masses as opposed to forming sincere, intimate connections. In light of this, Waller’s music can offer some vital, age-old lessons on how to contend with Cupid’s arrow (or for some, the lack thereof). 

His most romantic songs have also been the most sobering. On “Until the Real Thing Comes Around” Waller remarks “I’ll always love you, darling, come what may / My heart is yours, what more can I say?” And honestly, there’s not much more Waller can say — although he makes an effort, promising that “I’d tear the stars down from the skies for you.” While Waller’s romantic lyrics certainly strike the heart, these days love seems to have lost some of this emotional authenticity. That’s not to say that pretty words and a clever tongue is key to winning affection. But Waller brings his audience back to the basics: Love. 

This isn’t, however, an article meant to condemn society or contemporary music. Love is different for everybody, and there’s no “proper” way to find love –– that’s part of the beauty of the entire endeavor. But undeniably, it feels as though some key element to love and courtship has been lost. 

In one of Waller’s most romantic songs, he sings, “Two sleepy people by dawn’s early light / And too much in love to say goodnight.” There’s something in the idea of someone’s love being so overwhelming, so significant, that they cannot bear to leave the one they love, even as the dawn breaks, that is incredibly poignant. Maybe Waller simply fuels the ludicrous daydreams of the highly romantic –– Or, maybe such a dream of love is not so far-fetched after all. An element of purity and sweetness lays beneath his romantic lyrics; It is the coursing sensation of romance which lends the song this timeless quality. 

Romance –– the word almost feels overused at this point. So, too, has “love” been written more times than one might count. But the thing is, there’s no replacement for “romance” or “love,” and everything those words encapsulate. Waller’s music comes as close to the truthful embodiment of love more than any single artist has before. What is needed, maybe, is a reminder of this: Love cannot be replaced. Romance cannot be sidelined or supplemented by fancy gifts, grand gestures, or really, really good sex. Love may seem oversimplified, or ominous and scary, but at the bottom line, love is what we have, and there’s no finding anything better. 

“I’m going to sit right down and write myself a letter,” Waller croons in a soulful serenade for an unrequited love. His song “Write Myself a Letter” is all at once incredibly romantic, and heart-jerkingly painful. It feels fitting — just, even — to write this indulgent love letter to Waller. While Waller could only “Make believe it came from you,” this letter is written just for you, Fats. 

“(Closed) With love, (The way you do)”

Madeleine Virginia Gannon