Frances Langford: Harbor Lights
Boz Scaggs: Harbor Lights
Bruce Hornsby: Harbor Lights
Think of the song Harbor Lights, and you may think of versions by The Platters, Elvis Presley, Bing Crosby, or Guy Lombardo, to name a few. Whoever you think of, you will be thinking of one of the corniest and sappiest songs ever written, one I had no intention of posting. The song tells of a weeping lover lamenting a lost love who has sailed away to sea. In the original recording by Frances Langford, from 1937, the song is song by a woman, and it becomes clear that the departed lover is a sailor who has proved faithless. Versions sung by men make no sense to me, but the song is inescapable throughout pop music history. In putting this post together, I realized that one does not call a song Harbor Lights without dealing with the original cornball classic in some way.
Boz Scaggs responded with a new song called Harbor Lights. There is a sly reference to the original in a line about an old song on the juke box. Scaggs is offended by the earlier song on behalf of the male half of the human race. His song says we men are not horrible like that. His narrator is a sailor who is faithful, and looks forward eagerly to returning to his lover.
Bruce Hornsby‘s reaction is more radical. He rejects the entire setup, and says, “No, this is not at all what harbor lights evoke for me.” There is no question of faithfulness in his song. Instead there is the rush of a new romance, with its powerful sense of infinite possibility. Hornsby‘s song is both a literal and figurative statement. It was the title track to the first album Hornsby recorded as a solo artist, after three with the Range. More importantly, it was Hornsby‘s first album after spending time as a member of the Grateful Dead. The Range albums are fine, but here Hornsby cuts loose for the first time. The songs add a jazz flavor, and they lengthen to allow the musicians to stretch out with solos. The guitar solos here are by guest Pat Metheny, and Jerry Garcia appears elsewhere on the album. Hornsby is celebrating his newfound freedom from traditional pop song forms, and he is invoking and rebutting one of the hoariest examples of traditional pop to do so.