The song is 85 years old, written in the the early days of the depression, and still, when it’s the audience’s turn to sing the chorus during a performance by Jon Batiste and Stay Human at a taping of Stephen Colbert’s show, almost everyone knows the words. “Just direct your feet to the sunny side of the street.” The song is a beam of light, pure American optimism: all you have to do is cross over from the dark side into the light, and your outlook will change. “I used to walk in the shade,” the Dorothy Fields lyric goes (to the jaunty melody of Jimmy McHugh), “with my blues on parade,” but nothing is as bleak as it might seem. Look, it’s the sun! Let’s walk over there! There is something so corny about that, so simple, that it’s like a reflection of the Norman Rockwell side of our collective character. Batiste and his group take it as a confident, playful strut, handed down from generations of jazz musician like Louis Armstrong. So many of the New Orleans-tinged versions take their cue from Armstrong’s many performances of it, and even though the song began in a Broadway musical, it feels like it’s part of the New Orleans tradition, like an upbeat Crescent City anthem: Sidney Bechet, James Booker, Louis Prima, Harry Connick Jr., Terence Blanchard, Wynton Marsalis, Trombone Shorty. New Orleaneans all, adopted it, and one of the pioneers of NO R&B, Dave Bartholomew, cut a swinging local Doo Wop version with The Bees.
But it belongs to everyone, to Big Bands (Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Basie and Ellington), to Willie Nelson and Stevie Wonder, to Django and Tatum. How many songs have been recorded by so many A-list vocalists? How many songs have been interpreted by Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra (“grab your coat and snatch your hat,” he advises), Armstrong, Nat “King” Cole, Tony Bennett, Dinah Washington, Peggy Lee? Then throw in Dean Martin, Brenda Lee, Johnny Mathis, Doris Day, Joe Williams. That’s an incredible line-up right there, and it’s very very far from complete (apparently there is a Zooey Deschanel version that I need to find). You can see why it struck a resonant note during the 1930s, with its “if I never had a cent I’d be rich as Rockefeller” breeziness in the face of economic setback, and why it circled around again during the dark-cloud period around WWII when it was done by Dorsey and The Sentimentalists, Billie Holiday at Commodore, Goodman with Peggy Lee on vocals, Jo Stafford with the Pied Pipers. This was a song that suggested that worries can be left behind on the doorstep, that happiness was a few steps away.
The verse to the song got lost fairly rapidly. Hardly anyone sings it: the common approach is to leap into the coat-and-hat instructions without any set-up, but the verse paints a deeper picture. “Walked with no one and talked with no one/And I had nothing but shadows,” it goes, and I would have loved to have heard Billie or Dinah start off like that, a prelude to a bluesy lament that gets turned around like this: “Then one morning you passed and I brightened at last.” Someone (maybe in the original musical) has come along to reverse the emotional fortunes of our singer by pointing, metaphorically at least, towards the sunshine. That’s all it takes, but naturally there’s the implication that the reason the singer can “greet the day and complete the day” with a more positive attitude is that love has entered the picture.
Without the verse, “On The Sunny Side Of The Street” is nothing like a love song; it’s like “Swinging On A Star” or “Happy Days Are Here Again,” a mood elevator. Things will be better, it assures us. But what about “walked with no one and talked with no one” and those persistent shadows? In the midtown theater where Batiste and his band turned it into a sing-along, there were so many ominous portents outside, the shadows of uncertainty and fear. All around us, we’re being shouted at to be afraid, and no one can honestly say that these aren’t dark times. But Batiste gave the crowd its cue, and we sang words our grandparents knew. “Just direct your feet to the sunny side of the street.”