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Jack Smith

Forget the Words--Listen to the Song

April 11, 1989|Jack Smith

Once again I have conceded too hastily to a critic whose point is questionable, to say the least.

In writing of our recent visit to Honolulu, I recalled that we had sat on the terrace at the Halekulani Hotel and heard a combo sing "Farewell My Tane," and that my chest tightened. I had learned the song when I was going to sea as a scullion; at night the chief scullion, a pure Hawaiian, would get out his ukulele and sing Hawaiian songs. My favorite was "Farewell My Tane." The melody was simple and haunting, the words sweetly melancholy.

Farewell my Tane

Child of a coral sea;

We dreamed of heaven

But you've forgotten me.

Once on silver sands,

We held lonesome hands.

That's why, my Tane,

I cried come back to me. I lay in my bunk, I said, and wondered whether I would ever find my Tane, and whether our relationship would be that poignant.

This romantic memory was shattered by a letter from Ann Jensen of El Segundo. "The beautiful Tahitian song, 'Farewell My Tane,' " she wrote, "is best sung by a female vocalist since it's about the man who got away. The word tane is the Tahitian equivalent of the Hawaiian word kane , which means male, husband, male sweetheart and man.

"Just to make sure about the words," she added, "I listened to my recording of 'My Tane' as sung by Kahaunaniomaunakeakauiokalawa Kahalewai. Her deep, rich voice told the same poignant story as I am sure your Hawaiian chief scullion did with his ukulele so many years ago."

I confessed my chagrin. But then I received a letter from Mort Greene of Palm Desert, a retired songwriter of such hits as "Beyond the Blue Horizon," "High Society," "Sioux City Sue," "My Grandfather's Clock" and many others.

"My chest also tightened at this fond recollection of 'My Tane,' " he wrote. "In the very, very early 1930s, before I became a successful songwriter, in order to get by I was playing intermission piano and singing at the old Club Ballyhoo on Sunset Boulevard across from the Sunset Towers.

"Richard Gump, a young man who frequented the cafe asked me one night, 'Mort, I've written this . . . would you help me out with the rest of the lyrics? I'm stuck.'

"I listened to the song, and it was beautiful, Jack. He called it 'My Tane.' But it needed a lot of work. Dick was living in an apartment on Sunset across from the old Players Club. We sat around the piano, and I rewrote and added a large portion of the lyrics (including 'child of a coral sea'), which was my favorite contribution. Little did I know what a standard this lovely haunting song would become."

Richard Gump, by the way, was a scion of the Gumps of San Francisco, and later became president of Gumps stores. He not only wrote "My Tane," but is listed by ASCAP as composer of sonatas and quintets for various instruments.

I wrote Greene to ask if he could tell me whether Tane was conceived of as a man. He answered: "I can only cite the late Frank Loesser's hit, 'The Moon of Manakoora.' There is no place called Manakoora. It sounded good, so Frank wrote it. Now, let's take 'Tane.' Forget what the lady wrote to you about Kane . 'My Tane' obviously sounded beautiful to Dick (it did to me, too). I'm not a researcher. I'm a poet. I cry when I hear it."

Although Waikiki Records, the original recorder, is now defunct, Greene called on a Capitol Records friend in Honolulu, and eventually received a record of the song.

"I had it taped, and enclose it herewith, so that your chest can tighten any time you want it to. Just mix up a couple of mai tais, put a hibiscus behind your ear, and tighten away."

My mai tai days are over. Our hibiscus tree is not in bloom. But I poured a glass of wine and played the tape. The singer was obviously a man. My chest tightened.

With all respect for Kahaunanio-

maunakeakauiokalawa, if Tane happens to mean man in Tahitian, what difference does it make?

"My Tane" isn't, after all, a Hawaiian song, nor even a Tahitian song. It's a Sunset Boulevard song.

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