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You have to give Frank Ocean credit. First of all, his recent decision to cover “Moon River” took bravery, as the song, more than a half-century old, might be lost on his younger fans. Meanwhile, the idea that he could bring anything new to this warhorse that’s been done a million times before seemed like folly. Yet he did an amazing job, as each one of his multitracked vocals seemed to be coming at that time-worn melody from a different angle with different timing, finding new twists on one of the most wistful tunes ever written.
Back in 1961, Henry Mancini dreamed up that sighing melody, back when was at the peak of his composing powers. That heart-stopping leap up the scale from the first note to the second seemed to represent the adventurous spirit of the lyrics conjured by ace lyricist Johnny Mercer. Mercer had to imagine the words being sung by Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly in the film version of Breakfast At Tiffany’s. Hepburn sings it in the film sitting on a fire escape, strumming a guitar, her breathy vocals curling around the words like a cat while the hint of a tear forms in the corner of her eye. Poor George Peppard never had a chance.
The movie was a smash and the song won every award under the sun. “Moon River” became a standard in record time, and it would be easier to list the crooners who haven’t taken a shot at it than to name the ones who have. Arguing over whose version is definitive is a great way to kill an afternoon, although Andy Williams is the one artist who can claim to have made it his signature song.
So what is it about “Moon River” that captivates us so? Well, bittersweet songs are always a good bet, because they allow the listener to run the gamut of emotions in the few minutes’ time span of the music. And “Moon River” might be the ultimate in bittersweet songs. Every hopeful moment is contrasted by a melancholy one. Think about the way that the narrator calls the river “You dream maker/You heartbreaker” in successive lines. Or the way that same narrator promises “I’m crossing you in style” only to qualify it with “someday.”
Will that “someday” ever come? That depends on the kind of mood you’re in at the time you hear it. The narrator finds a kindred spirit in the river, personifying it to stave off loneliness. The goal of these “two drifters: “We’re after the same rainbow’s end/Waiting round the bend.” Mercer than pulled out the perfect, bolt-from-the-blue descriptive of the river: “My huckleberry friend.”
Why huckleberry? In the book Portrait Of Johnny: The Life Of John Herndon Mercer, the lyricist is quoted thus: “When I grew up in the South, by a river, there were always wild bushes, blackberries, strawberries, little wild strawberries, wild cherry trees, and huckleberries, and that coupled with the name Huckleberry Finn—and Mark Twain had written about the Mississippi, and this girl in Breakfast at Tiffany’s was from around that neck of the woods, down there in the southwest United States, it just seemed to fit the need.”
Mercer wisely decided to let that word work its mysterious magic. With those lyrics nestled in Mancini’s luscious musical frame, well, you need only close your eyes and you can picture that moon emerging from a cloud while the river below waits patiently for the glow. Come to think of it, Frank Ocean couldn’t have picked a better song to cover. For whether you’ve indulged the wanderlust in your heart, or have squandered your chances to do so, “Moon River” will beat you to the emotional punch.