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volume 5
july 2002

Old sweet songs


  In search of the sources of "I Saw Her Standing There" and "Yesterday"
by Ian Hammond
  Every writer of rock music, one way or the other, is reworking the lines of earlier songs. Even in their most innovative compositions the Beatles too were using the style components of the songs they had heard and loved. In some special cases, they even — unconsciously — made new songs out of some older ones, as Ian Hammond here shows for the McCartney compositions "I Saw Her Standing There" and "Yesterday". As the masterprint of the former, he unearths "When The Saints (Go Marching In)". For the latter — the song for which sources composer Paul McCartney himself sought in vain for a whole month — Hammond points at Ray Charles version of that other old sweet song: "Georgia On My Mind".
  "Just an old sweet song, keeps Georgia on my mind"
  "Georgia On My Mind" (Hoagy Carmichael, 1929)
1 Facing the songwriter's nightmare. It's hard to imagine what a completely original song might sound like, since the whole concept of style is based on the sharing of common style components. Every Beatles' song is constructed largely out of style components, and thus borrows from other songs, as all songs must. A favorite case of mine is "Please Please Me" which is a patchwork quilt of style elements. The extreme case of this borrowing process is to recompose a complete song. This is the songwriter's nightmare:
  "We were always very careful. The great danger with writing is that you write someone else's song without realizing. You spend three hours ... and you've written a Bob Dylan classic." (McCartney in: Coleman, 1996: 6)
  Naturally enough, some slip through the cracks. I'm going to present sources for two — mostly — McCartney songs. First, "The Saints Go Marching In" as the source of "I Saw Her Standing There", and second the Ray Charles' version of "Georgia" as the mythic dream song that inspired McCartney's "Yesterday". I've minimised the technical language to make this article more accessible. Subsequent articles, on both songs, will present the musical detail in all its glory.
2 I saw her marching in. Who doesn't know "I Saw Her Standing There" or "When The Saints Go Marching In"? The Beatles performed the Bill Haley version of "The Saints" in their live set and recorded the song as backup band to Tony Sheridan. I think "I Saw Her Standing There" was based unconsciously on "When The Saints Go Marching In". Singing "The Saints" while you're listening to "I Saw Her Standing There" is good way to compare them. It might take a couple of shots to get it right and that's mainly because the syncopation of the Beatles song is more pronounced. You'll find that McCartney's tune runs largely parallel to that of "The Saints", as do the chords.
  Here's a simplified phrase-by-phrase comparison. I've put the text of each phrase into boxes and lined them up. The best way to compare is to think of the tune of the fragments in each box. So, in the first box the idea is to think, or sing, "Well she was just", followed by "Oh when the saints", and so on.
  Figure 1: Phrase boxes for "I Saw Her Standing There"
and "When The Saints" (part 1)
  "Oh when the Saints" and "Well she was just" run in parallel: that means you could sing them together in harmony. They're followed by the same gap before the "When the saints" echo and "seventeen". The "echo" helps explain the gap in McCartney's tune. While the tune of "The Saints" is based on the simple white notes of the piano, McCartney uses a blues scale. This leads to a clash on "en*" and "the*" above.
  Figure 2: Phrase boxes for "I Saw Her Standing There"
and "When The Saints" (part 2)
  The second phrase is pretty much a repeat of the first, in both songs, so it runs in parallel as well. The Beatles play one different chord in this area, but they drop it in the solo.
  Figure 3: Phrase boxes for "I Saw Her Standing There"
and "When The Saints" (part 3)
  The phrases start in parallel — "And the way" and "When the Saints". They're different in the middle where McCartney sings "two-for-one", i.e. two notes for each note of "The Saints". Not a strong match.
  Figure 4: Phrase boxes for "I Saw Her Standing There"
and "When The Saints" (part 4)
  This is the most distinctive bit of the melody in the original and runs very clearly in parallel. A very solid match, and the chords are again identical. The clause has been borrowed many a time. You can hear the chords in "Hold Me Tight" — "Hold, Me Tight, To-night ..." — and in Del Shannon's "Hey Little Girl", which follows the original tune, and includes a falsetto echo in the last bar somewhat like the Beatles "oh" echo.
  Figure 5: Phrase boxes for "I Saw Her Standing There"
and "When The Saints" (part 5)
  Finally, the closing line where the identity stands out like a sore thumb. In the "Star Club" version, Lennon's harmony part is exactly the tune of "The Saints" and the vocal rhythm in the "Stand-ing" bar is identical to "March-ing" in "The Saints". They later stretched "Stand-" to most of the bar because they got such a great harmony on the word.
  Here are the box diagrams together — I had to compress the first two phrases to make them fit the line:
  Figure 6: Combined phrase boxes for "I Saw Her Standing There"
and "When The Saints"
  The case for "The Saints Go Marching In" as the source of "I Saw Her Standing There" is so clear that I'll omit a discussion and simply summarise:
  1. Parallel tune;
  2. Identity on chords;
  3. Identity on phrase structure;
  4. Identity on clause structure;
  5. Same tune in places;
  6. Historical record of evolution.
  The killer evidence for the song source is the parallel tune. While the chords are identical, it's a pretty common and unremarkable progression that occurs, with minor variations, in other songs.
3 First song-pair: chords and tunes. For those who eat chords and waves, here's a rough transcription, in C Major, with just a little formatting license:
  GBb|C    CBb|C    CBb|C    CBb|C    CBb| McCartney
  CEF|G   (CA |C)   CEF|G   (CA |C)  CEF | The Saints
     |C       |C       |C*      |C       | Chords

     |CBb G  C|DC Bb C |BbG     |       G| McCartney
     |G   E   |C    E  |D       |     EED| The Saints
     |C       |C       |G       |G       |

     |G   A B |C    DEb|DC      |C     CC| McCartney
     |E   E F |G    A  |FF      |Ab    Ab| Lennon
     |C       |E    G  |GF      |      EF| The Saints
     |C       |C7      |F       |f       |

     |C   Bb  |G     Eb|DC      |        | McCartney
     |G   E   |D     Eb|DC      |        | Lennon
     |G   E   |D   D   |C       |        | The Saints
     |C       |G7      |C       |C       |
  Figure 7: Tunes and chords of "I Saw Her Standing There"
and "When The Saints"
  Here's the "Star Club" version of that closing line — check out Lennon's part:
     |C   Bb  |G   D   |C       |        | McCartney
     |G   E   |D   D   |C       |        | Lennon
     |G   E   |D   D   |C       |        | The Saints
     |C       |G7      |C       |C       |
  Figure 8: Tunes and chords of "I Saw Her Standing There"
("Star Club" version) and "When The Saints"
  It's worth noting that Lennon plays blues chords throughout the Tony Sheridan recording of "When The Saints Go Marching In" as well as on "I Saw Standing There".
4 Dreams of yesterday. Now, after "I Saw Her Standing There", let's take a look at "Yesterday". I've combined these two song-pairs in one article so that I could provide a clear, simple example before tackling "Yesterday". If the match between "Yesterday" and "Georgia" was as simple as that of "I Saw Her Standing There" and "The Saints", then Paul would have found the song source thirty-six years ago when he spent a month searching for the origin of his dream song.
  "In fact, I didn't believe I'd written it. I thought maybe I'd heard it before, it was some other tune, and I went around for weeks playing the chords of the song for people, asking them, "Is this like something? I think I've written it." And people would say, "No, it's not like anything else, but it's good." (McCartney in: Playboy, 1984)
  McCartney has described the opening chord progression, so I'll start with a comparison of the chords and then look at the tune.
5 Second song-pair: chords. The case for the chords and bass is easily made. Here's Paul's running explanation of the chord progression (from Coleman, 1996: 6) with my notes:
  " I first thought: it must be one of those old songs ... I've just forgotten which one."
  "Georgia" was written and recorded by Hoagy Carmichael in the late twenties. Louis Armstrong recorded it in the thirties. Ray Charles revamped the song in 1960.
  " I just fell out of bed, found out what key I had dreamed it in, it seemed near G, and I played it."
  The Ray Charles version of "Georgia" is in G Major. McCartney plays his guitar part in G Major.
  " And I got a couple of chords to it. I got the G ..."
  "Yesterday" starts with G, and the tune is parallel at this point — "Yesterday", "Georgia" — depending on which verse of the Ray Charles song you listen to. He sings it differently for each verse.
  " Then I got the nice F sharp minor seventh, that was the big waaahhh."
  When Paul calls F# minor a "waaahhh" chord, he means that it's a feature chord which will drive the song and be instantly recognisable. The bass of both songs moves to F#. In fact, in performance the chord is more like F# minor with a fourth (f#4). He may have played it differently on piano. If you analyse the record you'll see that the predominant notes are F#, A and B, for both songs.
  At this point McCartney introduces an extra phrase into the tune — "All my troubles seem" — displacing the following parts of the original melody. I discuss this area further below.
  " That led very naturally to the B which led very naturally to the E minor. It just kept sort of tumbling out with those chords."
  Both songs move from F# minor to B and then to E minor.
  At this point McCartney's description of the chord progression drops off. He just wanted to illustrate a point. Here's a summary of the remainder of the chord progression and a comparison with "Georgia". I've had to squeeze up "Yesterday" in one place to align the chords.
  |G     |f#4 B7 |e  G/d|C  c#-|G  e  |A   C/d|G...| Georgia
  |G     |f#4 B7 |e  G/d|C  D  |G |e   A  |C   G   | Yesterday
          1.                2.             3.        Notes
  Figure 9: Tunes and chords of "Georgia" and "Yesterday"
  Let's take a quick walk along the notes under the chords:
  1. This is the chord that Paul spells as F# minor seventh, however what he plays is more like F# minor with a suspended fourth.
  2. This is one point of major difference between the progressions where "Georgia" has C#dim and "Yesterday" has [D]. I'll discuss this issue in the detailed article.
  3. Paul has [C] where Ray Charles has [C] with a D in the bass. The instrumentation in "Georgia" is sparse here, and varies. Functionally, the chords are equivalent.
  Only one chord is significantly different. Unlike "The Saints", this chord progression is very distinctive, including Paul's "waaahhh" chord and the closing [e A C/d G] sequence. In terms of a chord progression match, it doesn't get better than this. In fact, "Yesterday" provides a closer match for the chords of the Ray Charles version than the Ray Charles version does for the original Hoagy Carmichael or Louis Armstrong versions:
  |G     |B7    |e     |a7 a-7|G  B  |C  D  |G  | Carmichael
  |G     |B7    |e     |c6    |G  f#-|a7 D  |G  | Armstrong
  |G     |f#4B7 |e  G/d|C  c#-|G  e  |A  C/d|G  | Charles
  |G     |f#4B7 |e  G/d|C  D  |G |e   A |C   G  | Yesterday
  Figure 10: Tunes and chords of "Georgia" (versions of Hoagy Carmichael,
Louis Armstrong, Ray Charles) and "Yesterday"
6 Second song-pair: tunes. Now, here's a comparison of the tunes, with the same box system used for "I Saw Her Standing There".
  Figure 11: Phrase boxes for "Yesterday" and "Georgia" (part 1)
  Ray Charles spreads "Georgia" out over three syllables. He sings it as «B AB» and as «E DD», which is in parallel with McCartney's «A GG» for "Yesterday". In both songs, the opening word acts as an exclamation.
  Figure 12: Phrase boxes for "Yesterday" and "Georgia" (part 2)
  The end of this phrase, on "Georgia" and "Far Away", is again in parallel, with McCartney singing «F# E» and Ray Charles «B A». In both songs it's an echo of that opening exclamation. The difference is that McCartney has flown in an extra half-phrase, "All my troubles seemed", causing "Far Away" to pushed out by a bar. Tunes with an opening exclamation followed by an ascent occur in "Do You Want To Know A Secret", "Wait" etcetera. It's a style habit, and it may come from "Cheek To Cheek", a song McCartney mentions as a favorite.
  Figure 13: Phrase boxes for "Yesterday" and "Georgia" (part 3)
  While the phrases are displaced chord-wise, the tunes remain in parallel. In fact, McCartney's tune seems to follow the bass part of the original tune.
  Figure 14: Phrase boxes for "Yesterday" and "Georgia" (part 4)
  At this point the tunes resync with the distinctive chords E minor, A, C/D, G. "On my mind" and "Yesterday" are functionally equivalent, both finishing on the distinctive third note of the scale — «B» in this case.
  For those who want to see the technical detail, the table below is something to ponder. It's necessarily complex. I began by aligning the melodies in lines 4 and 6. Lines 1 and 2 have the chords and bass of "Georgia", aligned to the tune of "Georgia". Lines 7 and 8 have the same for "Yesterday".
1. |G   |f#4       B    |e e   C    A |G   e   |A CG | Chords
2. |G   |F#        B    |E D   C    C#|D   E   |A DG | Bass
3.                       1 1   1
4. |E D |          B A  |E E B    A   |GABD  E |GAGBB| Georgia
5.  5 5            5 5   1   1    1    1 1   1  1  11  Difference
6. |A G |BC#D#EF#G F#E  |EEDCBACB A   |G B A E |G  BB| Yesterday

7. |G   |f#4B      e    |C D   G      |e   A   |C  G | Chords
8. |G   |F# B      E  D |C D   G  F#  |E   A   |C  G | Bass
  Figure 15: Comparison of tunes and chords of
"Georgia" and "Yesterday"
  In line 5 I indicate the points where the tunes are a fifth apart (5) or a unison (1). Ray Charles also sings the opening phrase as «A B», which is a difference of [1 3]. In line 3 I point to some unisons between the bass of "Georgia" and the tune of "Yesterday". If you look at bar three of lines 6 and 2 you'll see how McCartney's melody for "Now it seems as though they're here" lines up with the bass line of "A song of you" in "Georgia".
7 Stating the case for Georgia. I don't want to overstate the case for the melodies. I see the same basic phrase structure, where each phrase plays the same basic role in both tunes, and has a similar shape. There are very strong points of contact at the start and end of the tunes and clear points of contact in the displaced middle sections. However, the match is not as clear cut as we see in "The Saints Go Marching In" and "I Saw Her Standing There".
  I can make other arguments, but they're more technical and less significant, so I'll save them for more detailed articles. Both songs have a standard two-bridge form, where the path to the bridge is [G| B |e]. At the end of the second bridge, both singers "explain" that opening exclamation, McCartney with the descending "Day-ay-ay-ay" «G D C B |AGG», and Ray Charles with a falsetto figure, also on the notes «G A B». Both codas repeat the [e A C/d G] sequence as [G A C/d G], with [G] replacing [e]. Just as Paul used a different scale for his tune in "I Saw Her Standing There", so he does here. Ray Charles sticks to the pentatonic scale — that's equivalent to the five black notes on the piano. Paul uses a mixture of the white note scale and the melodic minor — on that flown-in run "all my troubles".
  The killer evidence for the source remains the equivalent chord progressions — and Paul emphasises the chords when talking about the song. The similarity of the tunes would not be sufficient, on its own, to finger the derivation, but strengthens the argument. Back to the McCartney quote:
  "I thought: well, this is very nice, but it's a nick, it's a nick [from another song]. I don't know what it is. We were always very careful. The great danger with writing is that you write someone else's song without realizing. You spend three hours ... and you've a written a Bob Dylan classic. This one, I was convinced, was just something I'd heard before. I said to people: well, it can't be mine; I just woke up dreaming it!" (McCartney in: Turner, 1994, 83)
  Paul McCartney has related the dream story many times. Convinced that he had recomposed an existing work, he spent a month trying to locate his dream song, without success:
  "For about a month, I went round to people in the music business and asked them if they had ever heard it before. Eventually it became like handing something into the police. I thought if no-one claimed it after a few weeks then I would have it." (McCartney in: Turner, 1994: 83)
  If the song he sought was "Georgia", as I believe, then why didn't he recognise it? There's no record of him performing "Georgia", although he did sing the contemporaneous Ray Charles ballad "Don't Let The Sun Catch You Crying" — which leads to a different McCartney ballad: "Here, There And Everywhere", where the opening of "Don't Let The Sun" is followed by the "waaahhh" chord and opening progression from "Yesterday". I think there were four factors which disguised the source:
  1. First, that "waaahhh" chord which McCartney spelled as F# minor seventh, and may have been played more accurately on keyboard when demonstrating the song. It's only when one adds in the suspended fourth, which he sings, that the association becomes clearer.
  2. Second, the flown-in ascending phrase, and the resulting dislocation of the remainder of the tune, along with a single, but important chord replacement might make sense in an asynchronous dream world, but they render the song a distinctively different makeup in the waking world.
  3. Third, "Georgia" itself is a moving target. The original Hoagy Carmichael song was utterly transformed by Louis Armstrong in the thirties. Most of the jazz versions followed the Armstrong version however many of them introduced subtle changes. Ray Charles again transformed the song in 1960, and, as he said, never sang it the same way twice. Macca's song is another step in that process. I don't know where Hoagy Carmichael got his original inspiration from, but I'd be pretty certain we'd find it part of a song tradition stretching back hundreds of years. That's what music is about.
  4. Fourth, restating the point above, Paul's song is not just a derivation, but a stunning composition in its own right. Who would think of some other song when listening to "Yesterday"? It's as if he's discovered a very precious gemstone buried within the structure of "Georgia" — a new logic that he discovered in a dream.
8 Old sweet songs. Louis Armstrong popularised both source songs. "When The Saints Go Marching In" was a late 1800's hymn written by a Scotsman in America. Sung slowly, it became a church favorite that was later adopted by New Orleans brass bands for funeral processions. Louis Armstrong gave the song its popular form in the thirties. The Beatles performed the Bill Haley rock version in their live set and backed Tony Sheridan in his recording of the song. Hoagy Carmichael had a hit with his song "Georgia" in the late twenties, but it was again Satchmo who established the song's popular form, in the thirties, until Ray Charles recorded his remarkable transformation in 1960. Ray was in the habit of humming the song in his limo. His driver suggested recording it.
  Ray Charles later recorded the definitive cover of "Yesterday", along with "Eleanor Rigby", "Here, There And Everywhere" and "The Long And Winding Road", a song McCartney said was inspired by Ray Charles:
  "["The Long And Winding Road"] doesn't sound like him [Ray Charles] at all, because it's me singing and I don't sound anything like Ray, but sometimes you get a person in your mind, just for an attitude, just for a place to be, so that your mind is somewhere rather than nowhere, and you place it by thinking, Oh, I love Ray Charles, and think, Well, what might he do then? So that was in my mind, and would have probably had some bearing on the chord structure of it, which is slightly jazzy ..." (McCartney in: Miles, 1997: 539)
  Ray Charles also recorded "Something" which George Harrison said was inspired by Ray Charles:
  "Everybody presumed I wrote ["Something"] about Patti, but actually when I wrote it I was thinking of Ray Charles." (Harrison in: Undercover)
  Speaking again of "I Saw Her Standing There" and "Yesterday", I discussed these songs with Walt Everett while reviewing the draft of his then upcoming second volume of The Beatles as musicians (Everett, 2001). Walt pointed to the trumpet connection:
  "It's worth mentioning Paul's dad's trumpet playing in connection with Satchmo — doesn't Paul say somewhere that he worked at "The Saints" in his own attempts to learn the trumpet? You've led me to think it very likely that Jim McCartney planted the seed for "Standing There", perhaps before the 1940s were over, but certainly by 1954." (Walt Everett, private communication)
  McCartney's penchant for the music of his father's generation is legend. It's summed up in a passage from Paul's autobiographical sketch in Anthology — when speaking of another song source:
  "He [Paul's father, Jim] would always point out things like the chord changes at the start of "Stairway To Paradise" ... We were listening recently to "Like Dreamers Do", one of my early songs — and George [Harrison] and I looked at each other and [George] said, "That's your old man, that's "Stairway To Paradise". So a lot of my musicality came from my dad." (McCartney in: Beatles, 2000: 18)
  Paul began his musical life on his father's instrument, the trumpet, before trading it in for a guitar — so that he could also sing. The one tune he retained was the "When The Saints Go Marching In".
  "My dad bought me a trumpet for my birthday ... I persevered with the trumpet for a while. I learnt "The Saints" which I can still play in C. I learned the C scale and a couple of things." (McCartney in: Beatles, 2000: 20)
  In fact, in an uncanny coincidence Paul performed "The Saints", on trumpet, and "I Saw Her Standing There" along with another old favorite, Nat King Cole's "The Very Thought Of You", at the wedding of John Lindner Eastman, Jr on September 22, 2001. They're all old sweet songs now.
  The song "Georgia" concerns the power of song to evoke memories of our childhood home: "Georgia, a song of you ... just an old sweet song, keeps Georgia on my mind." Perhaps Ray Charles was thinking of his childhood years in Georgia, as he hummed the song absentmindedly in his limo — his version later became the state song of Georgia. "Yesterday" nails the memory theme in the title itself. In complete contrast to the music, McCartney spent over a year searching for the right lyric. His songwriting partner Lennon described the process:
  "The song was around for months and months before we finally completed it. Every time we got together to write songs for a recording session, this one would come up. We almost had it finished. Paul wrote nearly all of it, but we just couldn't find the right title. We called it "Scrambled Eggs" and it became a joke between us. We made up our minds that only a one-word title would suit, we just couldn't find the right one. Then one morning Paul woke up and the song and the title were both there, completed. I was sorry in a way, we'd had so many laughs about it."(Lennon in: Beatles, 2000: 175)
  McCartney finally wrote the lyric in the back seat of a car during a five hour drive to a holiday house in Portugal. The Beatles had recently recorded Lennon's "Help!" which also deals with this theme — "When I was younger." McCartney comments that the song has been linked, by others, to the death of his mother in his early teens.
9 Reworking old songlines. "I Saw Her Standing There" and "Yesterday" are just two extreme examples of the creative musical process in general. The world of music, which composers inhabit, is a labrynth of deep non-verbal connections. A dream world. Every song owes something, more or less, to the other songs in that world. These two are just at the outer edges of that process.
  In musicological terms, patchwork quilt derivations — such as "Please Please Me" — tend to be more interesting than recompositions of a whole tune. For the general public, who often wonder what the point of musicology is, it's the complete recompositions and the themes of copyright and plagiarism which attract attention. However, copyright is a legal matter rather than an artistic issue: "I Saw Her Standing There" and "Yesterday" are completely original and individual works. "Yesterday" itself has come to epitomise the "old sweet song". Popular Music remains, in part, a form of Folk Music, reworking the song lines handed down. So, Paul, you were right on the money, mate: but it wasn't just a nick, it was the Mother Of All Nicks. I'm glad you didn't identify "Georgia" and decide not to pursue the song. It was a bit too good to remain in that famous little note book.
  I was a little inaccurate when I said that Paul never sang "Georgia". In "Back In The USSR" he did sing the following line, which couldn't be more fitting:
  "That Georgia's always on my mind ...
my my my my my my mind ...
  Ray Charles matches him in "I Can't Stop Loving You":
  "So I'll just live my life
In dreams of yesterday
  • Beatles, The (2000), The Beatles anthology. San Francisco, California: Chronicle Books, 2000.
  • Coleman, Ray (1996), McCartney: Yesterday ... and today. London: Boxtree, 1996.
  • Everett, Walter (2001), The Beatles as musicians. The Quarry Men through Rubber Soul. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.
  • Miles, Barry (1997), Paul McCartney. Many years from now. London: Secker and Warburg, 1997.
  • Playboy (1984), "Playboy interview with Paul and Linda McCartney." In: Playboy, 1984.
  • Turner, Steve (1994), A hard day's write. The stories behind every Beatles' song. London: Carbon, 1994.
  Thanks to Marcus Brothwell (bass player and Paul McCartney fan, and my oldest son), rockmeister Nick Andrews and Walt Everett for reviewing this article. Thanks also to Walt for the trumpet connection, including the report of McCartney's recent performance of "The Saints" along with "I Saw Her Standing There". Walt Everett's second volume of The Beatles as musicians, covering the early years, mentions both these song linkages from our discussions (Everett, 2001). Thanks to Laura (lstoll) for help tracking down the trumpet quote, to the folk at rec.music.beatles for discussions of the individual songs, and to Ger Tillekens for the graphic transformation of this article.
  This essay was originally published in 2001 on Ian Hammond's own web site Beathoven, where more Beatles' song analyses can be found
  2001 © Ian Hammond, All Rights Reserved