The Exquisite Beauty of the Familiar

Deal W. Hudson
February 13, 2018

This morning I burst into song: “Oh, what a beautiful morning, oh, what a beautiful day.” My son, Cyprian, now twenty-one, he had not heard me do that in while, and half-smiled, half-frowned.

But as I sang the lyrics of Oscar Hammerstein II and the melody of Richard Rodgers, I was struck by the perfection of their marriage. This is a song I’ve known by heart since I was in 6th grade when I would sing it aloud in the basement of our family home of Tarpon Lane in the development next to Mt. Vernon on the Potomac.  ‘

I enjoyed hearing my voice echo around the cinder-block walls and off the concrete floor of the unfinished part of our basement.

So these lyrics have laid quietly in my memory bank for nearly sixty years:

All the sounds of the earth are like music,
oh, the sounds of the earth are like music,
the breeze is so busy it don’t miss a tree,
An’ a ol’ weepin’ willer is laughin’ at me.’

The Rodgers & Hammerstein musical “Oklahoma” opened on Broadway in 1943, six years before I was born. The superb film version appeared in 1955 with Gordan MacRae and Shirley Jones. At age 21, it was Jones’ first film after a handful of TV appearances. She was radiant and pitch perfect. MacRae was a film veteran, his baritone voice had no equal in musical theater, and his masculine acting style won not only Laurey’s heart but also the heart of filmgoers.

At age 34, MacRae’s role as Curly McLain made him famous, but, sadly, he would squander his fame with alcohol after making an equally-good “Carousel” with Shirley Jones the following year.

Back to the music and lyrics of a song so very familiar to millions — “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning.” Keep in mind it was written by two native New Yorkers, who, as far as I can tell, never spent much time out on the “ranges” of Oklahoma or its equivalent. Here’s my favorite stanza:

All the cattle are standin’ like statues
All the cattle are standin’ like statues
They don’t turn their heads as they see me ride by
But a little brown mav’rick is winkin’ her eye

That last image is a delightful surprise and adroitly characterizes Curly as a confident ladies man in the opening scene of the musical. If the reader doesn’t remember how the film version begins, take another look below. The director Fred Zinnemann, who could evidently make great films in any genre (remember “A Man for All Seasons,” 1966), teams with cinematographer Robert Surtees to capture in glorious blue the big sky of the American West (shot in Amado, Arizona).

Listening again, I’m awestruck by MacRae’s baritone, his ability to soar even higher in the second refrain on the word “morning.” It comforts me that I can come back to works of art such as this for years to come, but it saddens me that so many of the generations following me have yet to discover its exquisite beauty.

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