Moon River

The Geography of a Timeless Song

Illustration by Jym Davis

Illustration by Jym Davis

The shelf life of a contemporary pop song is usually pretty short. People crave it for a season, a year at best, before getting tired of its ubiquitous hook and moving on to the next now thing. Johnny Mercer’s time was much friendlier to the catchy song; one singer’s version might spawn five others. He had plenty of hits that did just that from the 1930s through the 1950s. But—worrying as he did that his songs wouldn’t weather the rock and roll explosion—he couldn’t have envisioned the life that 1961’s “Moon River” in particular would have both immediately and for a half-century after he wrote it.

“He really had felt washed up in the late 1950s,” explains Philip Furia, a Mercer biographer and scholar of Tin Pan Alley lyric writing. “One of the great disappointments of his life was he never had a big Broadway show. …He was afraid his songs were not going to endure. And then he got a chance to write with Henry Mancini and did ‘Moon River,’ and suddenly he had a number one hit song and he was on all the talk shows and his picture was in magazines. It put him back on top for at least a few more years near the end of his career.”

Mercer’s wistful lyrics and Mancini’s simple, lilting tune were meant for Audrey Hepburn’s character, Holly Golightly—the worldly girl who’d grown up down south—to sing in the film Breakfast At Tiffany’s. Of course, as a Savannah native and one of the few true southerners turning out popular material in New York City, Mercer had ample memories to draw on, including some involving the song’s most notorious image—the huckleberry.

“He and his cousin Walter Rivers would just play in the coastland area of Savannah,” Furia notes. “And one of the things they did was pick huckleberries. They once tried to make it into ice cream, huckleberry ice cream. And it tasted terrible. But they remembered those lazy afternoons in the summer. He talks about just lying in the grass and looking up in the sky and dreaming about what he’d become, you know, when he was a grownup.”

The real ‘Moon River’

In 1962, “Moon River” earned Mercer (and Mancini) an Academy Award. Closer to home, its success seemed a good enough reason for the Chatham County Commission to rechristen Savannah’s “Back River” the “Moon River.” The Savannah Morning News published an appreciative letter Mercer wrote to the publication’s editors and the Chatham County Commissioners, reminiscing about playing on that very same river as a kid: “…the whole island has poignant and nostalgic memories for me, and it is a touching tribute and compliment for someone to think enough of our song ‘Moon River’ to have the stream that I knew so well named after it.”

While visiting the home he kept in Savannah during the summer of 1962, Mercer was asked by a reporter from that same paper why he’d never written a song about the town. Apparently he had no real answer, but he did point out, rather smoothly, that the county commission had remedied the situation for him: “If I won’t write a ditty about Savannah, the boys will name a river after one already written. Mountain to Mahomet, like.”

Things really took off with “Moon River” when Andy Williams recorded it and made it his theme song on his television show. (Nowadays, he even has a dinner theatre named for it in Branson, Mo.) He didn’t find the song by accident, though. “Mercer and Mancini actually saw him eating in a restaurant one evening when they were working on the song and they just walked over to his table,” Furia says. “That’s the old Tin Pan Alley tradition of getting somebody to plug your song, was what they did with Andy Williams.”

In 1962, actress Debbie Reynolds presented Henry Mancini (L) and Johnny Mercer their Academy Awards for "Moon River" from the film Breakfast at Tiffany's

In 1962, actress Debbie Reynolds presented Henry Mancini (L) and Johnny Mercer their Academy Awards for “Moon River” from the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Photo courtesy Special Collections and Archives, Georgia State University

Williams’ sweeping, string-backed version was one of many pop and jazz covers during the sixties. Frank Sinatra’s, Perry Como’s, Paul Anka’s, Lena Horne’s and Shirley Bassey’s were just a few of the equally grandiose renditions. Sarah Vaughn, Dion, Ben E. King and Eydie Gorme changed things up a bit, either with vocal textures or energetic accompaniment, and instrumentalists—Duane Eddy, Art Blakey, Vince Guaraldi and Dizzy Gillespie among them—took varying degrees of liberty with the melody.

New generation, new life

All this happened the same decade Mercer co-wrote the song. But it was in the years after his 1976 death that things really got interesting. Alternative musicians with rock or folk leanings joined the supper club singers in staking their claims to the song. R.E.M. included Michael Stipe’s meek-sounding reading of it on Reckoning in the early ‘80s. The mid-‘90s saw Morrissey’s extended “Moon River” reverie and the Afghan Whigs’ live cover.

More recent renditions have, in a way, circled back to Hepburn’s original version. During a scene in Breakfast At Tiffany’s, she reclines in a window, strumming a spare waltz pattern on acoustic guitar and half-whispering the melody. (That version didn’t appear on the movie soundtrack.) Unadorned female singers like Patty Griffin, the Innocence Mission’s Karen Peris, Swan Dive’s Molly Felder, Mia Riddle, and Victoria Williams, have all done their own spare interpretations. Peris, Felder and Riddle sing it as a lullaby; for Williams it’s a whimsical, jazzy plaything.

Furia has his theories about why “Moon River” has been so adaptable. “It is like some of Irving Berlin’s songs or Stephen Foster’s songs, [in] that it’s achieved that kind of folk quality,” he ventures.

Specifically, he says, “The appeal really is nostalgia. It goes back to our childhood, memories of the things you did last summer. I just think [it’s] that kind of appeal to the nostalgia of childhood…and also the pastoral idea of ‘We’re all living and working in cities, [with] hectic lives. But we want to believe that when we were children we were out in the country and things were quiet and peaceful and it was a natural landscape—not [the] big city traffic and skyscrapers that we’re living in now.’ You can always pull that heartstring in everybody, I think.”

But for such a simple song lyric, it’s no playful ditty. “If you think about the point-of-view of the song, it’s an adult looking back on childhood with a very sophisticated perspective, thinking about the river that carries you into our future,” Furia says. “There’s a fondness there, but also a wisdom in the song. So it’s not a child’s song; it’s an adult’s song that’s looking back on childhood.”

Childhood memories, indeed, exerted a pull on Stipe. In It Crawled From the South: An R.E.M. Companion, Marcus Gray writes, “The first song Michael remembers hearing is `Moon River’…It became a great favourite, although—as he later admitted—this was partly because he thought the phrase `my huckleberry friend’ referred to Huckleberry Hound.”

Morrissey, evidently, had no such attachment to the canine cartoon character, since he dropped “huckleberry friend” out of his version entirely. (He’s British, after all, and that’s a cultural reference that may not translate so well.)

Victoria Williams opened her 2002 standards album, Sings Some Ol’ Songs, with “Moon River.” She explains her recordings of classic pop and jazz material as attempts to make her utterly unique voice more accessible to listeners by pairing it with songs they’d already know. And the imagery Mercer used in the song felt plenty familiar to her. “I just love ‘Moon River,’” she says, “as it seems to me to encompass two of my favorite characters of this life—the moon and the river, the timekeeper and the journey. …the simplicity of the song is universal and, having drifted off the see the world many times, it works for me.”

No doubt, she and Stipe aren’t the only ones who feel that way.

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