Gatsby’s Playlist

There was music from my neighbor’s house through the summer nights.

Nick Carraway, The Great Gatsby

First published in 1925 by F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby shares Nick Carraway’s reflections on the summer and fall of 1922. This great American novel is very much a product of its time, and nowhere is this more pointed or unmistakable than in its use of music. The story’s parties and goings-on make frequent reference to music, usually citing real compositions popular in the contemporary “Jazz Age.” Touring a selection of compositions named in Fitzgerald’s story will heighten our familiarity with this book and the world it inhabits.

“The Sheik of Araby”

In chapter four, Nick recounts a summer evening with his love interest, Jordan, in Manhattan.

When Jordan Baker had finished telling all this we had left the Plaza for half an hour and were driving in a victoria through Central Park. The sun had gone down behind the tall apartments of the movie stars in the West Fifties, and the clear voices of children, already gathered like crickets on the grass, rose through the hot twilight:

‘I’m the Sheik of Araby.
Your love belongs to me.
At night when you’re asleep
Into your tent I’ll creep—’

This is a real jazz song, titled “The Sheik of Araby.” It was first published in 1921, making it brand new to Nick and Jordan. It was fresh to them like “As it Was” by Harry Styles feels today or Kesha’s song “Tik Tok” felt back in 2010.

We even have recordings of “The Sheik of Araby.” This recording is from 1921, the year of its release. This one is from a few weeks later. Unfortunately, both versions are purely instrumental, as I could not find a recording from Fitzgerald’s time that included the lyrics he quoted (no guarantee that it doesn’t exist). The song had some lasting popularity, as years later it was sung by both Benny Goodman and Django Reinhardt.

“The Love Nest” & “Ain’t We Got Fun”

Chapter five mentions two different songs in quick succession when Gatsby has his live-in house guest Klipspringer play piano for Daisy and him.

When Klipspringer had played ‘The Love Nest,’ he turned around on the bench and searched unhappily for Gatsby in the gloom.

‘I’m all out of practice, you see. I told you I couldn’t play. I’m all out of prac—’

‘Don’t talk so much, old sport,’ commanded Gatsby. ‘Play!’

‘In the morning,
In the evening,
Ain’t we got fun—’

Outside the wind was loud and there was a faint flow of thunder along the Sound. All the lights were going on in West Egg now; the electric trains, men-carrying, were plunging home through the rain from New York. It was the hour of a profound human change, and excitement was generating on the air.

‘One thing’s sure and nothing’s surer
The rich get richer and the poor get—children.
In the meantime,
In between time—’

Klipspringer’s first song, “The Love Nest,” was originally composed for the 1920 musical Mary. It broke out as a pop hit and became the theme song for George Burns and Gracie Allen’s radio comedy show years later (their comedy is the source of the oft-quoted line “Say good night, Gracie,” if that rings a bell). You can listen to a 1920’s recording of the song here. There have also been more recent recordings, such as Nat King Cole’s cover.

Ain’t We Got Fun,” meanwhile, has such name-recognition to this day that I recognized it the first time I read Gatsby. The song, composed by Whiting, Egan, and Khan, is a foxtrot first performed in 1920. A 1921 recording that Fitzgerald may have known can be heard here. I’m personally partial to Peggy Lee’s rendition.

Interestingly, this song shows up elsewhere in literature. It’s what George Orwell quotes to express the mood in England after WWI:

All through the war and for a little time afterwards there had been high wages and abundant employment; things were now returning to something worse than normal, and naturally the working class resisted… There was a turbulent feeling in the air. To that time belongs the song with the memorable refrain:

There’s nothing sure but
The rich get richer and the poor get children;
In the mean time,
In between time,
Ain’t we got fun?

People had not yet settled down to a lifetime of unemployment mitigated by endless cups of tea. They still vaguely expected the Utopia for which they had fought, and even more than before they were openly hostile to the aitch-pronouncing class.

Orwell seems to have gotten something out of the song recognizably similar to what Fitzgerald heard in it.

“Three O’Clock in the Morning”

In chapter six, we witness the end of Gatsby’s career as a party-thrower. His last bash concludes:

‘Good night, Nick,’ said Daisy.

Her glance left me and sought the lighted top of the steps, where ‘Three O’Clock in the Morning,’ a neat, sad little waltz of that year, was drifting out the open door.

As the novel notes, “Three O’Clock in the Morning” is a waltz and a solid last dance song as the party comes to a close. This 1922 recording of the waltz charmingly intros with a clock chiming three. The music was published in 1919. Lyrics and vocals were added later.

“Wedding March”

As Tom took up the receiver the compressed heat exploded into sound and we were listening to the portentous chords of Mendelssohn’s Wedding March from the ballroom below.

‘Imagine marrying anybody in this heat!’ cried Jordan dismally.

This iconic composition almost needs no comment. The fun context that escapes most readers is that Mendelssohn originally composed “Wedding March” for productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Dating from 1842, it is the oldest piece of music referenced in Gatsby and further widens the genre of music included. In addition to being a march, it is also, in a technical sense, the only piece of folk music Fitzgerald mentions (folk music being a culturally recognized musical piece appropriate for a specific occasion). All of the other mentioned songs are traditionally performed for listening pleasure or dancing.

“Beale Street Blues”

All night the saxophones wailed the hopeless comment of the ‘Beale Street Blues’ while a hundred pairs of golden and silver slippers shuffled the shining dust. At the grey tea hour there were always rooms that throbbed incessantly with this low, sweet fever, while fresh faces drifted here and there like rose petals blown by the sad horns around the floor.

Beale Street is located in Memphis, Tennessee. “The Father of the Blues” W.C. Handy composed this piece in 1917. A recording that purports to be from that initial year is here.

“Jazz History of the World”

I’ve saved this one for last. In chapter three, narrator Nick Carraway makes his way to one of his neighbor’s wild parties for the first time where a live orchestra is playing. At one point, Nick hearkens to the orchestra leader:

‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ [the orchestra leader] cried. ‘At the request of Mr. Gatsby we are going to play for you Mr. Vladmir Tostoff’s latest work, which attracted so much attention at Carnegie Hall last May. If you read the papers you know there was a big sensation.’ He smiled with jovial condescension, and added: ‘Some sensation!’ Whereupon everybody laughed.

‘The piece is known,’ he concluded lustily, ‘as “Vladmir Tostoff’s Jazz History of the World!”‘

The nature of Mr. Tostoff’s composition eluded me, because just as it began my eyes fell on Gatsby, standing alone on the marble steps and looking from one group to another with approving eyes.

This piece, unlike the other six, is fictitious (so is Vladimir Tostoff—don’t tell LinkedIn). Although Fitzgerald has been perfectly happy referencing actual songs throughout his work, he fabricated this one for narrative purposes.

The song primarily serves as something grandiose but typical for this orchestra leader to announce. Secondarily, it allows Fitzgerald to create some social distance between Gatsby and his guests, where everyone’s attention is turned to the conductor while his own is on surveying his party. The words “Jazz History of the World” probably struck just the right chord in Fitzgerald’s imagination and specifically so in the context of Gatsby’s bacchanals.

Fitzgerald wrote a book that, as transcendent an American story as it tells, thoroughly embodies its time. Highly specific times, places, circumstances, and associations shoot through the novel, playing off each other, connecting key points, and giving the novel a vivid life of its own. I hadn’t realized, when I decided to catalogue the immersive music that was so important to Fitzgerald, just how completely of its time it was: five of the six real compositions debuted within five years of the story taking place.

Fitzgerald was highly attuned to this—certainly more so than the hero he created, who tells Nick “God’s truth” about himself and mentions that he is from part of the Midwest called San Francisco.

Author: Noah Diekemper

Noah Diekemper studied Latin and Mathematics at Hillsdale College (B.S.) and Data Science at Loyola University Maryland (M.S.). Motivated by a desire to preserve and share knowledge, he contributed to and has also been published in The Critic, The Federalist, Intercollegiate Review, and The Baltimore Sun.

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