History of the Track: The Lamp Is Low
Written by Alex Johnson on October 15, 2017
There’s a song that you likely haven’t heard of before, but which has irrefutably left a legacy in the world of music in a way few songs ever do: It’s a classical piece by the name of Pavane pour une infante defunte. It was written by 18th century French composer Maurice Ravel and is by far one of his most famous works. Most people who enjoy listening to classical music will find the piece beautiful and moving, but what makes this piece even more interesting is where traces of its musical lineage can be found—jazz and hip-hop, in particular.
In the late 1930s, singer Mildred Bailey recorded a song titled The Lamp Is Low which uses Ravel’s composition as the backing track to her vocals. Bailey’s vocals overlap with the new take on the work almost seamlessly, helping to establish a sound that is both revolutionary and a trademark of early twentieth-century orchestral and proto-jazz works. Around the same time, Frank Sinatra and Harry James also release their versions of the song. Each version of the song shares a sequence of notes with the pavane.
Fast forward to 1953, and Chet Baker releases his rendition of the song: a full-on, no-mercy trumpet version of The Lamp Is Low. Baker’s version is by far more chaotic and scattered than any of the previous evolutions of Ravel’s work, which is to be expected of any jazz rendition of a song. In 1969, a Brazilian Bossa Nova guitarist named Laurindo Almeida released his album, Classical Current. On this album is another cover, and this is by far my favorite version of the song. It does an amazing job of staying true to the original piece while incorporating elements of traditional Latin and Bossa music.
Prior to his death in 2010, underground hip-hop artist Nujabes sampled Almeida’s version of The Lamp Is Low in his song Aruarian Dance, and skyrocketed to popularity after his passing due to the use of this song and others in Adult Swim’s television show Samurai Champloo.
I want to end this look at Ravel’s work with a philosophical question. If you’ve never heard of the Ship of Theseus, consider this: a ship’s sail is ruined during a storm, and the captain decides to replace it. Then, the hull is damaged, and it too is subsequently replaced. All the parts continue to get damaged and replaced until the vessel has none of its old parts. A single question arises; is it even the same ship after a complete and total reinstallation of each and every part? If you keep the order of the notes from Ravel’s work but change the artist who performs it, the instrument they perform it with, the name of the track, or the time period it is played in, is it even the same song anymore? If not, how and when does it stop being the same song, if it ever does? Is it when the composer dies? Is it when another artist decides to sing over the arrangement and claim it as their own? Is it when the song is played in the style of one artist with the instrument of another, then set on a loop by a third with a snare and a hi-hat in the background?
You could argue that Nujabes’ song is completely different from Almeida’s, or Sinatra’s, or Bailey’s, or Ravel’s, and deserves to be considered as its own musical entity. In contrast, you could argue that it may have changed hands, voices, and instruments, but state that it is still the same in essence. Regardless of whose song you believe it is, this song is a clear example of how one sequence of notes can evolve over the course of a lifetime—or two, or four, or seven people’s lifetimes. A song will often change itself to appeal to a new generation of listeners. It may even suffer an identity crisis, like in the case of Pavane pour une infante defunte… but that’s how music works, It’s constantly evolving, always changing, and constantly finding new ways to surprise and enrapture us all. Sometimes the complexity, depth, and even unoriginality of songs are part of what makes them so beautiful.