Guest Writer – Paul Rousseau ‘Somewhere (there’s a place for us)’

Paul Rousseau once blacked out at a rave when taking off a sweatshirt
he came to, halfway through the procedure with his arms up and the body wrapped around his head, feeling trapped and claustrophobic
his friend Jo rescued him by pulling the jumper back down again.

 

The song is “Somewhere (there’s a place for us)”, originally from West Side Story, but in this case as sung by Diana Ross and The Supremes. I’m not much one for show tunes, but this one has such an insistent rousing emotional quality it nagged at me til I exhausted watching every Youtube version I could find.

This is how I discovered some oddly touching facts about one particular version I didn’t know before, but which in the light of recent cultural movements towards anti-gun violence, sexual equality and freedom from oppression, and especially the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, it seemed worth sharing.

(Original lyrics)

There’s a place for us

Somewhere a place for us

Peace and quiet and open air

Wait for us somewhere

 

There’s a time for us

Someday a time for us

Time together with time to spare

Time to learn, time to care

Someday, somewhere

We’ll find a new way of living

We’ll find a way of forgiving somewhere

 

Yes, there’s a place for us

Somewhere a place for us

Hold my hand and were halfway there

Hold my hand and I’ll take you there

Somehow, someday

Somewhere

 

Hold my hand and were halfway there

Hold my hand and I’ll take you there

Somehow, someday

Somewhere

The music is composed by Leonard Bernstein with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, created for the musical and sung in a scene by Maria, as she cradles her love Tony who has been shot dead, and it gives the drama a morbidly sad moment, that’s either camp or intense, depending on your sensibilities. The song became famous through the 1961 hit film, and entered wider international consciousness.

Knowing that the lyricist Stephen Sondheim was a gay man gives the lyrics a further potential reading away from the original setting, into a yearning for a future when all love might be treated equally. The song certainly works on that level for many ears, and opens up the idea that for many gay men of the period, the intensity of camp musical theatre served as a proxy for their own hidden desires, using hidden meanings to access a sense of their own lives, oppressed or hidden through ignorance fear and isolation.

Later, in 1965 The Supremes chose to cover the song, and its that version that I’m focusing on. The reason that version strikes me is that lyrics were added to in the context of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, adding a meaning that evolved even as Diana Ross fought off public humiliation, speaking new lines added to shift the meaning quite radically through a process of capitulation, leading to a new understanding of it as a protest song,

The Supremes: Live @ The Hollywood Palace (1966) – “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” & “Somewhere”

On its first release and on TV appearances, The Supremes sung it as it was: essentially a love song, using its original lyrics. The Motown performance directors added the high gloss of their chic as well as extra drama with plaintive arm waving and other mimetic stage moves. Ross’s vocal is beautiful, though with eccentric phrasing in places, such as words being randomly extended into eight syllables, making somewhere sound like some-wah-wah-were-air-air-air-rah…

A new spoken text section was also added to their version, in a section that comes over as both mordantly trashy and even comic now. These extra spoken lines may have had something to do with copyright, but it did give the song an added appeal in live performances where it brings a hushed prayer-like gospel flavour before the final chorus.

(added spoken text, version 1)

Yes, there’s a place for each of us!

A place of peace and quiet,

And we must try to pursue this place,

Where love is like a passion that burns like a fire!

And also fulfillment of two hearts’ desire.

Let our efforts be as determined as that of a little stream,

That saunters down the hillside seeking its level,

Only to become a huge river destined to the sea!

 

Their version of the song became a hit and was performed regularly on tv and on tour.

But then, on 4 April 1968, Martin Luther King was shot dead in Memphis.

Riots broke out in cities across America, and the song took on a new twist. As The Supremes were appearing in in New York City the gig was cancelled, but the next day, with the nation in shock and black America in despair, the group were invited to appear on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, dedicated to Martin Luther King. Berry Gordy, boss of Motown and Ross’s husband and manager saw an opportunity to make a public statement but also to move Diana Ross into wider public awareness.

The group decided to perform “Somewhere”, but Berry Gordy and his team rewrote the trite spoken section of the song, transposing whole lines with text from King’s “I have a dream” speech, and gave it to Diana Ross to learn minutes before they were due on live tv.

(added spoken text, version 2)

Yes there’s a place for each of us, where love is like a passion that burns like a fire

let our efforts be as determined as that of Dr Martin Luther King who had a dream

that all God’s children, black men white men, Jews and gentiles, Protestants and Catholics,

could join hands and sing that spiritual of old,

free at last free at last thank God almighty free at last!

Distraught, emotionally exhausted and extremely nervous, Ross struggled to remember the new lines and one can see in the video she could barely sing through her tears anyway. Then you can hear she brings the performance to a virtual halt altogether in the new spoken section, as she entirely fails to recite the new lines properly. The musicians slow and stop around her, and the air is almost sucked out of the performance.

One might say it feels like she stumbled and got it so wrong, because she realised and became overwhelmed by the new meaning the song had taken on, as she sung it, begging, pleading, demanding a new future, a place for equal rights. I can also feel another sense, of willing for a time and a place where Martin Luther King had not been shot, was not dead, but still be alive, if she could just sing the words hard enough to go back in time and make it true.

As the way of these things, no video of the visual recording is on Youtube, but a sound recording survives. It captures the mood with the stumbled new spoken part at 2.00 minutes in.

 The SupremesSomewhere on Tonight Show (Audio Only)

This event became a defining moment for Diana Ross‘ career, in that Ross more fully assumed her role as a separate solo singer and star.

A year later, as Diana Ross and The Supremes, the song was again performed at The London Palladium in front of the Queen and Queen Mother. But at one point Diana Ross refused to go on stage when she realised that the racist black-face parody act ridiculing black culture called The Black & White Minstrels were the first act on stage. But eventually she relented and they did perform the song.

Newspapers later reported she practically shouted the spoken text part: “Great God almighty! Free at last!”

 

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