Sinatra Again and Again: Songs of Longing for New Year’s Day

Like many people, when the New Year rolls around, I think of turning over a new leaf.  The problem with doing that, especially in New England, is that it’s hard to find one.  Nothing grows in this cold climate at this time of year, except old habits. You can turn them over but they’re still aged without a bit of green newness anywhere.

Do people fly south in the winter time to find new leaves, only to find their old selves when they get there?  Is that what leaving gets you? Is that why winter in Florida resembles a geriatric ward, a place for reminiscing and Auld Lang Syne?

Stuck in old habits and wanting to throw off the old for the new, we tend to do strange things like buy new clothes, get a haircut, or resolve to form new habits that we think are good for us.  But these resolutions, as the word implies, are a re-solving of what we resolved to make new last New Year’s.  So many solutions to so many old habits over so many years are still habits.  And we end up being stuck in a double-bind of our own making, anchored in the past.  Habits, by definition, are what hold us back in our conditions.

Yet little else is so settled, least of all our lives, and this we sense.  We may be stuck, but time passes and we will die chained to our routines unless we change.  So we reach for new beginnings every chance we can get: New Year’s and birthdays being the most popular – arbitrary constructs used to propel us into what we think will be new lives.

New is easier said than done, of course.  How to change?  Change to what?  Do we really want to change, or are all these habitual resolutions our solutions to the threat that real change entails?  If we truly changed, could we change the world?  And if we don’t, will we have a world to change?

New Year’s brings to mind what everyone knows: that the years come and go, they turn, we get older; we seek at every age to be transformed into new people – somehow freed from something, some inexpressible lonely burden, some guilty sense that time will devour us before we make amends.  The desire for transformation is universal.  So too is the often unacknowledged awareness, that like the years that pass, we too shall “pass” – to use that evasive euphemism.

Doesn’t anyone fail or die anymore?  Or is that for the poor and out-of-sight, the disappeared victims of oppressive injustice and violence?  Is it that the conquerors pass and others fail?

“Don’t wait too long,” sang Frank Sinatra more than fifty years ago when he was struggling with aging and the thought of being over the hill, his end coming.  “Why must the moments go by with such haste?  Don’t wait too long.”

Much has been written about Frank, and rightly so.  These commentaries have been elicited by the universally acknowledged genius of his singing, especially for his gift of soulfully expressing the deepest human emotions of love and loss and longing. I would suggest that Frank Sinatra, and in particular his great album, September of My Years, be requisite listening for anyone interested in real change for the New Year.  In the midst of the revelry and fireworks, the old year and the new, the resolutions and irresolutions, looking back and looking forward – here is Sinatra singing of the deepest core of the year’s turning – human loneliness.  And how, despite it, to love and connect.  How to embrace seeming contradiction. How to change.

I never met Sinatra, but he was my mentor in this process, one that has no ending.  It’s transformative work. Ephemeral, yet realer than real.

When I was young, he taught me to be old.  Now that I’m old, he’s taught me to be young.  How?  By listening to the singing, the words that fly from his mouth come from the heart’s desires, the hunger of the soul. They pierce to the core of all our longings for change within permanence.  He didn’t write the words, but he had a genius for articulating them.

As Bob Dylan said of Sinatra, “Right from the beginning, he was there with the truth of things in his voice.”

In his voice, yes.  I am not speaking of the man about whom so much has been written, good and bad. I am not speaking of his politics or his personal life.  I never knew the man, just the voice.  That’s enough. From his voice comes truth of a very deep nature.

Listen, you older folks.  “When the wind was green at the start of the spring….”  “When I was seventeen….”  “I know how it feels to have wings on your heels ….”

Youngsters, listen.  “When you’re all alone, all the children grown, and like starlings flown away, it gets lonely early, doesn’t it, every single endless day.”

“Once upon a time….”  Everyone, listen.  Connect.

Perhaps only songs can change us. Arguments so often seem to fall on deaf ears.  Could it be that songs are the expression in sound of the dual nature of our New Year’s longings for newness amidst the old?

John Berger, a master political writer no matter what his ostensible subject matter – a portrait, a landscape, a singing performance – put it perfectly shortly before he died in an article in Harper’s magazine.  “A song, as distinct from the bodies it takes over, is unfixed in time and place. A song narrates a past experience.  While it is being sung it fills the present.  Stories do the same.  But songs have another dimension, which is uniquely theirs.  A song fills the present while it hopes to reach a listening ear in some future somewhere.  It leans forward, farther and farther.  Without the persistence of this hope, songs would not exist.  Songs lean forward.”

So lean forward and listen.  It’s a new year.  There is hope.  If we change.


7 thoughts on “Sinatra Again and Again: Songs of Longing for New Year’s Day”

  1. A tough one, for sure, Sinatra . . . The Man with the Golden Arm! And, of course, the FBI is one dirty outfit, from day one. Files, man, files.

    The reality is Sinatra is uniquely an American character, and mob ties, the entire progressive causes, the entire dirty Hollywood and Music Industry, something else. The Voice of Hoboken!

    Funny stuff, on the History web site:

    “Frank Sinatra’s Mob Ties and Other Secrets from His FBI File: The FBI documented Old Blue Eyes’ every move for 40 years.”

    Here, some facts:

    From 1944 until 1948, Sinatra contributed financially and gave his name to progressive causes and organizations; but he did what few celebrity progressives did in that period: He publicly confronted racism, prejudice, and red baiting. (“Progressive” here is defined as those who, although not Communists or even Communist sympathizers, were comfortable working together with Communists toward common goals.) Sinatra’s connections with the Left abruptly ended when he became the target of red baiting which contributed to an astounding downward spiral in his career.

    Sinatra’s early Leftism-the activities, associations, and avowed beliefs-grew out of his early experiences and, in ways large and small, they reverberated throughout his life. Sinatra’s “left phase” not only sheds light on the trajectory of this American icon, it also speaks loudly to two large and related phenomena: the Popular Front (in both its political and cultural manifestations) and its repression in the postwar period. His story shows how widespread Popular Front politics were in the United States, and it reveals the extent of the repression that ultimately defeated this movement.

    Times have changed, and so, liberals are rednecks and fascists, and, there you have it in a nutshell — Lula, amazing rise, again, and the thug of Brazil, Bolsonaro running to gated community in Florida. Sick sick sick, and the USA is that sickness, way before Sinatra came on the scene. He’d be cancelled immediately today if he was around as a young crooner goiing for anti-fascism and pro-communism.


    Sinatra’s early life predisposed him to the Left. His parents were both immigrants from Italy-his mother, Natalia (Dolly) Garaventa, from a village near Genoa; his father, Anthony Martin Sinatra from Sicily-who settled in Hoboken, New Jersey (Fagiani, 1999, 20, 23). Located directly across the Hudson River from midtown New York, this mile-square waterfront city had a well-earned reputation as a tough working class town. In the 1930s, Hoboken was the most densely populated city in the United States. This gritty city’s sixty thousand people formed ethnic sub-communities where by 1930 Italian Americans had supplanted the German and Irish Americans as the largest ethnic group (Federal Writers’ Project, 1989, 262-269). In a full-page interview with the Communist poet Walter Lowenfels in The Daily Worker, Sinatra recalled, “I was brought up in a tenement in a very poor neighborhood. It was a real melting-pot, a cross-section of every racial group in the country” (Lowenfels, 1945, 3). Sinatra was referring to Hoboken’s south-west corner (the only area of the city where wooden tenements predominate), which was an Italian urban village with its own Catholic Italian “national parish,” St. Francis, which sponsored an annual festa (Proctor, 91-94; Brown, passim).

  2. Sinatra was one of a kind. I remember wondering if he would ever really die. He was woven into so many lives.

    Ed, I enjoyed the album of tunes. I think about those who wrote the lyrics and composed the music. Sinatra was an artist.

    I still do love this rendition of Once Upon A Time by John Gary a man who never quite obtained the broad acclaim.

  3. Are these the musings of people in the southern hemisphere, often thought a GLOBE (Earth) should be produced which had the South Pole as top would be an interesting experiment. Yes, Fly Me To The Moon by Tony !! Right(as an aside have you ever noticed people looking to influence-Tom Friedman-punctuating their declarative statements with RIGHT is this some linguistic sticker burr?) perhaps our nadir of the light cycle festival attempts are a cry for authenticity or real ceremony, perhaps flirting with Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class.

  4. Thank you Ed again for another thought provoking presentation.
    “Habit” is the take home subject for me. There is a fascinating paradoxical correlation between habit, intelligence, knowledge, and learning.
    Tom Collins in “Such Is Life” writes that the ox has greater sagacity than the horse, but the horse is much more teachable because it is by far more a creature of habit.
    We might argue that everything we know or believe is just habit. – In that context, changing our habits means questioning our beliefs.

  5. I’m with you on all of this, Ed. Speaking of songs from the Sinatra era, here’s what to me is perhaps the deepest, most haunting of them all, written by the extraordinary Bacharach/David team and sung, in this case, not by the inimitable Dionne Warwick, but by the second greatest crooner of those days, recognized as such by Sinatra himself when he finally stepped off the stage. Happy New Year to you and your readers and to all of us Alfies who are wondering, or should be wondering, what it’s all about.

    1. Sinatra described Tony Bennett as ‘The singer’s singer’
      I couldn’t agree more.
      He made singing sound easy.
      He made songs his own.
      And he’s a nice bloke.

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