Herman Hupfeld’s Magic Moment

This post isn’t about country music. Or maybe it is. Maybe it’s about the only thing that really matters about country music. You figure it out.

A few weeks ago I was in Austin, Texas, to do a show. The show was on Sunday, and I got into town late on Friday, so on Saturday night I went out with some friends to see a play.  I knew next to nothing about the play, and in fact most of what I knew about it turned out to be wrong. But as the lights went down, I said to the friend sitting next to me, “This always gets me.”

It does. That’s what I call the magic moment—when the lights fade out, just before the curtain rises. It’s the same moment that you experience when the last trailer has run, the last turn-off-your-cell-phone announcement has screened, and the movie itself is about to start. The studio logo comes on … and I lean forward, the same way I do when I’m at a bar or club and the band finishes tuning and the drummer starts counting off the first song, or at a poetry reading when the poet clears her throat and takes a breath before the first poem.

At that moment, anything could happen. Most of the time that bar band is going to play some derivative new song or a cover of some old song that isn’t nearly as good as the original. But every once in a while something great happens, and that’s what makes the moment magic. You never know.

Almost four years ago, on March 30, 2012, my wife and I traveled to Morristown, N.J., to hear the great Loretta Lynn. We’d seen Lynn before, so we knew what to expect: Lynn doesn’t come onstage until maybe an hour into the show, and she’s preceded by several opening acts. The last one is usually made up of family members—her daughters, the Lynns, are particularly good—but the earlier ones … well, let’s just say that they’re local talent and, the previous time we’d seen Lynn, they hadn’t been very good.

In Morristown another local band opened the show, which didn’t look promising. As they finished tuning and got set for their first number, though, I leaned forward. I always do, because who knows what’s going to happen?

The band, completely new to me, was excellent. They turned out to be Citizens Band Radio, a large and talented bunch whose original songs have a freshness and immediacy that’s rare in today’s era of hyper-slick, Auto-Tuned country.

A couple of songs in, they did a new one by Jayson Jannuzzi called “Waiting on a Train” that knocked me back in my chair. I wouldn’t say it was better than anything Loretta Lynn sang that night—let’s not get crazy here—but it wowed me more than anything she sang, because I knew what to expect from her, but the greatness of Citizens Band Radio came out of nowhere.

I bought their album that night, and since then I’ve made it my business to see the band several more times. They haven’t come up with another song as great as “Waiting on a Train,” in my opinion, but they might, any night.

If they do, I hope I’m there when it happens. There’s no more exciting words to hear than “This is a new one … ” Probably it won’t be anything special, but maybe you’re at the first-ever performance of “Your Cheatin’ Heart” (1952), “Folsom Prison Blues” (1955) or “Help Me Make It Through the Night” (1970).

There’s a special kind of excitement if it’s someone like Loretta Lynn or Kris Kristofferson who says it, of course. Their track record suggests that their new one is more likely to be a classic.

But the amazing thing about human creativity is that you don’t have to be Willie Nelson, Irving Berlin or Paul Simon to write an immortal song. It helps, but it isn’t essential. There are any number of people you never heard of who somehow, fleetingly, found themselves on the level of a Nelson, a Berlin or a Simon. They couldn’t sustain it, but for one song—two or three, if they were lucky—they could work at that level.

Which brings us to Herman Hupfeld. For those unfamiliar with Mr. Hupfeld, he was a songwriter—words and music both—who was born in 1894 and died in 1951. He lived in Montclair, N.J., and he toiled in Tin Pan Alley alongside hundreds of other similar songwriters, banging out songs and trying to place them with record companies or in Broadway musicals or revues. If you’ve never heard of him, that’s no surprise: His best-known songs include such gems as “When Yuba Plays the Rhumba on the Tuba,” “A Hut in Hoboken” and “Are You Making Any Money?”hupfeld

Hupfeld was, to put it bluntly, a hack. There were plenty like him on Tin Pan Alley, and there are plenty like him haunting Music Row today. You’ve never heard of them, and you probably never will. But you’re hearing about Herman Hupfeld today because, one day in 1931, he sat down and wrote a song called “As Time Goes By.”

Jimmie Rodgers, George Gershwin, Hank Williams, Stephen Sondheim, Burt Bacharach … any one of them would be proud to have written that song, but they didn’t. It was Herman from Montclair who pulled “As Time Goes By” out of the air. It was a magic moment, and it’s his claim on immortality. He wrote hundreds of songs, but I know who he is, 65 years after his death—and now you do too—because of what happened that one day in 1931.

One of the peculiar things about creativity is that even the artist herself doesn’t always realize what she’s accomplished. I’ve been to several Citizens Band Radio shows since that night in Morristown, but I’ve never heard them play “Waiting on a Train” again. And when, in 1932, Herman Hupfeld got a chance to record two of his own songs for a single, he chose … “Goopy Geer (He Plays Piano and He Plays by Ear)” and “Down the Old Back Road.” The record didn’t chart.

I think of Herman Hupfeld often, though. He’s a symbol for me of the vast, unpredictable possibilities of the arts. A hack furniture-maker won’t suddenly make a masterpiece chair, a bad chef won’t produce a brilliant soufflé, but that guy at the piano in this bar … he might just be 2016’s version of Herman Hupfeld.

As the lights go down in the theater, as the band starts its first number, as the piano player plays her opening bars, I lean forward. It’s my magic moment, but what makes it magic is the chance that maybe, just maybe, it’s their magic moment as well.

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