Ifferistic Songs

You might want to think of this section of the website as Dr. Mardy's Theme Time Radio Hour. Let me explain.

A few years back, I became a big fan of Bob Dylan's Theme Time Radio Hour on XM-Radio, a brilliant piece of radio programming in which Dylan selected an idea or a concept for each episode and then spent an entire hour playing (and discussing) songs that expressed the theme. I even wrote to the show's producers, suggesting that they devote an episode to songs whose titles begin with the word "If."

Sadly, I didn't even get a reply to my proposal. So, I guess it's time to take things into my own hands. Following Dylan's "dreams, schemes, and themes" model, I'm going to take you on a tour of some of musical history's most fascinating ifferistic songs. In each and every case, the song titles begin with the word if, and in most cases, the lyrics of the song contain some neat ifferisms. For each song, I'll provide a bit of commentary that I hope you will find interesting or entertaining. And then, going one step further than a mere radio program, I will provide you with a YouTube link so you can enjoy the songs for yourself.

1. If I Had A Hammer

In 1949, Pete Seeger and Lee Hays wrote If I Had a Hammer as a general anthem for a number of left-wing causes: peace, freedom, and equal rights (they debuted the song at a 1949 Labor Day concert in support of a Communist newspaper). At the time, Seeger and Hays were members of a folk quartet called The Weavers, and the group recorded the song on a small record label (Charter Records) in the fall of 1949. By 1950, an anti-communist hysteria was sweeping the country, and the song was blacklisted on many radio stations and even forbidden to be performed at many of the group's concerts. Despite the song's popularity among leftists, the recorded version fared poorly in the marketplace. Co-author Lee Hays said of the record, "It was a collector's item; nobody but collectors ever bought it."

In 1962, a new folk group called Peter, Paul and Mary tweaked the original lyrics and recorded the song on their debut album Peter, Paul and Mary. The album, which featured some of the best folk songs ever written ("500 Miles," "Where Have All the Flowers Gone" and "If I Had a Hammer") was a smash hit, on Billboard magazine's Top Ten album list for the next ten months. About the new version of his song, Seeger would later write: "Peter, Paul and Mary put it on every radio in the country. They rewrote my melody slightly, and most people nowadays sing it as they heard it on PPM's record. I made an interesting discovery, though: both versions can be sung at the same time, and they harmonize with each other." The song became indelibly associated with the American Civil Rights movement when Peter, Paul, and Mary sang it prior to the "I Have a Dream" speech by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at the historic March on Washington on August 28, 1963.

For most of 1962 and a good part of 1963, it was impossible to go a day without hearing If I Had a Hammer played on the radio. The song was so ubiquitous it prompted Howard Rosenberg, a critic for the Los Angeles Times, to cleverly quip: "If I had a hammer, I'd use it on Peter, Paul and Mary."

Below, for your listening and viewing pleasure, are links to four wonderful versions of this classic song.

PP&M 1963 B&W version

PP&M 1990 live version (in Japan)

Pete Seeger live version at Wolftrap in 1993 (with Arlo Guthrie)

Trini Lopez live version on "Hootenanny" (1963)

2. If I Were A Carpenter

Written by singer-songwriter Tim Hardin, this song was made popular by Bobby Darin, who chose it as the title track of his 1966 album If I Were a Carpenter. A year later, Hardin included the song on his Tim Hardin 2 album, and in 1969 he performed it live at the Woodstock Music Festival. The song was Darin's last major hit, ultimately reaching Number 8 on the American charts (his first appearance on the Top Ten list in more than four years). The song has since become an American classic, covered by more than a hundred performers, including Joan Baez, Harry Belafonte, Johnny Cash, Neal Diamond, The Four Tops, a duet by Willy Nelson and Sheryl Crow, Dolly Parton, Bob Seger, Leon Russell, and even Pete Townshend of The Who. The most spectacular rendition of the song, though, comes from Darin. It is not, however, the song that appeared on the album. In 1973, nine months before his death at the tragically young age of 37, Darin performed the song on a live television special. He jokes around a bit before getting into the song, but whenever a video of that performance is aired, I still get goosebumps. Check it out for yourself.

Bobby Darin live 1973 version

Tim Hardin 1967 version

3. If You Don't Know Me By Now

In 1971, with Berry Gordy and his Motown Records dominating the musical scene, two Philadelphia songwriters named Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff formed Philadelphia International Records, a music company designed to produce an alternative style of music they called "Philly soul." One of their first songs was If You Don't Know Me By Now, which they pitched to the Philadelphia girl group Labelle (after the lead singer Patti LaBelle). After Labelle turned it down, the song was also rejected by The Dells. In 1971, a Philadelphia soul group called Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes signed on with the new recording company and recorded the song. Soon after it was released as a single in 1972, the song became a smash hit, jumping to the top of the soul charts and Number Three on the pop charts. But here's something you may not know about that famous song. The lead vocalist on If You Don't Know Me By Now was not Harold Melvin, but rather the group's drummer, who had only recently been promoted to lead singer. That young man was 21-year-old Teddy Pendergrass, who would stay with the group for several more years before personality clashes with Harold Melvin forced him to leave and attempt a solo career.

If You Don't Know Me By Now has become a true American classic (a few years ago, it was named by the Recording Industry Association of America as one of the "Songs of the Century" in a survey co-sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts and Scholastic magazine). The song has since been covered by scores of artists, including a spectacular rendition by the British soul group Simply Red on their 1989 album A New Flame. But the original 1972 single by Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes (featuring Teddy Pendergrass) set a standard that may never be surpassed.

Original Blue Notes version (with Pendergrass)

Simply Red 1989 music video

4. If I Can Dream

In 1968, with his career in decline, Elvis Presley starred in Elvis, a live musical special that was broadcast nationally on NBC-TV. It was Presley's first live performance in seven years, and many in the entertainment industry were raising doubts about his relevance as a performer. The Vietnam War was dividing the country, the Civil Rights Movement was gnawing at America's conscience, Motown was taking over the music industry, and the country was reeling from the recent assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. The original plan called for Elvis to conclude the show with "I'll Be Home for Christmas," but at the last minute producer Steve Binder asked musical director W. Earl Brown if he could write a song that could pay tribute to the memory of RFK and Dr. King. The result was If I Can Dream. Elvis gave a stellar performance, and many still remember him singing the words:

If I can dream of a better land
Where all my brothers walk hand in hand
Tell me why, oh why, oh why can't my dream come true?

That television broadcast, which is now commonly referred to as Elvis's "Comeback Special," breathed new life into Presley's career, and that final If I Can Dream song is a nice reminder of how the lyrics of a song—especially when sung by a cultural icon—can inspire millions.

Elvis Presley "If I Can Dream" on 1968 "Comeback Special"

5. If I Could Make a Livin' (Out of Lovin' You)

Written by Alan Jackson, Roger Murrah, and Keith Stegall; performed by Clay Walker on If I Could Make A Living album (1994)

This was one of the biggest country hits of 1994, greatly surprising Alan Jackson, who viewed it as a throwaway song when he co-wrote it in the 1980s with two other songwriters. Rather than let the song die in obscurity, co-writer Keith Stegall introduced the song to Walker, who immediately sensed its potential. I like the song for many reasons, not the least of which is because it includes a lovely example of chiasmus, one of my favorite literary devices (see bold below):

If I could make a livin' out of lovin' you
I'd be a millionaire in a week or two
I'd be doin' what I love and lovin' what I do
If I could make a livin' out of lovin' you

Clay Walker live version at Deer in the Headlights Music Fest in 2010

6. If You Ain't Lovin' (You Ain't Livin')

The song, which was written by Tommy Collins, has been covered by many country artists, including Faron Young, whose 1954 version rose to Number Two on the country charts. It also served as the title track of George Strait's 1988 album If You Ain't Lovin' (You Ain't Livin'). Strait's version was the Number One country & western song in America in 1988, his eighth consecutive single to achieve the honor.

Faron Young 1954 version

7. If You've Got The Money, I've Got the Time

Written by Lefty Frizzell and Jim Beck, If You've Got the Money, I've Got the Time appeared on Frizzell's 1950 album Listen to Lefty. The song went to Number One on the country charts and ultimately became a country & western classic. In 1999, the song was awarded a Grammy Hall of Fame Award, a special Grammy award to honor past recordings of "historical significance." The song has been covered by virtually every modern country & western singer, including Merle Haggard, who included it as a tribute to his idol Lefty Frizzell on his 2001 album Roots, Volume 1.

Lefty Frizzell 1970 version

Merle Haggard 2001 version

8. If You Love Me (Really Love Me)

One of the most beautiful love songs of all time, If You Love Me (Really Love Me) is based on a 1949 French song "Hymne à l'amour" (Hymn to Love), with lyrics by Edit Piaf and music by Marguerite Monnot. Piaf was thirty-three-years old and already a legend in her native France when she wrote the song for the great love of her life, the French boxer Marcel Cerdan (in the classic French manner, Cerdan was married and Piaf was his mistress). Piaf first performed the song at a Manhattan cabaret in September of 1949 (a month later, her thirty-three-year old lover perished in a plane crash while flying from Paris to New York to see her perform). Seven months later, Piaf first recorded the song, which became something of an instant classic.

In 1952, Marguerite Monnot teamed up with English lyricist Geoffrey Parson to create an English version of the song, which achieved only limited success when it was performed by the British singer Vera Lynn. Kay Starr made it a big American hit in 1954, taking it to Number Four on the charts. My favorite version, however, came from the sixteen-year-old Brenda Lee, who included it on her 1961 album Emotions.

Brenda Lee 1961 version

Edith Piaf early English version

9 & 10. If

There are two songs from the 1970s that are titled "If." The first, written and sung by Roger Waters, appears on Pink Floyd's 1970 album Atom Heart Mother (it contains the well known lyric, "If I go insane, please don't put your wires on my brain").

Pink Floyd original version

The second, written and sung by David Gates, became a big hit and a trademark song for the group Bread. The song, which appeared on the 1971 album Manna, begins with a lyric familiar to all rock fans:

If a picture paints a thousand words
Then why can't I paint you?

Gates wrote the song late one night after his wife had gone to bed. After finishing it, he believed he had created something special, saying to himself, "That's the best song I've ever written and probably will be the best song I'll ever write."

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