This song from the 40s, performed by vocalists such as Etta Jones or Dinah Washington, warns about the absurdity of spending all the time making money and dying without spending it: “You know you’re going to end up in a horizontal position”
Greed sometimes results in a rare form of slavery: in the obsession to amass more and more money, we can run out of time to enjoy it. And then we will become, yes, the richest in the cemetery, an expression that seems to have global validity, as universal as the concept it expresses.
This is the title of our song for today, ‘The Richest Guy In The Graveyard’ (the richest guy in the graveyard), with lyrics that go ironically between reproach and warning: the recipient is making a lot of money and wasting a lot of time, and each day he spends on his enrichment is another step towards a luxurious grave.
‘The Richest Guy In The Graveyard’ is a composition by Louis Palmer and Frank Hedges who recorded, in the second half of the 1940s, two illustrious vocalists of American music. The first, on which we are going to focus, was
the never fully recognized Etta Jones, who recorded it in 1947 as part of a session for the RCA Victor label. Etta, used to performing in the clubs that segregated America reserved for black audiences, had in those recordings her great opportunity to succeed and make the leap beyond racial niches, but it did not work out: she still had many years to go (and also a few jobs to fill the pot with, such as elevator operator or seamstress) to achieve her share of fame, something that would finally happen in 1960.
Etta Jones’s career was based on a fervent admiration for Billie Holiday (quite evident in this matter) and had as an immediate reference to Dinah Washington, whose success seemed to mark the way. And, precisely, it was Dinah the other vocalist who recorded the song of the rich man and the cemetery: she did it in 1949, backed by the Teddy Stewart orchestra, which included a certain John Coltrane.
The fattest cat
The two versions present some striking differences in the arrangements (Dinah’s starts with the band performing Chopin’s ‘Funeral March’) and also lyrical, among which the opening stanza that Etta sings as an introduction to the matter stands out:
«I woke up this morning and it was a nice sunny day, / I told him ‘Daddy, please stay’, but he had to leave / because he was busy, busy, making lots of money, / so I said: you’d do better if you had a good time before you get old, / you’re going to be the richest guy in the cemetery, / with the money in the bank. From then on, the lyrics are mainly nourished by effective images that highlight the misguided attitude of the ambitious lover: «You are going to be the fattest cat / that has gone stiff / and the fault will be yours. / What’s good about winning / no time to spend. / You know you’re just going to end / in a horizontal position. Etta (who, beware, should not be confused with her namesake Etta James) already visualizes the greedy boyfriend “six feet underground” and “wrapped in five layers”, a situation in which she is unable to imagine him as ” good lover, “and affirms that she would rather end up” in bed in a seedy boarding house “rather than down there, buried and” with dirt in her hair. ”
“So take my advice and don’t work hard, / you’ll delay that walk to the cemetery,” the vocalist recommends, though
in the last verses she becomes pragmatic and changes her plea: she no longer wants him to take his foot off the gas and stay, unhurried, to spend the sunny day with her. «You are going to be the richest uncle in the cemetery, / so, daddy, listen to my plea, / and make a will in my favor».
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A song for the richest guy in the cemetery