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Monday, February 12, 2024

February 12, 2024: AmericanStudying Love Songs: “At Last”

[I know it might not be very 2024 of me to say, but love is in the air, and not just because it’s Valentine’s week. If you’re feeling it too, or maybe if you need a little help getting into the V-Day spirit, this week I’ll quickly highlight the AmericanStudies stories behind a handful of our great past love songs, leading to a special post on current ones that have hit my heart. Add your Valentine’s tunes in comments, please!]

For most of us, Etta James’ “At Last” (1960) is the quintessential wedding song, a timeless expression of what it means to finally find the love we’ve been seeking. I’m not here to challenge that perspective—wouldn’t be very Valentine’s week of me!—but rather to remind us that behind even the most timeless tunes are some specific contexts and histories, details and stories that can only enhance our appreciation of the art. In the case of “At Last,” that certainly includes James’ own striking, fraught, and ultimately moving and inspiring life story, an arc that reminds us that finding what we seek—and then choosing and celebrating it when we do—is a daily and lifelong goal. But it also includes the song’s multiple and very telling 20th century histories—its origins as a performance by the Glenn Miller orchestra for the 1941 film Sun Valley Serenade; its subsequent release on a 1942 “Victory Disc” from the U.S. War Department; and its numerous versions beyond James’, including a 1952 release from Miller’s trumpeter Ray Anthony that was the highest-charting version before James made it her own.

Next love song tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other love songs you’d AmericanStudy?

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