A historical look at Barry Harris’ song to bring beauty to the world
Winter 2013 – Barry had been thinking about what he could do to help this “messed-up world.” He told us he woke up with a song in his mind that he thought could bring it beauty. He said he had composed the beginning of the tune and hoped we would contribute lyrics to the melody he had written so far. The glow in his face as he talked about the song was a clear sign that this was going to be an important composition, and then, as he began to sing it, we were transformed.
Winter 2021 – I pored through all my notes and sound files to try and pin down the exact moment “Sometimes Today Seems Like Yesterday” entered my heart and mind. I am still hoping to get a more accurate date, but I am pretty sure it was a little before December 17, 2013. In my notes taken at the Lincoln Square Neighborhood Center that evening, “Heart and Soul” was the song we studied and at the bottom of my notebook page, in pencil, I started writing down the lyrics (a sure sign that they were draft and subject to change.)
Looking back now I cannot think of a more perfect song/theme than “Heart and Soul” for this class for there was truly a family vibe that night. It began with a wonderful announcement–Barry made a point of informing us that it was John Orr’s birthday. “John Orr was the bass player with Monk….I would like you to sing Happy Birthday to John Orr….We are getting him on the phone now.” (The phone rings but nobody is picking up.) “He’s supposed to be there” Barry says. Then, the class erupts in laughter as an automated voice is heard, “Hello, please leave a message.” (Remember landlines and answering machines? So 2013.) “We’ll catch him later,” Barry laughs, when someone suggests we leave a message. And so class begins. Never a dull moment.
After the class learns “Heart and Soul” with the rubato verse, and we run it through the keys of F, Eb, Db, C, Bb, Ab, and G, Barry gets serious telling us “and if that wasn’t enough keys to pick your key I think something’s wrong and you ought to have an operation on your voice,” he advises.
Then, without warning (because Barry is very IN THE MOMENT) Barry asks for a couple of chords and tells us he has changed the lyrics to his new song, and begins singing. “Sometimes today seems like yesterday; when we would romp and play; each day a holiday. We’d sing and dance and prance and have such fun.” He pauses saying “and then I had something about and then life begun.” [sic] He mentions “begin/begins” but stresses that it has to be “begun“. “You dig that?” he asks us firmly. We reply that we understand. He then directs us all to sing the lyrics so far. And we do. Of course, as soon as we are done, I loudly interject (as I am wont to do, sitting right in front of him,) “our life had just begun.” And, sigh of relief, he says “I like that, let’s see what it sounds like;” and, a miracle, it is added. He tells us to sing it again. “Remember this, [sing it] softly, as a morning sunrise, and sort of nostalgic.”
We need one more rhyming phrase and a student behind me suggests “beneath the smiling sun” bumping my phrase to last which is where Barry emphasizes that he wants it. As we line up to sing it along with “Heart and Soul”, he tells us we can ad lib the last couple of lines.
A friend recently posted a video from this class and I can see myself sitting in the front row saying these things to Barry. I have no idea where I got the courage to make these suggestions but it was so heartwarming to see it. Somewhere along the way I remember changing “our life” to “our lives” and I even wrote a second A section on my own time that Barry didn’t care for. I was used to him rejecting phrases so it did not bother me. I enjoyed trying to create things he might use, even if it didn’t always work out.
Anyway, over the next seven years, at subsequent classes and overseas workshops, Barry would tell the story of his song. He would sing it until each new group of students had learned the melody, and then he would call on different people to come up to the mic and give it a try. As more and more students became familiar with the song, he made it a point to call on people who had never sung it before, and wonderful things happened as theses newbies added twists and turns to the tune we had all grown to love so much.
He especially seemed to enjoy seeing singers moved by the tender lyrics and nostalgic feelings it evoked. After these emotional renditions he usually ended the sessions with all of us singing the song in unison–a very healing, cathartic, experience. I believe this was healing for him and was always happy to see how much it seemed to help him.
Winter 2014 – The B section has finally been added which ends with another phrase I blurted during a class “until one’s path is finally found.'” and although Barry had initially rejected the word “finally”, a couple of weeks later he put it back in as official because he acknowledged that he was humming a triplet in there and it needed a word to capture that part of the melodic phrase. He was so kind, told me he had been thinking about it and I was right, it needed the “finally” – that was so sweet of him. I was so blown away by this gesture.
January 2015 – Only the first A and B sections of the song have lyrics. I tell a friend on FaceBook: “Here are the words so far, he will probably add more:
A: Sometimes today seems like yesterday; when we would romp and play; each day a holiday. We’d sing and dance and prance and have such fun; beneath the/a smiling sun; our lives had just begun.
B: Life’s journey starts with many ups and downs; the world goes round and round; until one’s path is finally found.“
March 2016 – We are still singing ABA repeating the first A to finish up. “World” has been simplified to “road” and “the smiling sun” has become the default phrase. [Prior to this, singers could sometimes choose the adjective that they wanted to use when describing the sun. Many wonderful words were chosen–golden, shining, brilliant, radiant, noontime, summer, southern–oh, so many adjectives that apply. ‘Midnight sun’ however was vetoed as Barry thought that would make it an x-rated song, lol.]
Winter 2016 – Jo Marchese, a fantastic NYC singer who shares Barry’s birthday, December 15th, suggests the lyrics that became the final phrases of the second A: “That’s where I’d like to stay, if only for a day, if only for a day.“
In January of 2017, Jo’s line of “That’s where I’d like to stay,” is changed to “That’s where I’d love to stay” and around the world that is how the song is performed now.
On YouTube you can find some amazing performances. Here are a few that jumped out at me:
- 2016 Barry performing the song in Spain – the audience is invited to sing along with him;
- Samara Joy singing it in NYC a few minutes after hearing it for the first time;
- an acoustic guitar version from Andre Pires Costa; and,
- Barry teaching the song in Almeria Spain, 2015 which is especially poignant to me as I feel finding him was the path I found and his comments here are lovely.
Here is a link to the leadsheet transcribed by Tomasz Bialowolski, and the final lyrics: