Tomorrow is the birthday of Andy Williams, a very popular singer in my childhood. He hosted his own variety show from 1962 to 1971 and during that time many of his albums, a few of which were in our home, were certified gold. Today’s song became his signature song when he sang it at the Oscars for the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1962). In those days, the person who sang at the Oscars was not the person who performed the song in the film, and Williams sang several Henry Mancini songs at Oscar ceremonies over the years. The song won the Oscar and Williams sang it often on his variety show. Thus I grew up hearing this song. It was only much, much later that I got around to watching Breakfast at Tiffany’s and saw Audrey Hepburn’s performance of the well-known tune while sitting on a fire escape.
For me, the song is synonymous with the romanticism of my parental generation—Williams was born the same year as my father—and yet it transcends that association, ultimately. Which may be why I was moved to hear Michael Stipe sing the song a capella at the end of an R.E.M. show in 1984. By then, I guess, we could say it was synonymous with the romanticism of my childhood, or rather part of the romanticizing of childhood. And that was an easy association to make because Williams’ mellifluous voice—so velvety smooth, like a pond without a ripple—was familiar to me as well from his Christmas album, so that his vocals sort of owned Christmas as a warm, fuzzy time, inevitably drenched in nostalgia.
When my mother’s eldest sister died in December, 2010, “Moon River” was the song I put on as I digested the news and shed some tears for her. The music helped me to feel some of the magnitude of the sheer number of years, months, weeks, days that I had known her. I suppose my sense of knowing anything began somewhere back there in the era of the Andy Williams Show and his albums that were a common currency for the sisters. In fact, Andy’s looks always reminded us kids of their younger brother, Robert, who was the first to die of the five siblings I grew up knowing (others had died before I was born). In any case, Williams, and this song, seemed—still—to strike a chord with me in considering what my father somewhat wryly referred to as “the Taylor clan,” which had just lost its figurehead.
The song returns us to Johnny Mercer, who we last heard from with the wonderful lyrics to “Summer Wind.” Here he does himself proud again with that lovely “waiting ’round the bend / My huckleberry friend.” I didn’t get it as a kid. But the idea of the river as the very one upon which Huckleberry Finn and Big Jim floated away from all cares—“Two drifters off to see the world / There’s such a lot of world to see”—gives a strong mythic dimension to that “moon river.”
We’re after that same rainbow’s end. That big catch in the arrangement that Williams’ voice navigates on “af-ter” so that “same” becomes the stressed word, giving us the notion that we’re all more or less alike in that regard. Dream-makers, heart-breakers, wanting to be gone to where all promises are fulfilled, or forgotten.
I’m always a child when I hear this song, and nothing has happened yet, and anything might. Wherever you're going, I'm going your way.