A song popped into my head recently, a song I hadn't thought of in a long time. The trigger might have been something my wife said about our plans for the evening, like “I hope it’s not another rainy evening.” We’d had a lot of rain recently. And just like that - wham! - the melody and lyrics surfaced, like a long lost-friend waiting to be summoned.
The song is “Won’t You Come Home, Bill Bailey.” The lyric line is “Remember that rainy evenin’ you threw me out.” The next line contains what I consider to be four of the most perfect words ever conceived in song, poetry or literature. “…with nothin’ but a fine tooth comb.” Just look at those last four words: “A fine tooth comb.” They hold a high position in my “favorite phrases” list.
“A fine tooth comb.”
Think about it. You can see that comb, feel it, almost smell it. A black plastic - or if it’s an Ace, hard rubber - comb. Probably plastic, considering the dire situation of Bill. In fact, a couple of teeth in the comb have been broken off. One of the disciplines of effective writing is attention to detail. This is wonderful detail.
“A fine tooth comb.”
The poor guy, thrown out by his angry lady, with that one sad item. The good news is that Bill has hair. Or a beard. I’ll go with hair.
I’m not saying these are the four most inspired words ever put into a song. Lorenz Hart (of Rodgers and Hart) created some awesome lines and rhymes. Cole Porter was no slouch at phrases. Plus Sondheim, Dylan, McCartney, Wonder - it’s a lengthy list. But the guy who wrote this song nailed the essence of lyrics that will live forever. When he decided poor Bill Bailey would spend a rain-soaked night on the streets, looking for a hot meal, a warm bed, a smile, a friend, a ray of hope, he created a scenario for the ages. Bill is doomed to wander lonely streets, soaked to the skin…with nothing to his name but a fine tooth comb.
Believe it or not, there was actually a guy named Bill Bailey. His real name was Willard Bailey. He lived in Jackson, Michigan and frequented a bar where a young man named Hughie Cannon played piano. Willard and Hughie became friends, and discussed their lives and their wives. Willard was married to a woman named Sarah, who didn’t like Will spending so much time in that bar. This gave Hughie an idea for the song. He wrote the music and lyrics in 1902. Since “Willard” didn’t really fit with the phrasing of the song, he changed it to Bill. And thus, “Won’t you come home, Bill Bailey” was born.
Why a comb? You know the answer. Hughie needed a word to rhyme with “home.” That’s a real challenge. The options are few. Dome (with nothing but your hairless dome?). Foam (a mug of foam?). Gnome (nothing but your garden gnome? egads) Loam. Poem. Roam. He picked the right word and the rest is lyrical history. “Comb” rhymed. The addition of “fine tooth” is sheer genius. Attention to detail.
How did this all end? Hughie sold the rights to the song to a New York publisher. Probably didn’t get paid much; a familiar story. Sadly, he died from cirrhosis at the tender age of 35. And Willard? He and Sarah divorced years later. Willard died in 1954 and Sarah in 1973.
I fervently hope Willard owned more than a fine tooth comb when he was called home. He and Hughie have my utmost respect. I can never hear “rainy evening” without thinking of them.
Here is a link to one of the most unusual duets to ever sing this song. Ella Fitzgerald and Jimmy Durante.