Frank Sinatra – Polka Dots and Moonbeams

When I first heard this song as a part of Sinatra’s 10 CD box set I didn’t know it was a jazz standard, nor that it was Sinatra’s first hit, recorded in 1940. But it was clearly a standout track. Quite a few Sinatra’s early records follow the same formula, the orchestra first playing the tune in full, followed by Sinatra’s crooning, the track ending pretty abruptly. No fade-outs back then, and I wonder when they became popular.

I much prefer Sinatra’s soft crooning style to his later songs which often sound like he’s straining much more, some tension always present. Here the vocals are smooth, and the saxophone on the track complements it very nicely to fit the romantic mood.

The story of a couple meeting at a country dance, but there’s some quirkiness to it, with some funny rhymes. I especially like “perplexed one – next one”. And of course the “pug-nosed dream,” implying that the woman in question has a strange feature but he still finds her dreamy. The social judgment is always present, as other dancers look at them askance.

Acknowledging such traits there’s a strange gray area where acceptance and a sense of superiority meet. On the one hand, you can say that it’s genuine love indeed, saying that he acknowledges her pug nose and even considers it endearing, not caring what everyone else things. On the other hand, the very fact that he keeps bringing up that feature sounds like he feels superior for his acceptance, wants to revel in it. Like it is not about the woman after all, but about the narrator’s need to feel great about himself, his admiration of something that others scoff at. It’s not a self-evident interpretation, but it’s not that far-fetched either, so that’s why I call it a gray area. Acceptance is fine, but when one starts to take such pride in the acceptance it’s not about the other person at all.

I liked playing this song in my early 20s, and looking at the sheet music now I notice that the tune has some really nice tensions in how the phrases avoid the tonic. Each phrase ends with 7th, flat 7th, 9th or 6th note of the scale, just skirting around the tonic note until the very end. While it’s a standard composition trick, I do think it’s a well-written tune creating a narrative with a clear beginning and an end even without the lyrics.

The song has been recorded by many artists, Bill Evans and Chet Baker among others. Baker’s version is pretty nice too, as his soft way of playing the trumpet fits this kind of ballad well.