Lena Horne Crosses the River.Posted: May 19, 2010
Watch and listen to this rendition of Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer’s “Moon River,” from a Bell Telephone Hour broadcast of 1965. It’s similar to, but somewhat slower than, the version Lena recorded around the same time for United Artists Records.
When I hear this performance, I hear something I’ve never picked up in any other singer’s version — something hiding in plain sight in the song all along, because it’s in the very first line. “Wider than a mile, I’m crossing you in style some day.” When Lena sings these words so introspectively and yearningly, yet proudly, I hear her memory of a young black woman looking across an expanse separating her from a white world of freedom, equality and privilege, and wanting to be a part of it, determined to be a part of it, someday.
All the thousands of times I’ve heard the Mercer lyric before, I’ve thought of the river only in terms of flow, of movement with the current, along the river’s lengthwise dimension. (For that is where most of the song lives: “two drifters off to see the world.”) But that very first line, the one that’s always been there but which it took Lena’s version to make me hear, describes an action perpendicular to flow — crossing the river. And doing it by an act of will. Not transcending the divide as if it weren’t there, but consciously crossing it, getting to the other side of it, where the good things in life are; and doing it with dignity intact despite the formidable problem that it is “wider than a mile.” (Doing it “in style.”) No other singer brings that out, even though by Mercer’s putting it right up front you’d have thought he made it impossible to miss.
I don’t know if the divide Mercer had somewhere in the back of his mind, when he imagined meanings the song might have, was a racial one. But I do know now, as I never did before hearing Lena’s TV version, that Mercer is yearning for something he doesn’t have on that opposite river bank. If Lena used her own history to find a meaning in that divide, then she did what all singers should do — bringing her full humanity to the song, and by so doing, illuminating it.