Accentuate the Positive — Johnny Mercer’s Anthem for Difficult Days

Johnny Mercer

You’ve got to spread joy up to the maximum
Bring gloom down to the minimum
Have faith or pandemonium’s
Liable to walk upon the scene

— Johnny Mercer

On the Wednesday, November 18 broadcast of NPR’s Fresh Air, Terry Gross had a wonderful concert of Johnny Mercer music.  This would have been Mercer’s 100th birthday. Lyricist and composer Johnny Mercer — born Nov. 18, 1909, in Savannah, Ga. — wrote or co-wrote more than 1,000 songs, including American Songbook standards like “Skylark,” “That Old Black Magic” and “Come Rain or Come Shine,” and “Moon River.”  You can read about and listen to this particular program, here.  I promise you, it’s worth it.  (This program was worth my entire year’s membership to KERA)

Johnny Mercer died in 1976. Fresh Air marks the 100th anniversary of his birth with an in-studio concert starring Rebecca Kilgore and Dave Frishberg.

During the opening medley of Mercer music, they performed a portion of this terrific song:

Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive
– Words and Music by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer

Gather ’round me, everybody
Gather ’round me while I’m preachin’
Feel a sermon comin’ on me
The topic will be sin and that’s what I’m ag’in’
If you wanna hear my story
The settle back and just sit tight
While I start reviewin’
The attitude of doin’ right

You’ve got to accentuate the positive
Eliminate the negative
And latch on to the affirmative
Don’t mess with Mister In-Between

You’ve got to spread joy up to the maximum
Bring gloom down to the minimum
Have faith or pandemonium’s
Liable to walk upon the scene

To illustrate my last remark
Jonah in the whale, Noah in the ark
What did they do just when everything looked so dark?

(Man, they said “We’d better accentuate the positive”)
(“Eliminate the negative”)
(“And latch on to the affirmative”)
Don’t mess with Mister In-Between (No!)
Don’t mess with Mister In-Between

(Ya got to spread joy up to the maximum)
(Bring gloom down to the minimum)
(Have faith or pandemonium’s)
(Liable to walk upon the scene)

You got to ac (yes, yes) -cent-tchu-ate the positive
Eliminate (yes, yes) the negative
And latch (yes, yes) on to the affirmative
Don’t mess with Mister In-Between
No, don’t mess with Mister In-Between

I have been reading books, and reviews of books, and posting about books (for example, this post from just this morning), that talk about what went wrong, and how deep a hole we’ve dug for ourselves.

And, I admit that just looking on the bright side of life does not fix the problems.

But I found myself captivated by this set of lyrics, thinking what a great message for us all in these difficult days.  Maybe we do need to “Accentuate the Positive” at least a little.  No, I am not recommending blind optimism — or blind anything.  But I do think that if we see some solutions to pursue, we ought to believe that they have a chance to work as we pursue them.

By the way, this Mercer song was written in 1944 – a pretty tough time for this country, and our world, as we were in the midst of World War II, and we really did not know how it was going to turn out.

Last night, I spoke for a group of sharp and connected women.  Two months ago, to the same group, I presented my synopsis of the book The Coming Generational Storm.  One woman said “I hope tonight’s book is more hopeful – more optimistic.”

Well, I agree.  I think I need to remind myself that I should, pretty regularly, ACCENTUATE THE POSITIVE…

Thanks, Terry Gross, for a terrific hour of radio – and to Johnny Mercer, for this wonderful reminder of the power of hope and optimism.

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