If a song has the word 'gay' in its lyrics chances are it came from an earlier era, most likely before Stonewall and the beginning of the gay liberation movement (but there are exceptions). Such songs use the word to describe a mood of happiness or lightheartedness. When people hear these lyrics today some smile, others giggle, but traditionalists are often annoyed that the word has lost its innocent meaning. (Occasionally a misguided soul tries to change 'gay' to 'happy' or 'fun' but then relents when his/her attempt is discovered and ridiculed in the media.) For this post I've found eighteen songs that use the word the old-school way, and here they are ...
TWISTIN' THE NIGHT AWAY
This was a top-10 tune for R&B singer Sam Cooke in 1962.
Let me tell you about a place
Somewhere up-a New York way
Where the people are so gay
THE GREAT PRETENDER
This was one of the biggest hits of the 1950s, by the Platters.
Oh yes, I'm the great pretender
Just laughing and gay like a clown
WHY DO FOOLS FALL IN LOVE?
Like The Great Pretender, this was another big hit from 1956. Originally performed by Frankie Lymon & the Teenager, it was also a top 10 hit for Diana Ross 25 years later.
Why do birds sing so gay?
And lovers await the break of day?
Why do they fall in love?
IT MIGHT AS WELL AS BE SPRING
From the 1945 movie State Fair, it won Rogers & Hammerstein an Oscar for Best Original Song.
But I feel so gay
In a melancholy way
That it might as well be spring
A jazz classic written in the 1930s by gay composer and lyricist Billy Strayhorn (who also wrote Take the 'A' Train).
I use to visit all the very gay places
Those come what may places
Where one relaxes on the axis of the wheel of life
To get the feel of life
From jazz and cocktails
ALONE AGAIN (NATURALLY)
This maudlin pop song by Gilbert O'Sullivan topped the charts in the summer of 1972.
To think that only yesterday
I was cheerful, bright and gay
STANDING IN THE DOORWAY
Written by Bob Dylan in 1997, long after the word 'gay' had its transformation.
I'm strummin' on my gay guitar
Smoking a cheap cigar
THE MUMMERS' SONG
A somewhat generic New-Age song in the style of Enya or Sarah Mclachlan that was a hit for Loreena McKennitt.
We've been rambling all the night
And some of the day
Now returning back again
We bring a garland gay
This is an Australian nursery rhyme. The kookaburra is a large bird found in Australia and New Guinea that has a loud call that resembles human laughter.
Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree,
Merry, merry king of the bush is he
Laugh kookaburra, laugh, kookaburra
How gay your life must be!
Here's another children's song, this one from 1949. The composers, Steve Nelson and Jack Rollins, would write Frosty the Snowman the following year (but with no use of the word "gay"). Peter Cottontail was released as a single by Gene Autry and it went to #5 on Billboard's Hot 100!
Bringin' every girl & boy
A basketful of Easter joy
Things to make your Easter
Bright & gay
I FEEL PRETTY
From West Side Story, this song has a gay pedigree as its lyricist was Stephen Sondheim.
I feel pretty, oh so pretty
I feel pretty and witty and gay
And I pity
Any girl who isn't me today
GLITTER AND BE GAY
This comes From Leonard Bernstein's operetta Candide, composed in the 1950s.
Glitter and be gay
That's the part I play
Here I am in Paris, France
Forced to bend my soul
And later in the song ...
I'll take their diamond necklace
And show my noble stuff
And being gay and reckless
THEME FROM THE TV SHOW 'MOONLIGHTING'
Al Jarreau provided vocals for this jazz-infused theme song for ABC's detective comedy from the late 1980s. It starred Cybil Shepherd and, in his breakout role, Bruce Willis.
Some walk by night, some fly by day
Nothing could change you, set and sure of the way
Charming and bright, laughing and gay
I'm just a stranger, love the blues and the Braves
IT MIGHT AS WELL BE SPRING
A composition by Rodgers & Hammerstein, it was written for the 1945 movie State Fair, it won the Oscar for Best Original Song.
But I feel so gay, in a melancholy way
That it might as well be spring
HAPPY WORKING SONG
Sung by Amy Adams' character in the 2007 Disney movie Enchanted, this is the most recent example of a song tapping the word 'gay' for its earlier meaning.
And you’ll trill a cheery tune in the tub
As we scrub a stubborn mildew stain
Lug a hairball from the shower drain
To the gay refrain
Of a happy working song
THEME SONG FROM 'THE FLINTSTONES'
This was the first cartoon to air in primetime.
When you're with the Flintstones
Have a yabba dabba-do time
A dabba-do time
We'll have a gay old time!
A song by Rodgers & Hart Rodgers written for the 1930 show Simple Simon, the song was cut. On Bette Midler's 1990 album Some People's Lives, one of the tracks is this song, but, curiously, her version changed the lyric, excising "gay" for "light my way".
When I was mean to him he didn't say go away now
You see I was his queen to him
Who's gonna make me gay now?
HAVE YOURSELF A MERRY LITTLE CHRISTMAS
Although the word 'gay' didn't mean 'LGBT gay', this holiday chestnut was first sung by gay icon Judy Garland in the 1944 movie Meet Me in St. Louis.
Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Let the yuletide be gay
From now on our troubles will be miles away
DECK THE HALLS
This is likely the best-known song on this list, largely because it's been around since the late 19th century.
Don we now our gay apparel
Fa la la la la la, la la la!
Troll the ancient Yuletide carol
Fa la la la la, la la la la!
Finally, one of the readers of this post was inspired to post a video on YouTube with a medley of 34 songs, including most of those listed above.