If She Means What I Think She Means

Gershwin lyricists Arthur Jackson and Buddy DeSylva teamed up to write the words AND music to this suggestive WWI-era song for the Ziegfeld Follies of 1918, about a soldier whose limited knowledge of French makes him imagine that a French girl he met was way more into him than she likely was.

Frank Carter premiered the song at the New Amsterdam Theatre in New York City, and it has rarely been heard since. It is striking how competently written it is, especially when the composers are better known for their lyrics. The tune is quite reminiscent of George Gershwin’s 1916 song “Making of a Girl,” which could suggest Jackson and DeSylva were influenced by it, or possibly both songs found inspiration in other popular songs of the era.

Buddy DeSylva (“I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise,” “California Here I Come,” “April Showers,” “Somebody Loves Me,” etc.) was an absolute GIANT in the entertainment world and seemed to have the Midas touch in everything he did, from songwriting to theatre and film production, not to mention cofounding Capitol Records with Johnny Mercer. You can find his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame outside of Capitol Records at 1750 N. Vine Street, but no matter how hard you look, you won’t see a star with his 1918 collaborator’s name on it. Arthur J. Jackson is barely a footnote in music history, and, it turns out, for a reason.

Arthur J. Jackson (1893-1922)

Arthur J. Jackson, 28 Gershwin Song Lyrics by the Age of 28

By being the man who introduced George Gershwin to Broadway producers Alex Aarons AND George White, Arthur Jackson could have earned a place in show biz history for that alone, but Jackson did much more than that in the 29 years he was given.

Born February 19, 1893 in Pittsburgh, he and his brother, the author and playwright Fred Jackson, moved to New York City around 1915 to find work writing for Broadway. Arthur’s first published song, “The Music Box Rag,” featured his own words and music, and he would later co-compose a few songs with the likes of George White, Sidney Clare, and Buddy DeSylva, but his biggest claim to fame was as a lyricist for some of Broadway’s greats.

Jackson penned the words to Richard Whiting’s music in the 1919 George White Scandals and for Gershwin’s music in the Scandals of 1920 and ’21. Other notable collaborators of his are composers Milton Ager, Fred Fischer, James Hanley, Herbert Spencer, Walter Donaldson, Albert Gumble, Vincent Rose, Paul Lannin, William Daly, as well as co-writing “The French Pastry Walk” lyrics with Ira Gershwin.

Whether he knew it or not, Arthur James Jackson’s troubles began on June 28, 1914 when Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, triggering the Great War. Three years later, Jackson dutifully registered for the draft, asking unsuccessfully for an exemption due to a “physical disability.” He was inducted in December of 1917 to join the 305th Machine Gun Battalion at Camp Upton, only to be discharged two months later for a “physical disability.” Though Variety reported that he was to stay in New York City to do “special work for the government,” likely for the intelligence department, he was immediately back at work writing words and music to something called Songs Sublime and was teaming up with Buddy DeSylva on two songs for the 1918 Follies. Songs Sublime, despite being renewed for copyright by his brother Fred Jackson many years later, would disappear from sight, but the 1918 Ziegfeld Follies would go on for 151 performances. With stars like W.C. Fileds, Eddie Cantor, Will Rogers, Marilyn Miller, and Ann Pennington, the Ziegfeld Follies of 1918 was a lavish affair costing $140,000 to produce ($2.6M today).

Arthur’s days of only getting a few interpolated songs into Broadway shows would end with his and Gershwin’s breakout success in 1919 with La La Lucille. Co-writing the lyrics with Buddy DeSylva, they scored with hits such as “From Now On” and “Nobody But You.” Jackson’s later Gershwin highlights include “On My Mind the Whole Night Long,” “Snow Flakes,” and “Drifting Along with the Tide.” Having written at least 28 known Gershwin lyrics from 1919 to 1921, Gershwin seemed to have favored Buddy DeSylva starting in 1922, but the reason Arthur Jackson was no longer part of the songwriting team was that while he was in army training camp, he contracted an illness from which never recovered.

The nature of his illness is never mentioned in the papers, but he was obviously able to be a productive lyricist, and furthermore, a full three years after leaving the army, he could be found in Los Angeles getting married to Grace Elizabeth Boughton, a social service worker and fellow Pennsylvania-native who had also relocated to New York City.

As to Arthur Jackson’s personality, the Gershwins never publicly gave a detailed description of what working with Arthur Jackson was like, as far as I can tell. The only insight into his character that I could find was a news story from March of 1916 in the New York Clipper.

“While returning from, a dance last Saturday night, Blanche Babette and Arthur J. Jackson, a young songwriter, were painfully injured in an automobile accident that sent both young people to the Roosevelt Hospital for treatment. The couple were returning from an uptown restaurant: when, at Sixtieth Street, the driver of their car failed to see a taxicab that was stalled in front of him, and smashed headlong into it. Jackson saw the crash coming and attempted to shield Babette, but the force of the collision threw her from his arms and she was sent head first through the front window, sustaining numerous cuts and contusions about the head and shoulders. Jackson escaped with but a few bruises about the legs. The door had to be forced open, and the two were then hastened to the Roosevelt Hospital, where the girl had seventeen stitches taken in her head and face. She was removed to her home Wednesday, and it is thought that she will not suffer any permanent scars unless complications develop.”

We may infer here that Arthur was possibly an eligible bachelor, who would have been working on songs for the 1916 Broadway musical Yvette (though it would run for a total of three performances that summer). He was evidently attempting gallantly to protect his young lady friend, Blanche Babette, from injury. But besides that one anecdote, mostly we are left with a long list of songs that Arthur J. Jackson created, while at the same time we are left wondering what a wealth of songs he would have been a part of had he gotten the chance to stick around a little longer.

Lyrics to “If She Means What I Think She Means” by Arthur J. Jackson and Buddy DeSylva:

Soldier Sammy sailed the ocean wide, landed over in Pa-ree.

And there a little French girl winked at him and cried.

“Won’t you come and Parlez vous with me?”

“Polly who,” Sammy cried.

“Parlez vous,” she replied,

and to his partner by his side he hollered,

If she means what I think she means,

we’ll have a wonderful time.

I’ve heard how naughty those French girlies are,

but I had no idea that they would ever go so far.

I’ve Si-si-si Señored way down in Sunny Spain.

I’ve Yakihulu’d in a tropical clime.

I know I’m green and that I’m on a foreign shore,

but I have seen them wink their eye like that before.

And if she means what I think she means,

we’ll have a wonderful time.

Verse and Chorus 2:

Soldier Sammy went from old Pa-ree

right into a front line trench.

But first he bought a dictionary so that he

soon would know a little bit of French.

But the book that he bought

Sammy lost while he fought,

and on his mind his only thought was always

If she means what I think she means,

we’ll have a wonderful time.

I’ve heard how naughty those French girlies are,

but I had no idea that they would ever go so far.

I’ve Si-si-si Señored way down in Sunny Spain.

I’ve Yakihulu’d in a tropical clime.

I wrote to Kate, my little sweetie ‘cross the sea.

She answered wait and you can Polly Voo with me.

And if she means what I think she means,

we’ll have a wonderful time.

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