Online Exhibits@Yale

“Keep on Keeping On” (1952-1993)

"Reaching for the Brass Ring" / Music and lyrics by Kay Swift ; holograph vocal score (photostat) with pencil annotations

“Reaching for the Brass Ring”
Music and lyrics by Kay Swift
Holograph vocal score (photostat) with pencil annotations

With the birth of her first grandchild in 1949, Swift began composing a song cycle that she would continue to develop through the birth of her youngest grandchild in 1955. Each song celebrated a defining trait, favorite activity, or memory of one of her grandchildren. The Philadelphia Orchestra, with Louise Carlyle as soloist, premiered nine of the cycle’s eleven songs in 1953. “I wanted to make something for my grand¬children with my own hands,” Swift later reflected, “… and I can neither sew, knit, nor paint anything whatsoever.” Swift claimed that she wrote much of her best work when she was on a strict external deadline. Reaching for the Brass Ring is testimony to Swift’s inner drive and deeply personal relationship to her work.

Letter from Kay Swift to Dorothy Heyward

Letter from Kay Swift to Dorothy Heyward
August 2, 1959

In 1959, at a time when Swift was constantly searching for professional opportunities, Dorothy Heyward approached Swift with the idea of adapting Mamba's Daughters, a play written by Dorothy Heyward and her husband DuBose Heyward, into an opera. DuBose Heyward’s novel Porgy had been the inspiration for Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. Swift’s reply to Dorothy Heyward is a lens into the ways her intimate connection with George Gershwin both limited and enhanced her own professional career. Swift was acquainted with Dorothy Heyward, and thus offered the opportunity to collaborate on Mamba’s Daughters, only because of George Gershwin. Yet Swift’s agent urged her not to accept Heyward’s proposal, out of concern that: “my association with the music of George Gershwin…would cause critics to say that my own music was in some way, an echo of his.” Swift’s letter to Dorothy Heyward accompanies a broader trend of scholars and journalists painting Swift first and foremost as an intimate of George Gershwin’s, and only secondly, as a composer in her own right.

Lyrics to "In Between Age" from <em>One Little Girl</em>

Kay Swift
Lyrics to “In Between Age”
from One Little Girl

Throughout the 1960s into the 1970s, civic and industrial show commissions became one of Swift’s steadiest sources of income. Cities, corporations, and organizations commissioned shows for various exhibitions, conventions, and celebrations. As she did at Radio City, Swift appreciated the dependability and quick turn-around that came with these assignments.
Swift’s first industrial show commission was for the 50th anniversary of the youth development organization, the Camp Fire Girls, in 1960. Swift wrote music and lyrics for a show titled One Little Girl, which told the story of, as the Camp Fire Girls put it: “’one little girl’ growing up among the complex problems and special joys of our Jet Stream age.” Swift tried to promote one of her songs from the musical, “In-Between Age,” beyond the show’s single performance, going on talk shows, doing newspaper interviews, and publishing the sheet music on her own—but she had difficulty finding a broader audience. Though Swift was constantly composing and making a living from her music throughout her later career, she had few opportunities to write for audiences and venues through which her music might be popularized or remembered.

"Keep on Keeping on" / Kay Swift, holograph piano score

Kay Swift
“Keep on Keeping On”
Holograph piano score

On October 8, 1986, Swift, age 89, performed two new pieces for solo piano at a concert in New York’s Merkin Hall celebrating her life work. The first, “For Betsy,” she dedicated to her granddaughter Betsy, who died tragically in May 1979. The second, “Keep on Keeping On,” she dedicated to “Z-1,” a nickname for her dear friend William Zeffiro, who was an enormous support to Swift during the last decade of her life. Swift had a penchant for abbreviations—the left hand corner of this manuscript reads “4-Z-1.”
“Keep on Keeping On” was Swift’s last complete composition. The title could not have been a more fitting tribute to the perseverance, optimism, and drive that characterized her life and career. “Tomorrow’s overture is always best,” Swift reflected in 1975, “no codas for me—I’m a no-stalgia gal.” Kay Swift was ever looking forward, ever “Keeping On.”

“Keep on Keeping On” (1952-1993)