I Cover the Waterfront


I Cover the Waterfront (m. Johnny Green, w. Edward Heyman)

According to jazzstandards.com, the song was inspired by Max Miller’s 1932 best-selling novel of the same title.  A 1933 motion picture of the same title was also inspired by Miller’s book and was re-scored at the last minute to include the tune.

The Free Dictionary supplies the following two definitions of the American idiom “cover the waterfront”:

  • to deal with every detail concerning a specific topic
  • to talk about every part of a subject, or to deal with every part of a job

Although I’m not acquainted with the 1930s connotations of the phrase, it seems to bring to my mind an exciting world in which “the waterfront” is the center of activity, a place where dangerous or clandestine things are either happening right now, or might happen in the blink of an eye. Perhaps I’ve conflated the phrase with the subject matter of the 1954 film On the Waterfront and its connotations.*

The story, of both the novel and the film, concerns an investigative reporter covering a dockland smuggling operation, and his romantic involvement with the daughter of the man he is investigating. While the phrase used as the song title might lead you to anticipate a narrative by the reporter, the lyrics in fact paint only the picture of a constant lover, waiting, with eyes on the waterfront, for the return of a missing beloved.

A review of the Max Miller novel at Reading California Fiction contrasts the plaintive voice of song lyric with that of the book’s narrator:

The sad and lonesome lyrics express longing for a lover across the sea. In contrast, the narrator of the book isn’t sad, doesn’t admit to being lonesome, and has no lover anywhere.

Aside from the reference to the hurtful city and the “desolate docks” in the first two lines of the introductory verse, the words written by Heyman have nothing to do with the harsh realities of life in the city, or specifically in the crime underworld of a city’s waterfront districts. Instead they move “away” from such matters, leaving them behind for the realm of pure sentiment. The words have the scent of 19th century sensibilities, yet are constructed in the concise lines demanded of a classic Songbook era lyric.

Away from the city that hurts and knocks,
I’m standing alone by the desolate docks
in the still and the chill of the night
I see the horizon the great unknown
my heart has an ache
it’s as heavy as stone
with the dawn coming on, make it last

I cover the waterfront
I’m watching the sea
Will the one I love be coming back to me?

I cover the waterfront
In search of my love
And I’m covered by a starless sky above

Here am I patiently waiting, hoping and longing
Oh, how I yearn!
Where are you?
Are you forgetting?
Do you remember?
Will you return?

I cover the waterfront
I’m watching the sea
For the one I love must soon come back to me

The song of the same title recorded by John Lee Hooker seems to be an entirely different one, with the same premise: the lover keeping watch at the symbolic “waterfront.” Hooker may have adapted his song from the jazz standard, but its lyric has only the first two lines in common with those of the Green-Heyman song. It’s hard to imagine Hooker singing “Oh, how I yearn!”

The words of the jazz standard are abstract enough to make the gender of the singer irrelevant. It has been recorded by both male and female singers from very beginning. 1933 recordings include those by Annette Hanshaw, Abe Lyman’s California Ambassador Hotel Orchestra, Connie Boswell, Louis Armstrong, Joe Haymes and His Orchestra with the vocal by Cliff Weston, and Eddy Duchin and His Orchestra with the vocalist Lew Sherwood.


Annette Hanshaw1933


Louis Armstrong and his Orchestra — filmed in Copenhagen, 1933 — The supposedly live audience shots and applause appear to be canned.


Roy Fox & his Band — 1933


Connie Boswell — recorded in New York on 10 June 1933 with an orchestra directed by Victor Young, featuring Tommy Dorsey (tbn), Jimmy Dorsey (cl), Stan King (d)

audio file, VBR MP3 (2.8 MB), from a collection at archive.org titled The Boswell Sisters, Vol. 4 – IMPROVED SOUND:


Lester Young — recorded in Los Angeles, March/April 1946 – Lester Young-ts, Nat King Cole-p, Buddy Rich-d


Billie Holiday — date unknown — According to billieholidaysongs.com, there are no less than eleven Holiday recordings of the song between 1941 and 1956, nine of them live.


Peggy Lee — 1950 Snader telescription, with the Dave Barbour Quartet


Vivian Dandridge — from her 1968 LP The Look of Love


George Shearing and Mel Tormé — Newport Jazz Festival, 1980s(?)


* The 1954 film On the Waterfront was based upon a series of award-winning investigative newspaper articles on crime along the waterfronts of Manhattan and Brooklyn. Wikipedia says:

It is based on “Crime on the Waterfront”, a series of articles in the New York Sun by Malcolm Johnson. The series won the 1949 Pulitzer Prize for Local Reporting. The stories detailed widespread corruption, extortion and racketeering on the waterfronts of Manhattan and Brooklyn.


3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Will Dockery
    Apr 18, 2012 @ 01:51:27

    I came across the Max Miller novel of “I Cover the Waterfront” a few days ago, which up until now I related mostly to the Billie Holliday song of the same name. The book’s a great Noir proto-Beat piece of writing… some fine “boilerplate” reading.

    Liked by 1 person


    • doc
      Apr 18, 2012 @ 20:32:26

      Will, Thanks for the tip. I haven’t read it yet. I’m familiar with “potboiler” as an evaluative term applied to works of art, and “hard-boiled” detective fiction. What is “boilerplate?”



      • osobearman
        Mar 17, 2023 @ 16:00:29

        Boilerplate text in a legal document is standardized text that is applied to most forms. In a looser sense, it means something trite or stereotypical. Fine boilerplate reading probably refers to a pretty ordinary tale, but well-written.

        Liked by 1 person


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