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History > Local anthem actually written ‘On The Way To Cape May’

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It never won a music award, didn’t even come close to being nominated for one, but a song that was adlibbed in a moving automobile more than a half century ago has survived today in Cape May’s history as a local hit that has overshadowed even the works of Irving Berlin and Barry Manilow.

The writer of this song, which has a fascinating historical mystique, is Maurice “Bud” Nugent, a name you will not find on Tin Pan Alley, simply because he never claimed to be a songwriter. But you can bet your last parking meter quarter that the song he composed, a ditty called “On The Way To Cape May,” has emerged to become the biggest popular musical success here since John Philip Sousa composed “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” Some claim it is the second national anthem of Cape May County.

People stand and sing it with verve when it is played in barrooms and at outdoor concerts. Comedian Cozy Morley led his audiences in a community sing of it. So even now does Bobby Rydell, who spent much of his youth in the Wildwoods. String bands often include it in their concert repertoires.

Nugent was a decorated World War II hero from Philadelphia who served as a first lieutenant in Germany. Holder of three purple hearts and silver and bronze medals for bravery, he was discharged in1945 after the war ended and was soon to marry. He and his wife, Rosemary, lived in Philadelphia as Nugent pursued a career as a salesman.

Like many others, then and now, the Nugents came from the City of Brotherly Love to the Jersey shore for their vacations.

One year they rented a summer house for three weeks at Townsend’s Inlet on the coast about halfway down the county between Ocean City and Cape May. That summer in the 1950s the rains came on one weekend and they decided to drive their nieces and nephews to Cape May to while away the hours. It was not an easy trip to the historic resort, the roads clogged with cars whose drivers and their passengers had the same destination idea.

Kids tend to be restless when locked in cars that inch along the roadway. “When will we get there?” they usually ask after the first mile. “How long will it take?” and “I have to go to the bathroom” come after the second mile, a sort of a hidden threat that if you don’t stop you may need new upholstery for the back seat of your car.

So Nugent decided to make it easier for everybody by starting an in-car community sing. It was not something that would impress Hertz to include as an extra feature in its future car rental business, but it kept everybody entertained and no longer was there a need to make an emergency stop.

Nugent, now a lyricist, improvised some words and music about the towns they passed through (“If you’re gonna be my spouse, we’d better stop at that Court House”) and when they soon arrived in Cape May as raindrops kept falling on their heads (a good title for a song?) everyone was happy again and all the kidney problems were solved.

That night they rode back to Townsend’s Inlet and to avoid any more health problems Nugent led his audience on wheels in some revisions to his song. Little did he realize then that the song would be more than a hit on the way to a bathroom at a local Esso Station.

The story would have ended there except for the fact that Nugent had a friend who was a pianist. Joe Gindhart was performing at the Cronecker Hotel in Sea Isle City and when Nugent mentioned somewhat casually how he had entertained the kids with his make-up song, Gindhart was inspired to put the words on paper with flats and sharps. Then he not only played the song at the hotel, but he sang it to the enjoyment of his audiences who joined him in sort of an early day karaoke.

Soon Cozy Morley got wind of it and included it in his act. Cozy, who was to become owner of the locally famous Club Avalon in North Wildwood, was also doling a single then and was billing it as “Cozy Morley and His Corn Cob Humor.”

With Morley pushing it in every performance, the popularity of the song spread to other entertainers, occasionally being heard in nightclubs and theaters in Philadelphia whose audiences could relate to it because of their vacation days at the seashore.

The song was given a copyright in 1960, but was never published. In some circles it has been called “the orphan song.”

There have been variations, one of them on the ribald side. It tells of a woman who came to Cape May in one shape and left in another all the way from Cape May.

Years later in 2001 another Cape May song came to light, but without the success of its predecessor. “I Just Love Cape May” was written by percussionist Jack Jennings and his wife, Jayne Morrison. Jennings played in the orchestra for the Broadway musical ”Cats” and went on tour with Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. When he retired he moved to Cape May County from North Jersey and he and his wife wrote their love letter for Cape May.

“The song came from our hearts because we love Cape May,” Jennings said.

The lyrics boost Cape May as a tourist destination. “I just love Cape May,” the song begins. “Ask the folks who’ve’ been there. They all say, ‘I just love Cape May.’ It’s the perfect place for a holiday.”

Jennings thinks the song would be appropriate for Cape May to boost tourism, especially with a new Convention Center under construction. He has offered it to the city with no financial strings attached, but nothing has happened.

It’s not unusual for people to write songs about the community in which they live. In the 1920s Harry Keating wrote “I’m Just Wild About Wildwood” which sold 35,000 copies at 25 cents a sheet. “Wildwood Days,” written by Kal Mann and Dave Appel, was a big hit for Bobby Rydell. “I was Born in Hoboken,” the early home of Frank Sinatra, was written to honor that Hudson County town and “On The Boardwalk (in Atlantic City)” came from the MGM musical, “Three Little Girls in Blue.”

But none of them has the unique history of “On The Way To Cape May” that started in an automobile more than 50 years ago on a rainy day on the way to Cape May.

 


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