The word penny has been used at least since the 8th century for an English coin. Originally of silver, the penny began to be minted from copper in 1797, and from bronze in 1860; coining of silver pennies for general circulation ceased with the reign of Charles II, although a small number have since been regularly coined as Maundy money. With decimalization in 1971 the traditional penny was replaced by a penny equal to one-hundredth of a pound and known for a time as the new penny.
The Oxford English Reference Dictionary
Oh yes Pennies from Heaven is a foot stomper, why the rhythm is absolutely contagious and set the music standards of the thirties and forties with its collage of free-associative quotes and comments. The Count Basie Orchestra gained national recognition as one of the most swinging jazz bands in the land. From classic hits like One O'Clock Jump and Pennies From Heaven to a string of great Basie band jazz such as Stop beatin Around The Mulberry Bush, Jumpin at the Woodside, Mama Don't Want No Peas 'N Rice 'N Coconut Oil, Cherokee and Oh Lady Be Good, Basie grew to be a legend during those years.
In the original movie Pennies From Heaven had characters that came alive when they imagine things happening. It was musical comedy where people daydreamed, filled with a gold mine classic sounds. Life is a song and dance to jazzy sounds and in the midst of this America was coming out of the Great Depression and World War I and moving towards the Cold War while Britain was about the fall into the morass of the Suez Affair. Louis Armstrong played a small role in the 1936 movie, where he bantered with Bing Crosby and sang a novelty called Skeleton in the Closet and it has been remade again and again as as a movie in the seventies starring Steve Martin as well as a TV series. William Grant Still was the songs originator. Frequently referred to as Dean of Afro-American composers the International Dictionary of Black Composers relates:
(William Grant) Still had begun composing art music with the goal of incorporating the blues in a symphony. While working with W. C. Handy in Memphis and in New York in the late teens, he had developed an interest in black musical idioms and actively sought out authentic blues and spirituals, a practice he continued in New York. In his symphonies, art songs, and operas, Still drew upon African-American idioms as a source of inspiration and musical style. In two early works—Darker America (1924) and Levee Land (1925)—Still found that the "ultramodern idiom" was not compatible with African-American idioms. So, after leaving Varèse’s tutelage, he discarded the atonal, dissonant, and chromatic harmony of his early works and adopted what he referred to as "the racial idiom," composing in an accessible style that consciously embraced African-American musical traits. In 1934, aided by a Guggenheim fellowship, Still left New York and moved to Los Angeles, where he began to arrange and compose music for films, including the scores for Pennies from Heaven, Lost Horizon, and Stormy Weather.
It is the sources of the idiom that interests me the most. I wondered from where such a remarkable idea sprang?
In for a penny, in for a pound is an exhortation to total commitment to an undertaking, penny wise and pound foolish means in small expenditures but wasteful of large amounts, a pretty penny is a large sum of money and two a penny is easily obtained and so almost worthless.
Pennies from heaven are unexpected benefits and the penny drops is a colloquium that one understands at last. It's from this combination of ideas that the song title comes from the phrase :
"the pennies from heaven drop through my soul "
It's not too far of a leap to make to this idiom from where Christ asks in the King James Version,
'Are not sparrows two a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father',
because 'two a penny' is a cliché; like the pennies that drop, and are offered for thoughts, the coin has no existence.
We must be rapscallion yes!? Forget the penny and bend ourselves to realization. It was my Sainted Irish Grandmother who would cry aloud, Did you know each cloud contains pennies from heaven?
From the piers of Old Orchard Beach and we would watch the hustle of people on the boardwalk in lines like freighters to the rows of boxcars. Everything was in motion. It was a frenzy of activity that seems a lifetime away from the tranquility of Holmesian books in my bedroom.
She was made of grit and energy born of the era and seized that penny for us from the scrappy planking, point to the In God We Trust as verifiable proof that a much beloved friend or relative who had passed over and gone on to heaven had indeed answered her prayers. Prayers she whispered to God during her daily Mass to send her a sign that this dearest of the heart had not forgotten and was keeping a watchful eye.
Without error she would insist she had prayed about three people and lo and behold there indeed would be a cluster of three pennies from heaven dropped down through her soul to comfort and tell her if they were head side up it was unexpected good fortune, a windfall, while tail side up forebode ominous warnings, trouble comes in threes she always worried.
Pennies from heaven continue to fall down through family souls, passed on as oral traditions, one to create conversations in which to tell daughters and sons about the rich characters that inhabited them. An opportunity to pass on a legacy, redeemed as a penny for their thoughts.