One can only imagine what Frank Loesser (composer of Guys and Dolls, among other works) was thinking when he penned the lyric to “That Sentimental Sandwich.” Get something written by lunch, most likely, although “I’m hungry for something but it seems so far away / That sentimental sandwich that we shared one day” may speak to some deeper emotion. Justin Hayford, who will sing it at Davenport’s Piano Bar and Cabaret the first four Saturdays in March, says, “There are always a few songs [in the show]…that I throw in because they’re so delightfully terrible.”

“That Sentimental Sandwich” might be moldier than most of the other 25 songs that Hayford will resurrect in A Rare Find III: Still More Forgotten Gems from the American Popular Songbook. It may not be as touching as Harold Arlen’s “I Could Be Good For You,” or as rousing as “In Gilly Gilly Ossenfeffer Katzenallen Bogen by the Sea.” But Hayford doesn’t necessarily look for material to mock. “It’s easy to find unknown songs,” he says. “It’s hard to find unknown songs that have got some real spark behind them.”

Hayford, 36, has spent most of his adult life not singing any songs. He’s a case manager at the AIDS Legal Council of Chicago and a freelance writer and critic (and Reader contributor) who’s directed theater professionally and taught political science at Northwestern University (his alma mater), all in an attempt to “run as far away from this singing thing as I possibly could.”

“This was a fate I’ve been shoved toward and shoved against all my life,” he says. Hayford’s father was a musician, and his mother was one of the singing Cain Sisters back in the 30s and 40s. The three sisters had their own Sunday morning radio program on WLS and later sang on a show called The Climalene Carnival (Climalene was “some sort of a hand cream” according to Hayford) on NBC radio. Hayford’s grandfather, Noble Cain, was the musical director at the same station. His three older siblings all received formal musical training. He did not.

Hayford’s aversion to music began in childhood when, he recalls, “We had to sing ‘Happy Birthday to You’ in as-many-part harmony as there were people around the table. And this drove me crazy, I hated this. I would defiantly sing the melody no matter what.”

And not very well, he thought. “I built up this resentment to music, especially singing in public, because I was the one person in the family who really couldn’t sing very well.” Then five years ago one of his aunts sent him a tape of a 50s nightclub singer named Matt Dennis, and something clicked. “He was funny and charming and deadpan, and his voice was far from perfect, and I went ahhh, one needn’t be perfect or trained to pull this off. Let me see if I can do this.”

He debuted the first Rare Find concert in 1999, and has been doing it ever since, selling out Toulouse on the Park as well as Davenport’s. The idea came naturally, he says. “I’ve always been this contrarian by nature, and I don’t know why. It’s not a knee-jerk reaction–if it’s popular I don’t like it. It’s a natural proclivity towards things that are unsung, and the underdogs in life.”

Hayford has found forgotten or mostly forgotten songs lying around used-book stores, junk shops, the library, on the Internet, and on CDs, but he isn’t nostalgic. “I don’t want to hearken back to anything [as] a superior era,” he says, “because I don’t believe that’s true.

“There’s something very emotionally pure about this stuff,” he continues. “I did a Yip Harburg song in the first Rare Find called ‘Poor You.'” He quotes the lyric: “‘Poor you, I’m sorry you’re not me / Because you’ll never know what loving you can be’–which you sort of have to wink at. But you also have to support that really genuine experience, which is, you’ll never know what it’s like to be in love with you, you’re so unlucky. That’s a true feeling.”

However, he adds, “You can’t sing ‘That Sentimental Sandwich’ straight. You have to wink at that song.”

Justin Hayford will perform A Rare Find III at 8 PM on March 3, 10, 17, and 24 at Davenport’s, 1383 N. Milwaukee. Admission is $8; call 773-278-1830 for reservations.

–Jeffrey Felshman

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.