America's Songs II - Songs from the 1890's to the Post-War Years
By Michael Lasser
“There is, of course, some kind of tale
When Gene Lees met Harold Arlen near the end of the composer’s life, he asked him a question that apparently no one had asked before: “Mr. Arlen, when you and George Gershwin and Rodgers and Hart and the others were writing for the theater in the thirties, were you consciously aware that what you were writing was art music?” Lees remembered that Arlen “looked at me for what seems in memory a long moment and then said, softly, ‘Yes.’”
Lees and Arlen were talking about the Great American Songbook, the unequalled popular songs written between 1920 and 1950, but anticipated by the arrival of ragtime, jazz, and especially Tin Pan Alley in the preceding two decades. Writing almost exclusively about love—some mix of romance, sex, and marriage—the songwriters of the Great American Songbook combined rich melodies, sophisticated harmonies, and smart rhythms with lyrics derived from the slangy vitality of American speech. The results were striking, especially in the ways they wove sentiment and wit together within the limits of a single song. Although this sounds complicated, most songwriters were devoted to simplicity. Despite their clever wordplay, accessibility was a virtue and Irving Berlin was its greatest master. Novelist Anita Loos once had a chance to watch him work: “He would go over and over a lyric until it seemed perfect to my ears. Then he’d scrap the whole thing and begin over again. When I asked Irving what was wrong, he invariably said, ‘It isn’t simple enough.’” What John F. Baker said of Sammy Cahn is equally true of all the good lyricists: they possess “an uncanny ability to fit shapely, singable words to almost any tune written … and make them sound inevitable.”
That inevitability often lay in the songwriters’ ability to maneuver within the unyielding conventions and conservative public taste that made innovation difficult. Despite the slavish commitment to a single subject, the repetition of the same old imagery, and the frequency of clichés both musical and verbal, the best songwriters’ gift for innovation is at the heart of American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, Alec Wilder’s book about composers, and Poets of Tin Pan Alley: A History of America’s Great Lyricists, Philip Furia’s about lyricists. Despite the temptation to settle for banality, each songwriter had to make a song work on his—and its—own terms. Berlin said, “I’ve always despised that constant effort in the theater and pictures to be unique and original. A picture or a play is good or bad. So is a song. If they’re also different, okay … but it’s a great mistake to set out with no objective but being unusual.”
Using no more words than it took to match thirty-two bars of music, a good lyric could spark what was tired and lift what was flat. Just as good songwriting combined sentiment and wit in a single song, so it had to be both familiar and fresh at the same time. But the men and women who wrote these songs didn’t sit around waiting for inspiration to strike. They went out looking for it or fought their way through its absence. Johnny Mercer compared songwriters to baseball players: “A ballplayer gets up there and he has to produce. Bam! He whacked it! Then he’s done for the day; and they have to get ready for the next game. It might be two or three days, but remember, even though he’s not in the lineup, he’s constantly practicing. However, they still have to concentrate on one game at a time, and they didn’t think about how far the ball’s going to fly. We do the same thing with songs … How do you write a song, how do you hit a ball? Don’t think about it, just write it, just hit it. It’s the same thing.”
As they learned that ragtime and jazz provided enough edge to keep things interesting, composers capitalized on the looseness and drive of syncopation, while lyricists created a lively up-to-date language given shape by their playfulness with sound and rhyme in songs that gave voice to everyone, especially the young. We identified as standards those songs that were so good they refused to disappear after their initial popularity. They continued to buzz along just under the surface until new singers emerged to perform them, thereby confirming that what we’d been singing in the shower all along was worth remembering, even if it was as simple, sweet, and sad as this:
I long to rest my weary head on somebody’s
Attitudes toward love, sex, and marriage changed rapidly and dramatically through the twentieth century, and songwriters had to keep up. They weren’t poets and they certainly weren’t sociologists, but the moment when the lyric and the music became one—a new third thing—could be thrilling. Yip Harburg said that “the greatest romance in the life of a lyricist is when the right words meet the right notes.” To stay in the game, songwriters needed to live in their own time with their antennae aquiver for the newest catch phrase, the sharpest rhythms of the day, the hottest gossip, and the latest changes in what people wanted and what they were doing. While some of the songs were autobiographical, more often than not the songwriters’ subject was not themselves, but us. We remember a song, we attune ourselves to its emotional vibe, and we’re able to say, “Yes, that’s it. That’s how it was; that’s how it feels.” The songwriters would never have said so, but they were democratic populists who told us our own stories in our own time, and then the best of those songs continued to speak to other times. To see how they did it, song by song, is the purpose of this book.
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