This is the title of a book published this year by Ben Yagoda which I will be reviewing in the next several posts. After reading it, I am convinced that it is very important for understanding American popular song – at least in the 20th century. However, more importantly, it has helped me to understand what has been dubbed “The Great American Songbook” – where it came from and where it went.
Prologue – “Premises, Premises”
Quoting an interview with the jazz pianist Keith Jarrett, Mr. Yagoda notes that these songs (“standards” if you will) “‘came rushing in’ from the 1920’s through the 1950’s, but most quickly and intensely in a two-decade span starting in about 1925.” So, it is important to understand that things are not quite so simple as a good song-writing tradition that goes to pot after about 1950. To get a sense of this, consider that one of the hit tunes of 1919 was “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles.” It’s cute, but quite dated. It just doesn’t have the staying power of, say, “Stella By Starlight” (1944). It is in the melody and the harmonic structure. There are creative possibilities which allow for quite different treatments in the second song, but not in the first.
Listen to this rather romantic 1950’s ballad version of “Stella By Starlight” sung by Frank Sinatra and then a more modern instrumental version by Keith Jarrett and his jazz trio. Sinatra’s version is probably closer to the way the song would have been originally conceived, but the song is in no way limited to this approach. It has possibilities.
Another author whom Mr. Yagoda cites, Alec Wilder, author of “American Popular Song,” (1972) claims that after Stephen Foster, America’s first great songwriter, there really is no one comparable for decades. Now we can argue the merits of the songs of, say, George M. Cohan (fl. 1904-1920) but, great though they are, they too seem to be rather ‘specific’ – although certainly better than “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles.” And there must be a reason why when even non-jazz singers today, such as Linda Ronstadt, Willie Nelson, and Rod Stewart put out “oldies tribute albums,” for the most part they stick to the music between about 1925 and 1950 and composers such as George Gershwin, Cole Porter, and Jerome Kern.
Ben Yagoda will tell us why and, spoiler alert, it wasn’t so much Rock and Roll that ended this era of “Great American Songs,” although it perhaps delivered the coup de grâce.
To be continued . . .