Chapter IV – As Time Goes By, 1941-1948

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The most successful single recording of all time: Bing Crosby’s recording of “White Christmas.”

With the beginning of World War II, there was a call for songs to help the war effort, just as at the time of World War I, but not as much of a response.  Probably the most famous was Frank Loesser’s “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition.”  Generally, WWII songs tended to be sentimental and included a wish to return home.  They were not bellicose at all.

“White Christmas,” recorded just before America’s entry into the war, nonetheless became a favorite during the war.  Written by Irving Berlin, it was originally meant to be a lament by an Easterner transplanted to California, wishing for an old-fashioned Christmas.  “I’ll be Seeing You” (in All the Old Familiar Places), which also predated the war, having been composed in 1938, also became a sentimental home-coming favorite during the war.  Still another song composed before the war, but made immensely popular by the Andrews Sisters and Glenn Miller was “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree” (With Anyone Else But Me).  Its lyrics were about two young lovers pledging fidelity and were modified during the war with the addition of “till I come marching home.”

“I’ll Be Home for Christmas” was actually written during the war and recorded by Bing Crosby in 1943.

There are other things happening during this time.  First, the popularity of Frank Sinatra will ultimately lead to a shift away from the big bands and a focus on singers themselves.  In the early 1940’s, Frank Sinatra was merely an adjunct, the “boy singer” who was appended to Tommy Dorsey’s orchestra.  By the 1950’s people wanted to hear Frank Sinatra sing with little to no interest in who was accompanying him – usually, talented, but nameless studio musicians.  It was to be the same with other popular singers.

Secondly, the ASCAP radio boycott of 1941 which I had already mentioned forced radio stations associated with national networks into accepting music from non-ASCAP sources that would not have originally been chosen for broadcast.  Such regional music as what was then called “hillbilly music” (now “country music”) began to be heard in such unusual places as Boston and New York City as Gene Autry, Tex Ritter and Roy Acuff began getting more air time.

Thirdly, the foundation in 1942 of Capitol Records by Johnny Mercer and Buddy DeSylva as a record company owned by musicians for musicians was to have an influence on quality. It was to produce some of Frank Sinatra’s best recordings in the 1950’s.  (Ironically, the company, which features the U.S. Capitol Building in its logo, has always been located in California.)

Fourthly, the “Petrillo Ban” of 1942 is also to have far-reaching effects.  James Petrillo, the president of the American Federation of Musicians, called for his member musicians to go on strike, refusing to record for record companies.  He felt that sidemen should receive royalties for records, particularly in view of the popularity of the new-fangled jukeboxes.  The strike was not definitively settled until 1944, but one of the ways record companies dealt with it was to use a cappella vocal groups, which did not fall under the ban.  Many think that the exposure of the American public to this sound was to lead later to the popularity of the “doo-wop” groups of the 1950’s.

Finally, Ben Yagoda mentions that Hollywood makes fewer original musicals and concentrates on filming new Broadway musicals (Oklahoma, Carousel, South Pacific), and films that are compilations of older songs (An American in Paris, Band Wagon, Singing in the Rain).  Broadway itself continues full-steam ahead but shifts to songs which are better integrated into the plot and, as with Rodgers and Hammerstein, more operetta-like in quality (My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music).

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Chapter II – I Get a Kick Out of You

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“After the Ball” (1891). The first song in America to make its composer (Charles K. Harris) one million dollars.

Oops!  I skipped Chapter 2 and need to summarize it now.

Arguably the first respectable composer of American popular song was Stephen Foster.  He died penniless in 1864 at the age of 37, supposedly having made a total of only $36 on his music in his entire life.

The first successful American composer was Charles K. Harris, whose “After the Ball” made him one million dollars in 1891-92.  (If you want to hear the composer himself sing the song later in life, about 1929, click here.  Born in Poughkeepsie, but having spent much of his life in New York City, listen to his pronunciation of “words” as “woids.”  Also listen to his reference to “sentiment.”)  While this specific song is no longer known, it is very much in the spirit of more familiar ones from the era such as “In the Good Old Summer Time”)  – 3/4 waltz time, simple, nostalgic, and very sentimental.

Charles Harris could neither read nor write music.  In fact, in his autobiography, he related that the way he composed was to come up with a melody.  Then he would hire a professional musician to whom he would hum the melody.  The professional musician would then write it down and arrange it for piano.  (Does this sound familiar?  Check my post from June 22 – Bob Merrill, composer of “How Much Is That Doggie In the Window?” (1953).  At least he could play his melodies on a toy xylophone for the professional musician to transcribe.)

At any rate, this made a kind of sense at the time, because the market for popular music was largely for amateur performers – people who would play from sheet music at the family piano.  This was the age of Tin Pan Alley.  Literally hundreds of songwriters (of varying ability themselves) writing music simple enough for amateur musicians to play and writing music that they would be attracted to – largely nostalgic, sentimental  waltzes.  This “sheet music era” reaches its climax in 1917 when two billion copies of sheet music were sold.  By this time, however, due to World War I, the subject matter of the songs, if not their corniness, had changed.  One of the big hits of the era was, “If He Can Fight Like He Can Love, Then Good Night Germany!”

So, how do we get from the “fighting lover” of 1917 to such a classic popular song as George and Ira Gershwin’s “Someone To Watch Over Me” less than a decade later (1926)?  There are four reasons put forward by Ben Yagoda.  He calls them “individual,” “technological,” “institutional,” and “cultural.”

By individual he seems to mean “individual genius.”  At least that is what I think he means, but he also seems to establish within this very section that such early songwriters (Kern, Berlin, Gershwin, and Rodgers) did share certain things in common: they were all Jewish and, all but Berlin, had classical training.

Technologically, the introduction of the 78 rpm record, which dominates well into the 1960’s, as the chief means of the dissemination of popular music helps to create (due to its short, four minute length), the standard AABA 32-measure popular song form.  It also shifts the whole situation of popular music from songwriters composing music that amateurs could perform, to songwriters writing for professional performers who will perform for amateurs – whether live or on recordings.

As to the “institutional,” Ben Yagoda is talking about patronage.  There weren’t many patrons in the classical sense.  However, he does mention one Max Dreyfus who became the owner of T. B. Harms Music, a publishing house through which he gave ‘financial assistance’ by hiring many of the early composers of the Great American Song Book, such as Kern, Porter, and Gershwin, paying them more than the standard royalty.

As to the “cultural,” Yagoda speaks about the good public school education of that era in New York City and the influence it had on lyricists.  He also speaks about a Black-Jewish connection: the minor-keyed modes sung in the synagogues and the pentatonic blues scales of the blacks.  He also speaks about the beginning of the modern dance craze in 1913 and the influence this had.

Personally, I think that there is more to be said in the cultural sphere which the author doesn’t attend to here.  America had developed much more of a classical music culture by the early twentieth century than it ever had – especially compared to the nineteenth century.  Not only did this group of composers, generally, have some classical training – at least childhood piano lessons – some of them had real pretensions to write jazz-influenced classical music (especially George Gershwin) – which elevated their popular music.

But more about this in the future . . .

Chapter III: Jukebox Saturday Night 1925-1942

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Founding members of ASCAP in 1914: Victor Herbert, John Phillips Sousa, and Irving Berlin are in the front row from the left.

Continuing with our summary of the contents of Ben Yagoda’s book “The B-Side: The Death of Tin Pan Alley and the Rebirth of the Great American Song” we encounter, if not the death, at least the final illness of Tin Pan Alley.  As noted in the first chapter, the success of Tin Pan Alley was predicated upon sheet music sales.  Tin Pan Alley, of course, harkened back to the days when people made music at home, around the family piano.  With the emergence of radio and the ‘Victrola,’ the decline of the sheet music model of distribution had actually begun around 1920, however it was the Depression that considerably accelerated this decline.  In 1929, sheet music sales in the United States totaled about $16 million.  Just four years later (1933), sales had dropped to $2 million.

There were other cultural (and financial) forces at work which greatly effected the dissemination of popular music.  However these forces (or trends if you will) involve considerable overlap, so one has to follow them carefully.

The first cultural force has to do with Hollywood emerging as a counterpoise to Broadway.  There are several differences between the two, but an important one is that Hollywood tended to be more “populist,” that is, aimed at the common man.  Broadway tended, at least arguably, to appeal more to Manhattan sophisticates.  The first ‘talking picture,’ “The Jazz Singer,” makes its debut in 1927 and from then on many movies feature music.  In fact a new generation of popular composers and lyricists emerges – Hoagy Carmichael, Harold Arlen, Johnny Mercer, Sammy Cahn, etc. – who write for the movies. The earlier generation, men such as  Jerome Kern, George Gershwin, Richard Rodgers, and Cole Porter, were Broadway composers who continued writing as the new generation emerged.

The second change has to do with a new cultural/fiscal arrangement, the basic elements of which began to be put in place in the early twentieth century.  It is not until almost mid-century, 1940 to be specific, that all of these elements coalesce and there is a major change.

In 1909 the United States Congress passes the “Copyright Act of 1909,” which includes under copyrighted material “public performance [of music] for profit.” In other words, according to Yagoda, “anyone playing or singing a copyrighted song [in a for-profit situation] has to pay for the right to do so.”  Now the enforcement of this is a pretty tall order and, aside from the most intrusive [and well-staffed] authoritarian police state, it seems that it could only depend on an ‘honor system.’

However, in 1913, a group of songwriters and publishers meet in New York City and the next year establish the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP).  Thus, there emerges a private ‘enforcement agency’ which, backed up by a 1917 Supreme Court decision, brokers deals with radio stations, dance halls, and restaurants and, according to various calculations and tables, determines a general yearly fee that each institution has to pay. ASCAP then pays its members (composers, authors, publishers) what it determines they are owed – all of this being estimated according to their calculations and tables.

Throughout the 1930’s the rate which ASCAP charges radio stations (radio becoming a another dominant way in which popular music is disseminated) gradually rises to 2.75% of their net income.  In 1940, negotiations between ASCAP and broadcasters breakdown when ASCAP demands 7.5% of their gross income.  Thus, beginning on January 1, 1941, radio broadcasters refuse to broadcast any of the approximately 1.25 million songs in ASCAP’s catalogue AND establish their own organization, BMI (Broadcast Music Incorporated).

Now this radio “strike” doesn’t last for even two full years, but it does (arguably) have a lasting impact, among which is the continuing break up of the “New York sophisticate” influence on popular music; first via Broadway’s decreasing dominance, then via ASCAP’s monopoly – but more on this to come . . .

“The B-Side:” Chapter 1: “Mr. Miller and Mr. Schwartz”

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1950’s Record Producer Mitch Miller – aka “The Beard”

Above is one half of the title – Mitch Miller.  Arthur Schwartz, on the other hand, was a seasoned Broadway composer, not top echelon like Cole Porter or George Gershwin, but a respectable, second tier composer.  He is perhaps best known for providing the music for one of Fred Astaire’s movie musicals, “The Band Wagon” (1953), most of the music for which he had already written for the 1931 musical review of the same name.   However he composed the famous song “That’s Entertainment” specifically for the 1953 film.

Here is a another of Schwartz’ songs from the same musical, “Dancing in the Dark.”

This chapter illustrates a period in the history of American popular song by using the encounter between a representative of traditional Broadway (Schwartz) and the new fangled “record producer” (Miller) of the 1950’s.  Although Mitch Miller was no fan of the soon to emerge phenomenon of “Rock ‘n’ Roll,” nonetheless, he was responsible for the shift in both the geography and the approach to popular music which became associated with rock music.

But more about this later . . .

Just to back track a bit, it is important to give people a sense of the source of American popular music in the first half of the 20th century, its “geography.”  There were basically three sources: Tin Pan Alley, Broadway, and Hollywood.  “Tin Pan Alley” was originally a very specific place: West 28th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues in Manhattan.  Now mainly the location of shops that sell cheap costume jewelry and women’s accessories, beginning about 1885, Tin Pan Alley became the home of music publishers.

No one is sure how it got its name, but one reasonable explanation is that, in such pre-air conditioned days, one could hear through the many open windows all the different publishers’ song pluggers playing on the many (and slightly out of tune) pianos, the many different songs they were all considering for publication throughout the day.  The din of this collective sound, perhaps, seemed to sound like the banging of tin pans.  At any rate, Tin Pan Alley was a vital and often dominant contributor especially during the era when sheet music was the main way in which popular music was enjoyed.  As records and radio took over, Tin Pan Alley waned in influence, basically around 1930.

The Broadway shows, further uptown in Manhattan, were also a source of popular music and, with the advent of motion pictures with sound, Hollywood, California became another source of popular music.  There is no denying that, sometimes, there was an interaction between all three.  As with “The Band Wagon,” often songs came out of Broadway shows, were then remade in Hollywood as ‘movie musicals’ and then recordings and sheet music were produced back in New York, perhaps in the more modern manifestation of Tin Pan Alley, the Brill Building in Times Square, where most New York music publishers had moved beginning in the 1940’s.

At any rate, during the height of the Great American Songbook Era (probably about 1940), a researcher discovered that 8% of the songs played on the radio were from Broadway, 25% were from films, and 67% were “pops” (i.e. “Tin Pan Alley,” whether in its original location or elsewhere).  Of the songs that have actually survived and are today considered “popular classics” of the era, probably about one third are from each of the categories.  Therefore, it can be argued, that Broadway faired the best, while fewer than half of the “pops” stood the test of time.

Which brings us back to Mitch Miller and Arthur Schwartz . . .

Why is Mitch Miller significant?  How did he change the ‘geography’ of the American popular song?  Quite simply, he made the recording itself the actual locus, the actual event.  Through the use of gimmicks, studio tricks and sound effects, and the effort to create a particular recorded “sound,” Mitch Miller is the beginning of the movement away from the traditional approach to popular music – or even classical music.  In the past it was the melody, chords, and lyrics which constituted the song, the piece of music.  True, various performers had their unique interpretations of these songs, but the point of a recording was simply to capture that reality as best as possible.

So, originally, the recording was like a picture of a loved one – a useful reminder of the person.  But what happens when the picture is preferred to the person?  When the actual person is a disappointment?  Ultimately this is the phenomenon of people being disappointed at times by hearing a rock group in person, because it doesn’t sound like the recording.  Now, at this point, we are still a ways off from this and what Mitch Miller was known for primarily was producing, at times, rather corny, “novelty songs.”

Probably the most popular novelty song of the era, which Mitch Miller didn’t produce (but might as well have), was Patti Page’s recording of “How Much Is That Doggie In the Window?” This was the number one smash hit for eight weeks running in 1953, composed by one Bob Merrill, a man who could neither read nor write music, on his toy xylophone.

Miller actually did produce a dog barking song entitled “Mama Will Bark” (1951), recorded by Frank Sinatra and a creature known as ‘Dagmar’ who was no dog, but couldn’t sing well either.  This was at the lowest point of Sinatra’s career and the last song he recorded for Columbia Records before he left for Capital Records.

To be fair to Miller, here is a better novelty song of his, “Come On-A My House” (1951), recorded by Rosemary Clooney (under protest originally).  It is a gimmicky, faux-ethnic song but, in addition to Clooney’s personality, what ‘makes’ the song is the amplified, barrelhouse harpsichord playing of Stan Freeman – part of the in-house studio production of the song.  (If you want to hear some of Stan Freeman’s more serious jazz harpsichord playing, listen to his 1951 recording of Perdido.)

So what it comes down to is that, after having trouble getting songs from his latest musical, “By the Beautiful Sea” recorded, Arthur Schwartz, hat in hand, approached Mitch Miller at Columbia Records in 1954.  After listening to all of the songs of this venerable lion of Broadway, Miller, the new doyen of popular taste, told him that only one of the songs interested him and even that he would have to, in essence, dumb down.

Remember, in 1954 the term “rock ‘n’ roll” would have been met with a blank stare by most people.  So, we are not talking about great adult popular music being overturned by a teenage rebellion – at least not yet.  We are talking about adults dumbing down their own music.

“The B-Side: The Death of Tin Pan Alley and the Rebirth of the Great American Song”

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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 . . .

Broadway for the Hearing Impaired!

I had read about the phenomenon of miking Broadway shows in the past, but had my first experience of it Friday night when I went to see Les Misérables at the famous Imperial Theatre on West 45th Street in New York City.  The Imperial Theatre was built in 1923 and has served as the location of many Broadway premieres – “Annie Get Your Gun” (1946), “Silk Stockings” (1955), “Fiddler on the Roof” (1964), and “Pippin” (1972) – to name just a few.

It is not a big theatre – only about 1500 seats.  It is not a football stadium or a huge ampitheatre.  It is a traditional Broadway theatre designed for the live human voice.  However, from the moment the overture began, I could tell that the pit orchestra as well as (seemingly) all the performers were miked.

I really disliked it!

Sometimes it wasn’t so bad but, when you channel miked sound through speakers it usually sounds, well, “amplified,” not natural.  Then there was the problem of directionality.

You couldn’t always tell who was singing, because the ‘old-fashioned’ way in which you actually hear the sound coming out of a character’s mouth was no longer operative.  In one scene there were two characters: one on the stage floor, the other on top of a set which reached almost all the way up to the proscenium arch.  Since the speakers were just above the proscenium arch, guess which character seemed to be singing?  Since the stage was in shadow – necessary for that part of the musical – I couldn’t see that the character on the stage floor was the one moving his mouth.

Generally speaking, whenever there were multiple people on stage and only one of them was singing, it took a few moments to figure out who it was that was singing – because the sound was, primarily, coming from above the proscenium arch.

Why is this done today?  There seem to be a variety of reasons.  These are laid out in a 2009 article in the Wall Street Journal.  Some of them are unobjectionable, such as Broadway touring companies performing in increasingly bigger (4,000 plus) seat venues.   Other reasons I find very objectionable: “[m]any theatergoers have come to expect the miking effect. . . .  Audiences also expect entertainment to be louder generally, after years of surround-sound in movie theaters.”. . . [Editor’s note: and having their ear drums blown out at rock concerts.]

I remember someone telling me about watching a couple at an outdoor cafe across the street.  They were obviously a ‘couple’ and sitting at the same table.  Yet they were both speaking into their cell phones.  He said he had an eerie feeling that they were talking to each other.

Is the miking of Broadway musicals in small traditional venues one more sign of this phenomenon?  In the modern world, when people are given a choice between doing something in a natural way or using technology, often they will choose technology – because the technology seems more natural to them?

The Piano Guys – Muzak for Millennials

(First, it’s nice to be back.  I am sorry that I was gone for almost nine months, but that is the length of the school year during which I really have little time to blog.  I just thought it easier to stop altogether.  Now that it is summer, I can return to blogging.  I hope to post once or twice a week – maybe more – through August.  But when September comes, alas . . . .  Anyway, I do have lots of things to say.)


I suppose The Piano Guys are as good a representative of the millennial generation’s musical tastes as any.  “The Piano Guys” are five musicians who are young, talented, clever, and adept at using modern technology (posting videos on YouTube is how they got their start).  They became wildly popular – some of their videos having been viewed 20 million times – and were consequently signed by Sony.  Now they go on tour and release albums.

Don’t get me wrong, they are classically trained musicians – and one of them plays the cello.  They are quite competent.  I suppose that I shouldn’t complain too much, at least the millennial generation is thus exposed to acoustic piano and cello this way.  [When I watch an old movie or television show, I often find myself remarking, “How nice,  acoustic instruments on the sound track!”  And some of these “old” shows are only from the 1970’s.]

But my goodness, The Piano Guys are so repetitious!  It’s the same criticism that I have leveled at Adele and others.  The phenomenon of a handful of chords (usually just four) repeated over and over – an ostinato.  Listen to their rendition of the song “What Makes You Beautiful” by the group One Direction.

Now, as I said, the Piano Guys are clever.  The use of ‘prepared piano’ technique is interesting (i.e. plucking the piano strings and tapping the piano, etc.).  I also realize that they are working with a song that could only have been written by 15-year old boys.  Unfortunately, these “ossified ostinatos” are quite appealing – or, at least, expected as normal in popular music now – to more than just 12-year old girls.  The song actually seems to repeat only three (!) chords every two measures.

I suppose that the case could be made that The Piano Guys improve the song considerably.  And they certainly do in their rendition – listen to the modulation up a half-step at about 2:20.  Still, the removal of the words in their instrumental version serves, for me, to underscore just how monotonous the chord progression is.  “One direction,” indeed!  Around and around in a tight circle is the only direction they know.

Let’s give The Piano Guys another try.  Listen to their rendition of “Simple Gifts” and “Over the Rainbow,” which they combine in this video.

It’s the same thing isn’t it?  “Simple Gifts,” an unaffectedly simple song of the Shakers, is ‘simplified’ further by being crammed into that four-chord ostinato so beloved of the Millennial generation – their straight-jacketed security blanket.  And then, to top it off, “Simple Gifts” is combined with Judy Garland’s old hit in a way that sounds less of a true synthesis then a blatant homogenization.

Both tunes are rendered harmless and stripped of their really interesting qualities and, furthermore, shackled to the mechanical, click-track generated rhythmic background.  One of the prisoners, in the only truly interesting part (around 2:45), breaks free, but then seems to return willingly to its rigidly regimented “hip” rhythmic prison around 3:15.

To be fair, I need to listen to a lot more of their music, but based on these two examples The Piano Guys’ music strikes me as a kind of Muzak for Millennials.  They are giving this generation exactly what it wants.  What distinguishes Millennial Muzak from older muzak?  I would say that it is a kind of feigned hipness – a carefully processed, safely syncopated background combined with an utterly short-breathed harmonic circularity.  What is it about this generation which prides itself on “thinking outside the box” on TV shows with long, complicated, never-ending plots, yet when it comes to music they never want to move forward?  They want, primarily, safe, predictable repetitions – like a boy running around in a tight circle in his small, carefully fenced-in back yard.

Oh, and if you want to “do something” to the song “Simple Gifts” that still respects the song’s integrity it should be something like this version by Alison Krauss and Yo-Yo Ma.

I will return!

I had someone write me asking, “where have you gone?”  The answer is, “into the bowels of the school year.”  I will be reactivating my blog on popular music, “Critic’s Corner,” in mid-May, a little over a month from now.

I have quite a few things to review, including two books on the subject of popular music.

Look forward to seeing you all, then!

Songs for Adults

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In my last post, I complained about the quality of many popular songs, arguing that many are aimed at teenagers – and increasingly written by people who have only the vaguest sense of how to write a melody and harmonize it.  Here are two examples of very sensitive ballads which I came across recently.  Though they were not composed very recently, they are not of the “Great American Songbook,” either.

The first is by the Canadian Leonard Cohen.  I cannot speak to his other songs but this one, “Dance Me to the End of Love” was written in 1984 and is performed by Madeleine Peyroux who is about 40 years old.  She is often identified as a jazz musician, but I think she has more of a folk feel.  In the ideal world, in my opinion, she would be singing songs in the Mainstream Top 10 and not Katy Perry.

The second song, “Ne me quitte pas” was written in 1959 by the Dutch composer Jacques Brel and is performed here by Barbara Steisand in English and the original French.

A Second Interview

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Interviewer: After your first interview, I have a few more questions. Do you have time for a short interview?

KP: Yes, what would you like to know?

Interviewer: I would love to know your thoughts on whether or not you think that music can really progress any more than it has. By this I mean to say, technologically, do you think that we have made almost as many steps as we can to create new or different sounds to be used in music? Many of the genres since the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s are all subgenres or facets of another genre, and since then genres seem to have only progressed in areas concerning technology. It would seem that where genres are concerned, there really can’t be any new ones . . . Thoughts?

KP: Well, let me put it this way: when it comes to fallen human nature, there is an endless supply of wickedness and stupidity. Trust me. Or, at least in regard to your specific question, there can be an endless supply of people who think that they are doing something new and different, “profound” even, but that it is really only the slightest variation on an old theme.

However, I think that you touch upon an important distinction – a peculiarly modern problem – when you use the word “technology.” It’s not just in music, but in many areas of life. Endless amounts of money, for example, are dedicated to getting computers in the schools, free WIFI, etc. as if no one could possibly learn without the latest technology – when, in fact, reading levels, knowledge of culture, etc. among the average high school graduate have sunk to abysmal lows.

We are very much a “surface culture.”   I remember when the first computer music printing programs came out in the 1980’s when I was in graduate music school. One of the music theory professors wryly remarked that, while the assignments handed in to him looked unbelievably professional, for the most part, they sounded just as bad as ever. And that is one of the problems with this sort of technology. It can give people the illusion that they don’t have to do the hard work to produce anything of substance, because technology can assure them an easily attainable pretty surface. This isn’t just a problem with students. I definitely see this in popular music today.

Interviewer: Do you see anything positive for the future of popular music?

KP: Oh, yes, at least as a possibility.

Interviewer: And what is that?

KP: The fact that, while people can fool themselves – and technology makes it easier to do that – pendulums do swing. People do get tired of the way things are and, at the very least, are receptive to a change. Plus, there are intelligent people out there who do provide a market for more intelligently written music.

Interviewer: Would you see John Legend’s song “All of Me” as an example of that?

KP: In a sense. I think that what is most striking about the song is that it uses only an acoustic piano as a background – no synthesizers – and has a rather gentle mood which is a bit unusual for the top 10 these days. And John Legend has a beautiful voice. These are what make the song stand out. Still, “All of Me” basically fits into that category of “Four Chord Mysticism” of which I spoke in my last interview. I suppose that it is one of the better examples, but I would still like to hear this generation of songwriters prove to me that they can fill out eight, or even sixteen, measures (as even the Monkeys were able to do 50 years ago) before they cycle back to the first chord.

Interviewer: What about Michael Bublé? Would he be an example of that positive “pendulum swing”?

KP: Oh, I think so. People have been critical of him – especially when he started out – that he was copying very exactly what older performers did. Especially Frank Sinatra. And that is true. You can criticize him on interpretive grounds, calling him “the world’s best wedding singer,” “Sinatra in the age of karaoke and American idol,” or “Sinatra redacted through Bobby Darren.” Still, I’m glad he’s doing what he is doing. If nothing else, it does get the music out there to younger people who might not hear it otherwise.

I do think that Harry Connick, Jr. is a more original interpreter of the Great American Song Book. Even more so, Diana Krall, although she is so good that she doesn’t seem to cross over as well. She tends to be seen more exclusively as a “jazzer.”

Interviewer: I was wondering if you would comment on something intriguing which you said in your first interview about Billy Joel being insulted that he was referred to as a “balladeer”?

KP: I’m glad that you asked that question, because it does tie into what I was saying about Michael Bublé. Like him or not, his influence (though real) is limited because he tends to get shunted off into what is called “Adult Contemporary” – what used to be called “Easy Listening” – the ultimate insult to any Rocker.

Interviewer: Billy Joel, one of the best post-Great American Songbook balladeers, insulted by being called a “balladeer”? What is behind that?

KP: An awful lot. Let me see if I can explain.

This has to do with the shift in the market at which popular music is aimed. Remember that the word “teenager” was created sometime between 1935-1940. In fact, I remember my father telling me that there were lots of articles in the early 1940’s talking about “the teenager” – a new concept. “Seventeen” magazine, which still exists today, was created in 1944 to appeal to this new market. While certainly there were always teenagers around as a part of the pop music audience, the music was not aimed exclusively at them.

It took awhile for there to be a transformation.

Just look at the Billboard Mainstream Top 40 in the late 1950’s/early 1960’s and you will still see Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Perry Como sharing space with Elvis, The Beatles, The Beach Boys. However, with the emergence of Rock ‘n’ Roll in the mid-1950’s there is the beginnings of the teen “takeover” of mainstream pop which pretty much succeeds by about 1970 – at least this is arguable.

Interviewer: So what happened?

KP: In my opinion, as pop music becomes increasingly aimed at teens, teenage male insecurities (among other things) get baked into pop music culture. So when Billy Joel (already in his late 20’s and quite successful) was called a “balladeer” and his music “easy listening” it might indeed have been meant as an insult – and he certainly took it that way. It was an affront to his manhood – and the self-image he had of himself as a “rocker.” He then determined to “rock harder” – presumably to prove himself.

(Now, ironically, I am somewhat grateful for this in that he went on to write a few of the best “hard rock” songs I have ever heard: “I Go to Extremes” and “Matter of Trust.” The man just had a great sense of melody and an ear for harmonic progression, irregardless of the sort of beat attached.)

Still, this whole incident would have been absurd to a popular singer of an earlier generation, say, like Dean Martin. Upon being called a “balladeer,” he probably would have said, “Thanks, buddy, have a drink on me! Now, you’ll have to excuse me, I have a date with the Gold Diggers.”

This isn’t to say that there weren’t differences of opinion in popular music back then. While Martin had the better voice, Sinatra sang much better material. But these differences were about quality of songs, not who could thump louder. Manhood does not seem to have entered into the picture.

Interviewer: Could you expand upon the notion that Billy Joel had “a great sense of melody and an ear for harmonic progression” and why this is lacking in modern pop music?

KP: Certainly. Well, let me say that his family name was probably originally “Joelstein,” if you get my drift. Let me give you some other names: Israel Isidore Beilin (Irving Berlin), George Gershowitz (Gershwin), Hyman Arluck (Harold Arlen). American popular music is often said to be a melding of black and white influences, but those white influences often enough (though not exclusively) were those of Eastern European Jewish immigrants. American popular music at its best owes an awful lot to Jewish mothers who made their boys take classical piano lessons both before and after their Bar Mitzvah’s.

God bless them, they kept alive the wonderful heritage of (a largely Christian) Western art music which then fed, in conjunction with black rhythmic influences, into American popular music. But Western classical music has largely been cut off as both a source and an aspiration for popular music. Both Gershwin and Duke Ellington, tried to write “classical jazz,” they tried to aspire to something higher than ordinary popular music. How well they succeeded (e.g. “Rhapsody in Blue”) is another matter, but that this aspiration was present assured that there was an influence on their “lower” creations as well.

Today, that influence is foreign to most pop musicians today and all they are left with is playing around with technology, making videos, dancing, celebrity and shock value. (and writing shorter and shorter phrases!) I am not saying that we have to return to the Great American Song Book – as great as it was (and is) – but what I am saying is that the way forward is the injection of musical influences of substance into the popular canon. And technology really has no substance to it – it is only a means.