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The Great American Songbook - What it Says (and Doesn't) About American Music

Come fly with me ...

 

by Chris Loeffler

 

 

The story of a culture can often be read better through the art it creates than the historical facts it documents. In the United States, there is a body of work known as the Great American Songbook that highlights and gives keen insight into first half of the 20th century in the United States. 

 

The Great American Songbook isn’t an explicit collection of songs (although publishers have used that title for their collections of sheet music), but rather a conceptual catalog of popular music that formed in, and dominated American popular culture in, the early 20th century. These songs, typically originating from Tin Pan Alley, were prominent in theatre and musicals and written by a combination of iconic composers such as George Gershwin and Cole Porter, or captured and “legitimized” by songwriters and publishers from the creative commons of the time. They're also categorized as “American Standards.”

 

This music, mostly created between World Wars I and II, tended towards optimism and progress against the backdrop of the Great Depression and the migration of rural Americans into major metropolitan areas during a time when sheet music and performing music in your own home was a primary method of music consumption.

 

One of the most strikingly American aspects about the makeup of the Great American Songbook oeuvre is how the music represents the melding of several different genres of music from very different cultures within the United States. Ragtime, blues, jazz, and Broadway musicals are all represented and cross over into each other, with an emphasis on rhythm and “speech”-like vocal patterns in place of pure melodic singing. This rhythmic and conversational delivery, played against the structure, musical content, phrasing and details of classical music, created something uniquely American, the pop music of its day, and arguably, American Classical.

 

Another uniquely American trait of the Great American Songbook collection is witty banter and vocal delivery, unexpected rhymes and notes, and a general playfulness of the melody and message. These songs were written to engage listeners and create earworms that would stick around their heads for days later.

 

Many of these songs were written in 32-bar form for musicals, and often included introductory verses that take the vocalist from speech into song. These tended to follow a standard AABA structure, and be written around universal themes to accommodate inserting or removing songs from plays.

 

As always, the cultural side of the evolution was significantly informed by social and technological advancement.


In the late 19th century, copyright protection laws were greatly strengthened in the United States, leading to a consolidation of publishers, songwriters, and composers first in Boston and various East Coast metropolitans before settling in New York City and forming the Tin Pan Alley. Prominently enterprising Eastern European immigrants would purchase and publish music from aspiring songwriters, sometimes neglecting attribution in order to gain a larger percentage of ownership/royalties in sheet music sales.

 

Today, the Great American Songbook is alive and well in the jazz world, which leverages the form and outline of these songs as an anchor for musical explorations of substitutions, comping, and improvisation. Modern-day crooners also lean on the deep catalog of the Great American Songbook, and popular artists will still occasionally lend their take to a national classic. Theatre and musicals continue to rely heavily on the Great American Songbook, but even there classics are giving was to modern forms of music, or reinterpreted in exciting new ways as the next generation tackles them.

 

 

Want to learn more? Here are some recommendations crowdsourced on Wikipedia:

 

  • Harold Arlen (with Y. Harburg "Over the Rainbow," "It's Only a Paper Moon"; with Ted Koehler "Stormy Weather," "I've Got the World on a String," "I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues," "Let's Fall in Love"; with Johnny Mercer "Blues in the Night," "That Old Black Magic," "One for My Baby," "Come Rain or Come Shine," "Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive," and with Ira Gershwin "The Man that Got Away")

 

  • Irving Berlin ("Alexander's Ragtime Band,” "When I Lost You,” "How Deep Is the Ocean,” "God Bless America,” "White Christmas,” "Always,” "A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody,” "Blue Skies,” "Cheek to Cheek,” "Puttin' on the Ritz,” "Let's Face the Music and Dance,” "There's No Business Like Show Business,” "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm")

 

  • Nacio Herb Brown with lyricist Arthur Freed ("All I Do Is Dream of You,” "Broadway Melody,” "Pagan Love Song,” "Paradise,” "Singin' in the Rain,” "Temptation,” "You Stepped Out of a Dream,” "You Were Meant for Me,” "Good Morning")

 

  • Hoagy Carmichael ("Stardust,” "Georgia on My Mind,” "Lazy River,” "The Nearness of You,” "Heart and Soul,” "Skylark")

 

  • Cy Coleman (with lyrics by Carolyn Leigh "Witchcraft,” "The Best Is Yet to Come,” "Hey, Look Me Over,” "I’ve Got Your Number"; with lyrics by Dorothy Fields "If My Friends Could See Me Now,” "Big Spender")

 

  • Fred Coots ("I Still Get a Thrill (Thinking of You),” "Love Letters in the Sand,” "Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” "For All We Know,” "A Beautiful Lady in Blue,” "You

 

                                                  

 

  • Walter Donaldson, mostly with lyrics by Gus Kahn ("My Baby Just Cares for Me,” "My Blue Heaven,” "Love Me or Leave Me,” "Carolina in the Morning,” "My Mammy,” "What Can I Say After I Say I'm Sorry?,” "Yes Sir, That's My Baby,” "Makin' Whoopee,” "You're Driving Me Crazy,” "Little White Lies"")

 

  • Vernon Duke ("April In Paris,” "Autumn In New York,” "I Can't Get Started,” "Taking a Chance on Love")

 

  • Duke Ellington ("In a Sentimental Mood,” "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing),” "Satin Doll" (with Billy Strayhorn and Johnny Mercer), "Mood Indigo,” "Sophisticated Lady,” "Take the 'A' Train,” "I'm Beginning to See the Light,” "Don't Get Around Much Anymore")

 

  • Sammy Fain ("I'll Be Seeing You,” "That Old Feeling,” "Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing,” "April Love,” "Tender is the Night")

 

  • Dorothy Fields ("I Can't Give You Anything But Love,” "Exactly Like You,” "On the Sunny Side of the Street,” "A Fine Romance,” "Pick Yourself Up,” "The Way You Look Tonight,” "Big Spender,” "If My Friends Could See Me Now")

 

  • George and Ira Gershwin ("Someone to Watch Over Me,” "'S Wonderful,” "Summertime,” "A Foggy Day,” "But Not for Me,” "Embraceable You,” "I Got Rhythm,” "Fascinating Rhythm,” "The Man I Love,” "They Can't Take That Away from Me,” "Love Is Here to Stay,” "Strike Up the Band")

 

  • Jerome Kern with lyrics by Dorothy Fields ("A Fine Romance,” "Pick Yourself Up,” "The Way You Look Tonight"; with lyrics by Ira Gershwin "Long Ago (and Far Away)"; with lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II "All the Things You Are,” "The Folks Who Live On the Hill,” "Ol' Man River,” "The Song Is You"; with lyrics by Otto Harbach "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” "Yesterdays")

 

  • Johnny Mercer (four-time Academy Award-winning lyricist: "On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe,” "In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening,” "Moon River" with Henry Mancini, "Fools Rush In,” and "Days of Wine and Roses"; wrote music and lyrics for "Dream,” "Something's Gotta Give,” and "I Wanna Be Around"; wrote lyrics for "Midnight Sun,” "Day In, Day Out,” "Laura" and "I Remember You")

 

  • Cole Porter ("Night and Day,” "I've Got You Under My Skin,” "Begin the Beguine,” "Let's Do It, Let's Fall in Love,” "What Is This Thing Called Love?,” "Too Darn Hot,” "Love for Sale,” "You're the Top,” "Just One of Those Things,” "All of You,” "I Get a Kick Out of You,” "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye,” "In the Still of the Night,” "It's De-Lovely,” "My Heart Belongs to Daddy,” "I Concentrate on You,” "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To,” "So in Love,” "Anything Goes,” "You Do Something to Me")

 

  • Rodgers and Hart ("Slaughter On 10th Avenue [ballet],” "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered,” "With a Song in My Heart,” "Falling In Love With Love,” "My Romance,” "Have You Met Miss Jones?,” "My Funny Valentine,” "Blue Moon,” "Blue Room,” "I Could Write a Book,” "It's Easy To Remember,” "It Never Entered My Mind,” "Manhattan,” "The Lady Is a Tramp,” "Little Girl Blue,” "Mimi,” "My Heart Stood Still,” "Spring Is Here,” "A Ship Without a Sail,” "Thou Swell,” "Lover,” "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World,” "I Didn't Know What Time It Was,” "Isn't It Romantic?,” "Where or When,” "Glad to Be Unhappy,” "You Took Advantage of Me,” "This Can't Be Love,” "Mountain Greenery")

 

  • Rodgers and Hammerstein ("You'll Never Walk Alone,” "Hello, Young Lovers,” "Younger Than Springtime,” "Oh What a Beautiful Mornin',” "People Will Say We're in Love,” "It Might as Well Be Spring,” "If I Loved You,” "Happy Talk,” "Some Enchanted Evening,” "The Surrey with the Fringe on Top,” "I Have Dreamed,” "Shall We Dance?,” "My Favorite Things,” "Something Wonderful,” "Climb Every Mountain,” "Edelweiss,” "I Enjoy Being a Girl,”"The Sound of Music,” "A Wonderful Guy")

 

  • Arthur Schwartzand Howard Dietz ("Dancing in the Dark,” "You and the Night and the Music,” "I Guess I'll Have to Change My Plan,” "Alone Together,” "Haunted Heart,” "That's Entertainment!")

 

  • Al Sherman ("Dew-Dew-Dewey Day,” "For Sentimental Reasons,” "He's So Unusual,” "Lindbergh (The Eagle of the U.S.A.),” "Livin' in the Sunlight, Lovin' in the Moonlight,” "Nine Little Miles from Ten-Ten-Tennessee,” "Ninety-Nine Out of a Hundred,” "Now's the Time to Fall in Love,” "On a Little Bamboo Bridge,” "On the Beach at Bali-Bali,” "Over Somebody Else's Shoulder,” "Pretending,” "Save Your Sorrow,” "You Gotta Be a Football Hero")

 

  • Jule Styne ("Time After Time,” "Guess I'll Hang My Tears Out to Dry,” "I Fall in Love Too Easily,” "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend,” "Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!,” "People,” "Don't Rain on My Parade,” "Just In Time,” "Saturday Night [Is the Loneliest Night of the Week],” "The Party's Over,” "Everything's Coming Up Roses")

 

  • Jimmy Van Heusen, mostly with lyricists Johnny Burke and Sammy Cahn ("All the Way,” "Swinging on a Star,” "Darn That Dream,” "Polka Dots and Moonbeams,” "But Beautiful,” "Come Fly with Me,” "Imagination,” "Like Someone in Love,” "Call Me Irresponsible,” "I Thought About You,” "Here's That Rainy Day,” "It Could Happen to You,” "[Love Is] The Tender Trap,” "Ain't That a Kick in the Head")

 

  • Fats Waller ("Ain't Misbehavin',” "Honeysuckle Rose,” "Squeeze Me")

 

  • Harry Warren ("At Last,” "There Will Never Be Another You,” "An Affair to Remember (Our Love Affair),” "I Had the Craziest Dream,” "The More I See You,” "42nd Street,” "Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” "Lullaby of Broadway,” "You're Getting to Be a Habit with Me,” "I Only Have Eyes for You,” "This Is Always,” "Jeepers Creepers,” "You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby,” "September in the Rain,” "Lulu's Back In Town,” "You're My Everything,” "Chattanooga Choo Choo,” "On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe,” "This Heart of Mine,” "You'll Never Know,” "My Dream Is Yours,” "I Wish I Knew,” "Serenade In Blue,” "Nagasaki,” "(I've Got a Gal In) Kalamazoo,” "That's Amore,” "Innamorata")

                                                       

 

____________________________________________ 

 

Chris Loeffler is a multi-instrumentalist and the Content Strategist of Harmony Central. In addition to his ten years experience as an online guitar merchandiser, marketing strategist, and community director he has worked as an international exporter, website consultant and brand manager. When he’s not working he can be found playing music, geeking out on guitar pedals and amps, and brewing tasty beer. 

 

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