Great American Songbook
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The Great American Songbook is the canon of the most important and most influential American popular songs of the 20th century – principally created for Broadway theatre, musical theatre, and Hollywood musical film in the United States. Written from the 1920s through the 1950s, recorded and performed by a wide range of musicians, these songs are considered of enduring popularity.
Since the late 20th century, there has been renewed interest in the Songbook, with performances and recordings by artists generally considered part of the rock and pop music scene. In addition, various jazz artists continue to perform these songs. Many commentators believe that certain songs by late 20th century composers should also qualify to be included in the Songbook, even if circumstances of the musical environment have changed.
In his 1972 study of the canon, American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, 1900–1950, songwriter and critic Alec Wilder provided a list of the artists he believes belong to the Great American Songbook canon, as well as his ranking of their relative worth. A composer, Wilder emphasized analysis of composers and their creative efforts in this work.
Wilder devotes whole chapters to only six composers: Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Richard Rodgers, Cole Porter, and Harold Arlen. Vincent Youmans and Arthur Schwartz share a chapter; Burton Lane, Hugh Martin and Vernon Duke are covered together in another. Wilder uses a chapter to explore songwriters and composers he deemed "The Great Craftsmen": Hoagy Carmichael, Walter Donaldson, Harry Warren, Isham Jones, Jimmy McHugh, Duke Ellington, Fred Ahlert, Richard A. Whiting, Ray Noble, John Green, Rube Bloom and Jimmy Van Heusen. Wilder concludes with a catch-all 67-page chapter entitled "Outstanding Individual Songs: 1920 to 1950," which includes additional individual songs which he considers memorable.
For many, the Songbook era ended with rock and roll; Wilder ends with 1950. However, many songwriters have persevered in continuing this style of writing, in cabaret, in theater, in film and in television. Songwriters from the latter half of the 20th century also belong to the Great American Songbook canon. For instance, near the end of Johnny Carson's tenure as host of the Tonight Show, Joe Williams introduced a new standard, "Here's to Life" by Artie Butler.
Radio personality and Songbook devotee Jonathan Schwartz has described this genre as "America's classical music". What makes these songs classic is their lasting value for one. In structure, musical content, phrasing, and details of composition, they remain close to classical music, the difference being context and a greater emphasis on rhythm and closeness to speech rather than pure singing. The biggest threat to this music has been the long period in which there were no variety shows in which new songs could be introduced to the public, and the declining use of songs in movies, as well as the expansion of commercial rock and pop influence on Broadway shows. In the 1970s-90s, songs were introduced that may qualify for the Songbook by Henry Mancini, Michel Legrand, the lyricists Alan and Marilyn Bergman, Johnny Mandel, and many other composers still active, especially in Hollywood.
Songwriters and songs
The following writers and songs are often included in the Great American Songbook:
- Harold Arlen (with E.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")
- J. 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 Go to My Head")
- 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")
- 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")
- Fred Fisher ("Chicago (That Toddlin' Town)")
- 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")
- Ray Henderson ("Alabamy Bound", "Bye Bye Blackbird", "I'm Sitting on Top of the World", "The Birth of the Blues", "The Thrill Is Gone", "The Best Things in Life Are Free", "Sonny Boy", "You're the Cream in My Coffee")
- Herman Hupfeld ("As Time Goes By", "Let's Put Out the Lights (and Go to Sleep)")
- Bart Howard ("Fly Me to the Moon")
- Arthur Johnston, with lyrics by Johnny Burke ("Pennies From Heaven")
- Isham Jones with lyrics by Gus Kahn ("It Had to Be You", "I'll See You in My Dreams")
- 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")
- Frank Loesser ("If I Were a Bell", "Slow Boat to China", "Standing on the Corner", "Baby, It's Cold Outside", "Luck Be a Lady")
- Jimmy McHugh ("Don't Blame Me", "Exactly Like You", "I Can't Give You Anything But Love, Baby", "I'm in the Mood for Love", "It's a Most Unusual Day", "On the Sunny Side of the Street")
- Glenn Miller with lyrics by Mitchell Parish ("Moonlight Serenade")
- Johnny Mercer (4-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")
- Harry Ruby and Bert Kalmar ("Who's Sorry Now?", "Thinking of You", "I Wanna Be Loved by You", "Three Little Words", "Nevertheless", "A Kiss to Build a Dream On")
- Arthur Schwartz and 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!")
- 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")
- 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", "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")
- Richard A. Whiting ("Till We Meet Again", "The Japanese Sandman", "Miss Brown to You", "Louise", "He's Funny That Way", "Ain't We Got Fun", "Guilty", "Breezin' Along with the Breeze", "When Did You Leave Heaven?", "Ukulele Lady", "Sleepy Time Gal", "Honey (Rudy Vallée song)", "I Can't Escape from You", "My Future Just Passed", "Hooray for Hollywood", "Beyond the Blue Horizon", "My Ideal", "On the Good Ship Lollipop", "Too Marvelous for Words")
- Jack Yellen, with Milton Ager ("Ain't She Sweet", "Happy Days Are Here Again", "Big Bad Bill (Is Sweet William Now)", "Glad Rag Doll", "Hard Hearted Hannah (The Vamp of Savannah)", "Louisville Lou (That Vampin' Lady)"; with Lew Pollack, "My Yiddishe Momme")
- Vincent Youmans ("Tea for Two", "Time on My Hands", "More Than You Know", "(The) Carioca", "Sometimes I'm Happy", "Without a Song", "I Want to Be Happy")
- Victor Young ("I Don't Stand a Ghost of a Chance with You", "Stella by Starlight", "Love Letters", "My Foolish Heart", "When I Fall in Love", "Around the World")
Style and structure
Despite the relatively narrow range of topics and moods dealt with in many of the songs, the best Great American Songbook lyricists specialized in witty, urbane lyrics with teasingly unexpected rhymes. The songwriters combined memorable melodies – which could be anything from pentatonic, as in a Gershwin tune like "I Got Rhythm", to sinuously chromatic, as in many of Cole Porter's tunes – and great harmonic subtlety, a good example being Kern's "All the Things You Are", with its winding modulations.
Many of the songs in the Great American Songbook are in thirty-two-bar form. Many were composed for musicals, and some originally included an introductory sectional verse. The sectional verse is a musical introduction that typically has a free musical structure, speech-like rhythms, and rubato delivery. The sectional verse served as a way of leading from the surrounding realistic context of the play into the more artificial world of the song, and often has lyrics that are in character and make reference to the plot of the musical for which the song was originally written.
The song itself is usually a 32-bar AABA or ABAC form, and the lyrics usually refer to more universal and timeless situations and themes – typically, for instance, the vicissitudes of love. This universality made it easier for songs to be added to or subtracted from a show, or revived in a different show.
A few of the songs which were written with an introductory sectional verse are nearly always performed in full with the introduction. However, the sectional verse, if it exists, is often dropped in performances of Great American Songbook songs outside their original stage or movie context. Whether or not the sectional verse is sung often depends on what the song is and who is singing it. For example, Frank Sinatra never recorded "Fly Me to the Moon" with the introductory sectional verse, but Nat King Cole did.
The early years
Since the 1930s, many singers have recorded or performed large parts of the Great American Songbook. Lee Wiley was among the first to record collections of one specific songwriter or songwriting team, beginning with George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin (1939), followed by Cole Porter (1940), Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart (1940), Harold Arlen (1943), Irving Berlin (1951) and Vincent Youmans (1951).
Ella Fitzgerald's popular and influential Songbook series on Verve in the 1950s and 1960s collated 252 songs from the Songbook. These eight collections paid tribute to Cole Porter (1956), Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart (1956), Duke Ellington (1957), Irving Berlin (1958), George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin (1959), Harold Arlen (1961), Jerome Kern (1963) and Johnny Mercer (1964).
Other influential early interpreters of the Great American Songbook include Fred Astaire, Mildred Bailey, Chet Baker, Tony Bennett, June Christy, Rosemary Clooney, Nat "King" Cole, Perry Como, Barbara Cook, Jane Froman, Chris Connor, Bing Crosby, Vic Damone, Bobby Darin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Doris Day, Blossom Dearie, Billy Eckstine, Alice Faye, Helen Forrest, The Four Freshmen, Connie Francis, Judy Garland, Eydie Gorme, Johnny Hartman, Dick Haymes, Billie Holiday, Lena Horne, Joni James, Jack Jones, Al Jolson, Cleo Laine, Frankie Laine, Steve Lawrence, Peggy Lee, Julie London, Dean Martin, Tony Martin, Johnny Mathis, Carmen McRae, Mabel Mercer, Helen Merrill, Anita O'Day, Patti Page, Dinah Shore, Bobby Short, Nina Simone, Frank Sinatra, Keely Smith, Kay Starr, Jo Stafford, Barbra Streisand (particularly in her earlier work), Maxine Sullivan, Mel Tormé, Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington, Ethel Waters, Margaret Whiting, Andy Williams, Joe Williams and Nancy Wilson.
Since the late 20th century, there has been a revival of the Songbook by contemporary singers.
In 1970, Ringo Starr, independently of the Beatles, released Sentimental Journey, an album of 12 standards arranged by various musicians. In 1973, Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Harry Nilsson released a critically well-received album of 12 classic standards, A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night, arranged by Gordon Jenkins. The album was re-issued on CD in 1988 with a total of 18 standards sung by Nilsson. Also in 1973, Bryan Ferry, of Roxy Music fame, released These Foolish Things, and he has subsequently recorded several such albums. In 1978, country singer Willie Nelson released a collection of popular standards titled Stardust. This was considered risky at the time but the album has become the best-selling and perhaps the most enduring of Nelson's career.
In 1983, popular rock vocalist Linda Ronstadt released What's New, her first in a trilogy of standards albums recorded with arranger/conductor Nelson Riddle. Stephen Holden of the New York Times wrote:
What's New isn't the first album by a rock singer to pay tribute to the golden age of the pop, but is ... the best and most serious attempt to rehabilitate an idea of pop that Beatlemania and the mass marketing of rock LP's for teen-agers undid in the mid-60s. During the decade prior to Beatlemania, most of the great band singers and crooners of the 40s and 50s codified a half-century of American pop standards on dozens of albums, many of them now long out-of-print.
In 1991, Natalie Cole released a highly successful album Unforgettable... with Love, which spawned a Top 40 hit "Unforgettable", a virtual "duet" with her father, Nat "King" Cole. Follow-up albums such as Take a Look were also successful.
Since the mid-1980s, vocalists such as Michael Feinstein, Harry Connick, Jr., Michael Bublé, Diana Krall, Jane Monheit, Karrin Allyson, Susannah McCorkle, John Pizzarelli, Stacey Kent and Ann Hampton Callaway have been notable interpreters of the Songbook throughout their careers. Michael Feinstein in particular has been a dedicated proponent, archivist, revivalist, and preservationist of the material since the late 1970s. Deana Martin has recorded numerous songs from the Great American Songbook in her albums "Memories Are Made of This," "Volare" and "Destination Moon."
Since 1980, various established singers in unrelated genres have also had success in treating the Songbook. Beginning in 2002, Rod Stewart has devoted a series of studio albums to Songbook covers, indeed using the "Great American Songbook" name explicitly. Other rock and pop artists who have utilized the work include Keith Richards, Carly Simon, Bette Midler, Gloria Estefan, Barry Manilow, Caetano Veloso, Pia Zadora, Queen Latifah, Joni Mitchell, Boz Scaggs, Robbie Williams, Sting, Ray Reach, Pat Benatar, Morrissey, Norah Jones, Nicole Henry and Rufus Wainwright, with a great variation of musical success. In 2012, Sir Paul McCartney joined this list with the album Kisses on the Bottom. John Stevens, a 2004 American Idol contestant, also recorded these songs. Steve Tyrell has forged a successful solo career with his interpretations of songs from the Great American Songbook. His version of "The Way You Look Tonight" for Father of the Bride (1991) was noticed and kept in the film at the insistence of its star, Steve Martin. This led to Tyrell recording several Songbook albums, including A New Standard, Standard Time, and Bach to Bacharach. In 2014, Lady Gaga and Tony Bennet released a collaborative album, Cheek to Cheek, made up of songs from "The Great American Songbook".
- Classic pop
- Jazz standards
- Show tunes
- Lounge music
- Tin Pan Alley
- Michael Feinstein Great American Songbook Initiative
- Wilder, Alec (1990). American Popular Song: The Great Innovators 1900–1950. New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-501445-6.
- Deborah Grace Winer (September 1, 2003). "Girl Singers: From nightclubs and concert halls to recordings, today's best vocalists put a new spin on old favorites". Town & Country. Retrieved September 9, 2012.(subscription required)
- Stephen Holden; Dargis, Manohla (September 4, 1983). "Linda Ronstadt Celebrates The Golden Age of Pop". The New York Times. Retrieved 2007-05-10.(subscription required)
- Furia, Philip (1992). Poets of Tin Pan Alley. New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-507473-4.
- Wilder, Alec (1990). American Popular Song: The Great Innovators 1900–1950. New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-501445-6.
- Bloom, Ken (2005). The American Songbook: The Singers, the Songwriters, and the Songs. New York: Black Dog & Levental Publishers. ISBN 1-57912-448-8.
- The Society for the Preservation of the Great American Songbook
- The American Songbook Preservation Society
- Popular Songwriters and The Great American Songbook
- Interview with Entertainer and Music Historian Max Morath
- Michael Feinstein Foundation for the Preservation of the Great American Songbook
- PBS Special on the Great American Songbook
- Martini In The Morning Internet radio station featuring the Great American Songbook