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THE SONGS of America’s musical theater and film musicals have been called “the Great American Songbook.” Radio personality Jonathan Schwartz offers this view daily, and I agree with his assessment.
I’m enjoying Jonathan’s memoir, All in Good Time, a fond—and sometimes not so fond—remembrance of being part of this era of popular music. Jonathan’s father was composer Arthur Schwartz, 1900-1984, who often collaborated with lyricist Howard Dietz (as a publicist, this latter also created MGM’s “Leo the Lion” logo). Together, Schwartz and Dietz produced such hits as “Dancing in the Dark,” “I Guess I’ll Have to Change My Plans,” and “That’s Entertainment.”
Jonathan describes being a kid having Judy Garland singing him a lullaby and baseball great Jackie Robinson batting him fly balls. Yet he also recalls hiding in neighbors’ homes to see how ordinary people lived.
Certainly the songwriters creating the Great American Songbook lived larger than life. George Gershwin, for instance, left school at age 15 to get a job as a “song plugger” on New York’s Tin Pan Alley. Eventually, with his brother Ira as lyricist, Gershwin gave us such standards as “Embraceable You,” “Summertime,” and “Someone To Watch Over Me.”
When George Gershwin went to Paris to study classical composition, it’s said Maurice Ravel asked him what he earned from his music. When Gershwin told him, Ravel responded something along the lines of, “It is I who should learn from you.”
A brief alphabetical array of others contributing to the Great American Songbook includes Harold Arlen (“Over the Rainbow”), Irving Berlin (“Puttin’ on the Ritz”), Duke Ellington (“I’m Beginning to See the Light”), Jerome Kern (“Pick Yourself Up”), Cole Porter (“Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall in Love”), Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart (“Have You Met Miss Jones?”), Jimmy Van Heusen (“Polka Dots and Moonbeams”), Harry Warren (“On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe”) and Victor Young (“When I Fall in Love”).
Even this sample suggests why the songbook is called Great. The melodies are rich and varied. The lyrics are some of the most witty uses of the English language.
From Schwartz and Loesser’s “They’re Either Too Young or Too Old,” a romantic World War II lament: “What’s good is in the army/What’s left will never harm me.” And “I’ll never, never fail ya/While you are in Australia/Or out in the Aleutians/Or off among the Rooshians/And flying over Egypt/Your heart will never be gypped/And when you get to India/I’ll still be what I’ve been to ya.”
To see this song as introduced by Bette Davis in 1943’s “Thank Your Lucky Stars,” see http://goo.gl/asqxu. (Note, this video appears not to be mobile-friendly.)
Jim Svejda, the guiding light of KUSC, the radio station of the University of Southern California, is another proponent of the Great American Songbook.
Svedja is witty, articulate and more than occasionally outspoken. He notes that the Great American Songbook has melodic content and, especially, lyrics that are vastly superior to the renowned collection of German Lieder.
A friend fluent in German evidently agrees. He says the typical German Lied, sung dolefully with hands clutched to breast, always reminds him of “Nochmals, völlig nicht fällt mir.” Translated: “Once more, utterly nothing occurs to me.”
Also concerning lyrics, Jonathan Schwartz tells a story of his father’s collaboration with Howard Dietz. Working in Schwartz’s hotel, they were forced more than once to move from room to room—piano and all—because of complaining neighbors. Said Dietz, “You know, Arthur, they never complain about the lyrics.” ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2013