Great American Songbook

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Great American Songbook (sometimes abbreviated as "GAS") is a term[1][2][3] referring to the interrelated music of Broadway musical theater, the Hollywood musical, and Tin Pan Alley, in a period that begins roughly in the 1920s and tapers off around 1960 with the emerging dominance of rock and roll. Aside from the enduring popularity of this music in its original context, it also became (and remains) the central repertoire of jazz musicians. (In jazz, such tunes are simply referred to as "standards".)


[edit] The songwriters

There is no definitive list of which musicians and lyricists are part of the Great American Songbook. Major songwriters considered part of this group include, but are not limited to:

Irving Berlin, one of the most prolific composers and lyricists of the Great American Songbook.

In his groundbreaking 1972 study of the Songbook, American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, 1900-1950, songwriter and critic Alec Wilder provided a workable list of the artists who belong in the canon, while also implying a hierarchy of their relative worth. It should be pointed out that as a composer himself, Wilder's primary emphasis is doing an analysis of composers and their creative efforts.[4]

Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart

Wilder concludes with a catch-all 67-page chapter entitled "Outstanding Individual Songs: 1920 to 1950" that includes other individual songs that he considers memorable.

Wilder's list is subjective, and focuses on composers more than lyricists. However, his work was highly influential and roughly corresponds with most people's idea of the Great American Songbook.

It is more difficult to determine how songwriters from the latter half of the 20th century fit into the Great American Songbook canon. Though for many people the Songbook era ended with the rock and roll revolution (Wilder ends with 1950), some later composers, such as Henry Mancini, Burt Bacharach, and even non-Americans such as Brazilian Antonio Carlos Jobim are sometimes considered to be part of the Songbook.

[edit] The songs

Most of the songs in the Great American Songbook are written in "verse-chorus form". The verse is a musical introduction that typically has a free musical structure, speech-like rhythms and rubato delivery. It serves as a way of leading from the surrounding (realistic) dramatic context into the more artificial world of song, and often has lyrics that are "in character" and make reference to the plot of the musical. The chorus is the central part of the song. It is usually a 32-bar AABA or ABAC form; the lyrics usually refer to more timeless situations — typically, the vicissitudes of love. This greater generality made it easier for songs to be added or subtracted from a show, or revived in a different show. While a few songs are always performed in full verse-chorus structure — for instance, Lush Life — often the verse is dropped in performances of GAS songs outside their original stage or movie context. Whether or not the verse is sung often depends on what the song is and who is singing it. For example, Frank Sinatra never recorded "In Other Words" with the verse but Tony Bennett did.)

Despite the narrow range of topics and moods typically dealt with in these songs, they achieved a marriage of words and music that remains one touchstone of good songwriting. The best GAS lyricists specialized in witty, urbane lyrics with teasingly unexpected rhymes; the songwriters combined memorable melodies (which could be brashly pentatonic — as in a Gershwin tune like "I Got Rhythm" — or 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.

[edit] The singers

[edit] The Early Years

Since the 1930s, many singers and musicians have explicitly recorded or performed large parts of the Great American Songbook, to the extent that interpreting material from the Songbook forms a large part of jazz and easy listening music today.

Ella Fitzgerald's popular and influential Songbook series on Verve in the 1950s and '60s collated 252 songs from the Songbook. Amongst other singers, influential interpreters of the Great American Songbook includeBillie Holiday Fred Astaire, Chet Baker, Shirley Bassey, Tony Bennett, Pat Boone, June Christy, Rosemary Clooney, Nat "King" Cole, Perry Como, Bing Crosby, Vic Damone, Bobby Darin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Blossom Dearie, Judy Garland, Eydie Gorme, Billie Holiday, Al Jolson, Jack Jones, Cleo Laine, Steve Lawrence, Peggy Lee, Julie London, Dean Martin, Johnny Mathis, Carmen McRae, Helen Merrill, Wayne Newton, Dinah Shore, Bobby Short, Nina Simone, Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand (particularly in her earlier work), Mel Tormé, Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington and Andy Williams.

[edit] Contemporary musicians

Over the last several decades, there has been a revival of the Songbook by contemporary musicians. In 1978, country singer Willie Nelson released a collection of pop standards composed by such notables as Hoagy Carmichael, George Gershwin, and Irving Berlin titled Stardust. This was considered a risky move at the time but has become perhaps his most enduring album. Another notable release was in 1983, with popular rock vocalist Linda Ronstadt doing her part to rehabilitate what had been by then classified as "elevator music" or "vintage pop". In 1983, Stephen Holden of the New York Times wrote that Ronstadt's album 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. In 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."[5] Within a decade, 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 then, vocalists such as Harry Connick, Jr., Andrea Marcovicci, Michael Feinstein, John Pizzarelli, Daniel Matto, Ysabella Brave, Diana Krall, and Michael Bublé have been notable, if not always consistent, interpreters. John Stevens, a 2004 American Idol contestant, also gave exposure to this trend. Established singers in other genres have also had success in treating the Songbook; Rod Stewart had devoted a series of studio albums to Songbook covers, whilst other artists who have utilised the work include Harry Nilsson, Carly Simon, Bette Midler, Barry Manilow, Caetano Veloso, Bryan Ferry, Queen Latifah, Joni Mitchell, Boz Scaggs, Robbie Williams, Sting, Pat Benatar, Morrissey, and Rufus Wainwright. Michael Parkinson devoted a considerable part of his BBC Radio 2 programme to this genre of music.

[edit] See also

[edit] References

  1. ^ "A student of the Great American Songbook". Buffalo News. 2008-03-10. Retrieved on 2009-03-13. 
  2. ^ Budzak, Gary (2008-05-15). "Standards stay fresh for singer". The Columbus Dispatch. Retrieved on 2009-03-13. 
  3. ^ LaDuc, Danial (2008-11-27). "That Certain Savoir- Air". The Washington Post. Retrieved on 2009-03-13. 
  4. ^ Wilder, Alec (1990). American Popular Song: The Great Innovators 1900-1950. New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-501445-6. 
  5. ^ "The New York Times". LINDA RONSTADT CELEBRATES THE GOLDEN AGE OF POP, By Stephen Holden Published: September 4, 1983. Retrieved on 2007-05-10. 

[edit] Further reading

  • 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. 

[edit] External links

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