The Great American Songbook

Something called "The Great American Songbook" came up no less than three times this week.

It seems like quite a few folks are turning to that venerable anthology for tunes to include in their shows. Oregon Cabaret Theatre's new show, "Kickin' the Clouds Away," dipped into the book for songs from the 1920s and 30s.

Leslie Kendall and David MacKenzie plucked a number of choice tunes for Kendall's holiday program, "My Funny Valentine."

And next week, singer and songwriter Mark Turnbull is planning to include some selections from the songbook in his solo performance at Paschal Winery.

So what is this book anyway, who wrote it, and can I get a copy from the library?

The Great America Songbook is not a real book. It's a collection of songs that have been the mainstays of American music from around the 1920s until the end of the 1950s. When some performer on stage or at a club turns to the audience and says they are going to perform one of the "standards," they are referring to a selection from the Great American Songbook.

These songs have earned their place in musical history and in the hearts and memories of several generations. Most of them came right off the stages of Broadway, or the silver screen of Hollywood, or the fabled back streets of Tin Pan Alley.

Tin Pan Alley, 28th Street between 5th Avenue and Broadway in New York City's Flatiron district, was home to most of the country's major music publishing houses from 1885 until the late 1920s.

If you wanted to make a living as a composer, you needed to get your song published so people could buy the sheet music, play it and sing it — especially on vaudeville stages around the country.

There were no commercial radio broadcasts yet, but many homes had a piano. Composers and lyricists whose work was published in that era included Hoagy Carmichael, George M. Cohan, Scott Joplin, Jerome Kern, Al Lewis, F.W. Meacham, Johnny Mercer, Cole Porter and Fats Waller.

Why the tin pan reference? Apparently, to the ears of newspaper writer Monroe Rosenfeld the sound of all those pianos being played in the rooms of the publishing houses to pitch the songs sounded like a bunch of people banging on tin pans. At least that's how the story goes.

The publishing houses of Tin Pan Alley cranked out tons of songs, and people are still singing them: "The Sidewalks of New York," "Bill Bailey, Won't You Please Come Home," "In the Good Old Summertime," "Give My Regards To Broadway" "Shine on Harvest Moon," "Take Me Out to the Ball Game," "By The Light of the Silvery Moon," "Down by the Old Mill Stream," "Let Me Call You Sweetheart," "Sweet Georgia Brown," "Baby Face," "Ain't She Sweet" and "My Blue Heaven."

Musical theater contributed songs from shows to the Great American Songbook. That explains why you sometimes hear an introductory verse before the singer launches into the familiar melody and words.

The introduction served as a transition from the drama and dialogue-driven parts of the musical to the song itself. The introductory verse would usually explain the context of the song and how it fit into the plot. This made it possible for the song to have a life of its own outside the show, as in a nightclub singer's repertoire.

Movie musicals added to the pages of the Great American Songbook. Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II had their shows move from Broadway to Hollywood. A whole new set of audiences got to hear "Shall We Dance?" and "Oh What a Beautiful Mornin.' "

There was Harold Arlen's "Over the Rainbow," Ted Koehler's "Stormy Weather," Irving Berlin's "White Christmas," Duke Ellington's "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)," the Gershwin brothers' "Summertime," Jerome Kern's "Ol' Man River" and Rodgers and Hart's "Blue Moon."

By the time the last pages of the songbook were written, around 1960, American homes now had more radios than pianos. They also had televisions, phonograph records and tape recorders.

Music publishers, while still important to the industry, were no longer essential to provide the average listener with the latest hits. Rock 'n' roll, the new kid on the block, had taken center stage. It wasn't long before the Great American Songbook started to sound like the Great American Elevator Music Songbook.

Vocalists such as Natalie Cole, Harry Connick, Jr., Andrea Marcovicci, Michael Feinstein and Diana Krall are among the increasing number of contemporary performers who have reopened the Great American Songbook for inspiration.

The list includes musicians from many genres, such as Linda Ronstadt, Rod Stewart, Harry Nilsson, Carly Simon, Bette Midler, Barry Manilow, Willie Nelson, Queen Latifah, Joni Mitchell, Boz Scaggs, Robbie Williams, Sting, Pat Benatar, Morrissey, and Rufus Wainwright.

No wonder the Great American Songbook has shown up here in the Rogue Valley. It's a best seller.

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