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The Great American Songbook: 201 Favorites You Ought to Know (& Love)
by Steven Suskin
Book Review by Rob Lester
Yes, you might hem and haw, as you hum, reminded of (or introduced to) melodies if, being given several consecutive pitches and note values in a phrase, you can hear them in your head. Or maybe you have a musical instrument handy. Maximum music appreciation might come via listening to recordings as you go, paying attention to what's pointed out. A most efficient resource is the companion playlist on Spotify called "Suskin's Great American Songbook" (not the complete 201, but the suggested tracks avoid interpretations going astray from the material as written). We're escorted in with a brief but blithe forward by a performer who always has his instrument (a guitar) handy to play when he adds his voice or strings to jam on gems of the genre: John Pizzarelli. He imagines the songwriters sitting around and creating soon-to-be beloved evergreens. Come join him in reveries about the revered works and look at some overlooked ones worth excavation.
Along the way, there are anecdotes and fun facts, even the occasional gossip and some cute comments, such as characterizing "Pick Yourself Up" as "a polka with an attitude." When it strikes his fancy, he'll fondly quote or paraphrase a bit of a lyric or song title rather than use a pedestrian way to say something. Since our tune tutor is focused on what he finds fabulous, the combination schoolroom/fan club meeting has a positive vibe. It's interesting to know that Stephen Sondheim was a consultant. Some essays are a bit shorter or longer than others, but the average is the length of one page. (That's not just a rough approximation; we can do the math and see that discussions of the "201 Favorites" take up exactly 203 pages.)
In the chatty introduction, Mr. Suskin lays out the criteria for consideration. Material would be generally from the 1920s through the 1950s. Exceptions from the decade before the '20s are "After You've Gone," "Saint Louis Blues" and "They Didn't Believe Me"; the several souvenirs from the 1960s include "Put on a Happy Face" and three things from 1965 Broadway musicals that didn't live to see a second week of performances: Drat! The Cat!'s "Let's Go" plus "Why Did I Choose You?" and "I'm All Smiles," both from The Yearling. The "youngster" in the crowd dates from 1973, intended for a TV musical that was never made: "I Had a Love Once," music and lyrics by Harold Arlen. He's the writer with the most songs championed among the 201, with a whopping 19. Other composers with seven or more representatives are, in order of quantity, Jerome Kern, Richard Rodgers, George Gershwin, Arthur Schwartz, Hoagy Carmichael, and Vernon Duke. Irving Berlin, Burton Lane and Vincent Youmans are tied at six each.
Musical theatre fans can glean from what's been stated so far that there's a bounty of Broadway-born fare here, but may certainly be dismayed by a decision to disqualify anything from certain landmark shows (that had songs that became standards in their own right, too), leaving out all the Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals, My Fair Lady, Gypsy, The Most Happy Fella, West Side Story and others. As the author explains, "The creators of those scores I see not as songwriters, but as musical dramatists ... concentrating on establishing characters." Going (reluctantly) with this logic, I wonder how some Lerner & Loewe collaborations snuck in. And what are Show Boat's mighty "Ol' Man River," "Summertime," and "September Song"–all gaining spots–if not the output of musical dramatists? Also eliminated was operetta material, deemed (or damned?) as too "antiquated" after playing through piles of sheet music, although a sole survivor made the cut: "Lover, Come Back to Me," which has proven itself adaptable to less formal treatments over the years.
With enthusiasm and expertise, our musical examiner methodically supports many a thesis about why a particular melody's patterns or precise notes are memorably special and effective. He zeros in to isolate and map out the methods that make the emotions materialize (that we've felt, but maybe couldn't quite articulate or never stopped to notice while smiling, sighing, feeling a pang, or tapping our feet). It might be about realizing that an emotional gear-shift is the result of turning to a minor key, a longish phrase you didn't quite realize was merely seesawing between two notes until a new one came along to top things off, how an ascending scale passage translates as hope or triumph, or the way repeated notes and patterns reinforce expectations, while making the outlier note or twist welcome and refreshing. However, this architectural digest, dutifully detailed, can be more dissection of song sections and picking out pickup notes, etc. than some readers will want or comprehend.
It must be said that the melodies get far more attention than do the lyrics. Those who don't know triplets from trills or a half-step from a half note, and can't see their way to middle C, could find their eyes glazing over with the lengthier reportage and notes about the notes. Typical example: We're informed that the composer "bases the first half of his sixteen-bar A atop a C chord , which pounds its way along while the melody starts on middle c and works its way–restricting itself only to c, e, and g–up to high e and back down. Hidden beneath the brightness are two threateningly bluesy tones (d# in the key of C) found in the harmony of bars 2 and 6." Can you name that tune? It's "Happy Days Are Here Again." Mr. Suskin breaks things down, pausing to praise and prize the "surprise" elements: unexpected variations in otherwise repeated sections, big melodic leaps, dramatic changes in tempo or key, using adjectives such as "striking" and "arresting."
If you gravitate more to the verbiage of songs, relishing well-turned phrases bringing romantic feelings, articulating loneliness or heartbreak, delivering wit, using alliteration and wordplay, or just unspooling a story or memory, you might think the words get short shrift. When bits of lyrics are invoked, they are quite often merely serving as reference points to identify which melodic phrases they line up with, so that we know where we are in a certain chorus or verse. There isn't a whole lot along the lines of "Isn't this a terrific/clever/poignant/poetic/heartbreaking/heart-rending way to express that feeling/thought/incident?" However, there are still times when the words are applauded, such as: a "delectable word picture" in "Lazy Afternoon"; the mix of olden days' language with modern informal lingo as indicated even in the title of "Thou Swell," which he calls a "slang-slinging swingfest" (he's got a way with words himself); the procession of rhymes for one syllable in a line of "I Get a Kick Out of You" ("flying too high with some guy in the sky is my i-dea of..."). And he thinks the avalanche of multi-syllable words is pretty marvelous in "Too Marvelous for Words," naming its adjective curator, Johnny Mercer, as the "acknowledged king of evocative word phrases." Mercer, collaborating with many composers (including himself), is the most represented lyricist in the Suskin selections, with 20 entries.
The book's structure is user-friendly for seek-and-ye-shall-find results. Songs are presented in alphabetical order by title and are also listed in the index, standing out among other items by being in boldface. When one of the 201 is mentioned in passing within another critique, its page number is given. (Within discussions, context-relevant mentions of titles not picked may sometimes irksomely remind us of excellent excluded numbers.) In addition to their names being located in the index, a separate appendix alphabetically lists the writers of the 201, indicating their song titles and the pages. Illustrations consist of sheet music covers, small black-and-white for all but a handful, appearing on the page discussing each selection, with the composers and lyricists, the year premiered and published, and source material (title of a musical or film, if not an independent song). Elsewhere, 128 of them are gathered, this time a bit larger and in full color, again giving the writer credits and page numbers.
There are a few errors. When it comes to the material written for the 1940 animated film Pinocchio, such as "When You Wish Upon a Star," which is among the favored 201, Mr. Suskin says about its composer, Leigh Harline, who he acknowledges went on to do instrumental scores for TV and films: "If he wrote songs in addition to his five Pinocchio titles ... I can't find them." But collaborations with various lyricists are out there (Frank Sinatra's recording of "From This Day Forward," Shirley Temple singing in one movie, choruses chirping in others, etc.). Oh, and it might ruffle the feathers of the easily offended star named Donald Duck that our otherwise vastly knowledgeable author has overlooked "The Army's Not the Army Anymore" in an animated short wherein he marched patriotically in the military.
With the story about Hoagy Carmichael tracking down the writer of a poem he wanted to adapt as a song, we're told that he finally learned she had died before contact could be made. But many other sources relate that she was located and signed a financial agreement, but she died just a day before the result, "I Get Along Without You Very Well (Except Sometimes)," was sung live on the radio. And there's the mixing up of the titles when referring to the Cole Porter musical (the stage piece Gay Divorce became The Gay Divorcee when the story came to film). Otherwise, there isn't much errata beyond the rare typo and little slip-ups (slightly misquoting phrases in two Mercer lyrics, and the minor pity of "Isn't It a Pity?" getting a detail in its lyric attributed to the wrong character).
The Great American Songbook: 201 Favorites You Ought to Know (& Love), a round-up of recommendations, is recommended reading and research for those starting to dig into these treasures from other generations and longtime prospectors for said gold, but always on the hunt for more.
The Great American Songbook: 201 Favorites You Ought to Know (& Love)