The Songbook remains the same: Americana writ large

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 07 February, 2015, 10:49pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 07 February, 2015, 10:49pm


You know a genre of music has become a part of culture when it is a featured night on American Idol. So it is with the American Songbook, a genre of music and a cultural movement that, from the mid-1920s, defined American tastes in music, theatre, movies and fashion for three decades. Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and George Gershwin were its principal writers, and stars such as Ella Fitzgerald, Fred Astaire, Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra and Louis Armstrong interpreted their work.

Its power dissipated after the second world war, outperformed by soppy ballads and pseudo-country numbers. Eventually, rock’n’roll took over.

This history is told with vivid detail and passion by cultural critic Ben Yagoda in The B Side: The Death of Tin Pan Alley and the Rebirth of the Great American Songbook. It explores the cultural, social and economic changes that led to the decline of the Songbook. Yagoda, 60, spoke to Tirdad Derakhshani about music, theatre, the movies and his love for music.

You came of age during one of the most fecund periods of rock’n’roll, yet gravitated to Broadway songs

I was a big Broadway fan as a kid. I grew up in New Rochelle, in New York and we used to go to Broadway shows. It was the last gasp of the traditional musical, and I caught Funny Girl, Fiddler on the Roof, Hello Dolly and a revival of Guys and Dolls with Jerry Orbach as Sky Masterson and Alan King as Nathan Detroit.

That was a real game-changer for me. Of course, when The Beatles came along, like everyone else, I got into them. It wasn’t until college that I became reacquainted with Broadway when a lot of singers who were then popular began singing standards: Randy Newman, Ry Cooder, Leon Redbone.

The songs written for those Broadway shows and movie musicals – that’s the Great American Songbook? It’s a funny term. And why is it “great”?

Yes, terminology is important. Sometimes, I just call it the American Songbook. The first use of the term I could find was a live album by [jazz singer] Carmen McRae from 1972. She called it The Great American Songbook. Or her record company did.

But what does it mean? What’s the book?

It’s a cultural term, a metaphorical songbook. For one person, the contents will be different than for others. It signifies a recognition that there is a body of songs, a genre, that has become well-established and will not go away.

The songbook may be a metaphor, but Tin Pan Alley was a real place

Yes. In the last decades of the 19th century, music-publishing companies set up on West 28th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues [in Manhattan]. You had all these song-pluggers on the street and writers demonstrating how their songs sounded out the window, and it sounded like tin pans clanging over each other.

When was this music deemed great?

Well, producers and artists like Sinatra and Tony Bennett began realising that this is important, a great body of work, and that we should treat it honourably. The idea in pop music is that the artist sings their own songs, but now we have top performers recording standards.

Are you surprised that Bob Dylan has a new album of standards due? Called Shadows in the Night, it’s a collection of 10 standards that Sinatra once recorded

Yes. There’s an irony here. Dylan and The Beatles did the most to change the way music was produced since Tin Pan Alley.

Can you add to the Great American Songbook? Or is it closed?

Well, Billy Joel tried to do one, New York State of Mind, and was kind of successful. Probably because it’s about New York. I remember this interview Keith Jarrett did in 1989, where he said he had tried to write a standard. “It was really hard,” he said, “and I’m never going to do it again.”