“Has anyone ever heard of the famous American composer Cole Porter?” I hopefully asked my college Voice 1 class last week. I was met by utter silence and blank stares. “How about The Great American Songbook? “ I tried again. “No one?” I followed up, even more wistfully. “Really?” I cried one last time. Nada. Zip. Zero. Zilch. I heaved a great sigh, and thus found the inspiration for this next blog post…
With every year that goes by, I am more and more aghast at the dumbing-down of our arts culture in this country. I find that it’s not only my late-teen/early-twenties college students who are woefully uninformed. Even their parents, at least another twenty-five years older, only know about the latest thing on the radio or whatever the entertainment media is pushing right now as The Next Big Thing. If you remember the musical West Side Story, there’s a great line where policeman Officer Krupke tells the young gang members “You’re depraved because you’re deprived”. That might be a metaphor, albeit an extreme one, for what’s happening to our audiences today. They don’t even know what they‘re missing!
So let’s start to turn this negative into a positive! One of the things I love about performing, teaching, and now writing a blog about singing, is the opportunity to share my love for fantastic songs with audiences, students and my readers. As I stated in the About Nadia page of this blog, I want to share what I call “under-represented music”, and in so doing, open up a wonderful world of great repertoire to everyone, not only for enjoyment today, but to preserve these musical gems for the future as well. Here’s a great sample– “The Best Things Happen When You’re Dancing”, sung by Danny Kaye, from Irving Berlins’s musical holiday favorite, White Christmas:
Sublime, right? (not to mention the fabulous dancing!). Now, back to Cole Porter– who was he, and why should you care? Cole Porter was one of the most prolific and influential songwriters of the 20th century, composing hundreds of timeless songs for Broadway and the movies. He wrote both the music and his own lyrics, and his memorable melodies, rich harmonies and incredibly clever way with words are the perfect example of what comprises a Great American Songbook standard. Go to YouTube and look up just a few of his great hits: Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall in Love; Night and Day; I’ve Got You Under My Skin, I Get A Kick Out of You… the list goes on and on, recorded by a galaxy of singing stars! Take a listen to just one of his beautiful songs, “I Concentrate on You”, sung by the glorious Ella Fitzgerald:
Aaaah… I’ll definitely feature Cole Porter in more detail in another blog post, but for now, know that his songs are just one fantastic part of The Great American Songbook. The Great American What, you keep asking? The Great American Songbook does not refer to a specific list or book of songs, but rather to the most popular and perennial songs from the 1920s to the 1960s that were created for Broadway, movie musicals, and even just as the popular songs of their day. They have become “standards” because in addition to the great music, the lyrics and themes are universally appealing. If they are not making you laugh with their clever lyrics, they can bring a tear to your eye when they poignantly deal with the ups and downs of love.
The Great American Songbook features the stellar works of composers Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, and George Gershwin (the Big Three, as I call them) and also Richard Rodgers, Jerome Kern, Harold Arlen, Johnny Mercer, and a long list of the very best of American songwriters. Early performers of this genre include the greatest names in jazz and popular music– Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, Sarah Vaughn, Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, Mel Tormé, Frank Sinatra– just to name a very few!
As time passed, these wonderful songs were mainly kept alive by jazz singers and instrumentalists, but starting in the later part of the 20th century, more and more contemporary commercial artists started recording and touring using this repertoire as well. Singers like Linda Rondstadt, Natalie Cole, and Rod Stewart to more recent artists like Diana Krall, Michael Bublé, and Lady Gaga have all enjoyed much success performing this music. A Great American Songbook standard can be interpreted by many different singers and still retain its unique appeal. Listen to Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga sing “The Lady is a Tramp”:
The Great American Songbook is such a vital and uniquely American collection of music, appreciated world-wide, and in some cases, even more than we do here in the United States! There is even a Great American Songbook Foundation, a Society for the Preservation of the Great American Songbook, and an ongoing show on PBS, Michael Feinstein’s American Songbook, part of its Great Performances series, hosted by the celebrated singer/pianist himself. Feinstein has been at the forefront of promoting and preserving the treasure trove of music from this genre. Visit: www.pbs.org/michael-feinsteins-american-songbook/ or any of the other aforementioned organizations online to learn more.
Well, have I whetted your musical appetite yet? There’s a whole universe of incredible standards out there, just waiting to be discovered by yet another generation (or even past generations, if they missed them before), and maybe even you! Tuneful melodies, witty and heartfelt lyrics, lovely harmonies and contagious rhythms never go out of style. Start delving in to the many terrific recordings and volumes of sheet music available online and at your local library (yes, people still go to libraries). Watch the classic movies and shows where many of these songs originated (which I will continue featuring in this blog) and discover the immensely talented artists who brought them to life. Who knows? One day maybe you’ll fall in love with the Great American Songbook, and the next generation will be listening to your interpretation of these ever-fresh classics!