Unpretentious Celebration of Song Strikes Just the Right Note



The Great American Songwriters

and Their Songs

by William Zinsser

David R. Godine

$35, 280 pages


For rock 'n' roll lover Don McLean, Feb. 3, 1959, the day Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper were killed in a plane crash, was "the day the music died." For John Kander, who wrote the music for Broadway hits such as "Cabaret," it was the year 1967 that marked the end of an epoch. Switching on the radio on an out-of-town trip, he couldn't find any popular music that was not rock.

Once the dominant form of American popular music, show tunes, standards and jazz songs may have been dislodged by rock music, but they continue to hold an irresistible appeal for people of all ages. Still sung by cabaret and jazz singers, they are certainly, as William Zinsser notes, "easy to remember." Songs like "Blue Moon," "Over the Rainbow," "Moon River," "That Old Black Magic" and "White Christmas" seem to occupy a permanent place in our auditory memory, even if it's not always easy to recall who wrote them.

Zinsser's infectiously enthusiastic celebration of these songs and the people who wrote them offers an inviting introduction to the subject. Sprightly yet relaxed, eclectic though by no means comprehensive, this amiable book is undemanding in the nicest sense of the word: no pretension, no technical jargon, lots of good anecdotes, plenty of illustrations.

The secret of these songs' appeal, Zinsser notes, lies in the felicitous match between music and lyrics. Although many pop songs have catchy, beautiful or haunting melodies, when we hear them without the words, we can't help feeling something important is missing. By the same token, a fine song lyric printed by itself on the page can seldom make it on its own as poetry. Zinsser neatly demonstrates the point with this bit of verse by lyricist Ted Koehler:

I've got the world on a string,

Sitting on a rainbow,

Got the string around my finger.

What a world, what a life,

I'm in love!

"Speak that lyric and not much happens. But sing it--add the music--and the lyric springs to life. We can hear how intuitively the lyricist Ted Koehler caught the exuberance of Harold Arlen's melody: the joy of sitting on a rainbow. Arlen's melody is like a jazz riff--it spans an octave and a half in the first two bars--but we wouldn't know that from reading the lyric."

Zinsser explains musical forms and the special effects of particular keys in terms that are easily comprehensible even to readers who know nothing about music. Elsewhere, he takes a fond look at everything from famous singers, musical theater and the Cotton Club to memorable songs from forgettable movies and sheet-music illustrations.

But his main focus is on the lyricists and composers. Some are as famous as the songs they wrote: Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Duke Ellington, Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart, Oscar Hammerstein, Stephen Sondheim, George and Ira Gershwin. But others are less well-known, such as lyricist Dorothy Field, whose songs include "Sunny Side of the Street," "I'm in the Mood for Love," "I Can't Give You Anything but Love" and "The Way You Look Tonight." Or composer Harry Warren, who wrote such memorable hits as "The More I See You," "I Only Have Eyes for You," "You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby" and "Chattanooga Choo-Choo" but who often joked that even his best friends hadn't heard of him. Black songwriters had an even harder time, forced to sell their work and copyrights for derisory sums. Zinsser pays tribute to the lyricist Andy Razaf, who collaborated with the ebullient Fats Waller to create songs such as "Honeysuckle Rose," "Ain't Misbehavin' " and "Black and Blue" and who made it his business to fight racial injustice.

Zinsser does not go in for extensive biographies; his colorful thumbnail sketches are more like appetizers than main courses: They leave us wanting more. But they do provide us with a sense of the multitude of styles and personalities involved in the creation of this richly various work: the jazzy urbanity of the Gershwins, the suave elegance of Ellington, the wistful wit of Hart, the warmth of Hammerstein, the sheer versatility of Mercer, the exuberance of Waller and Razaf, the fluid melodic lines of country-boy Hoagy Carmichael ("Stardust," "Skylark"), the poignant optimism and compassion of E.Y. Harburg, who not only dreamed of a better world "Over the Rainbow" but also wrote the words for that Depression-era classic "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?"

Once I built a railroad,

Made it run,

Made it race against time.

Once I built a railroad,

Now it's done.

Brother, can you spare a dime?

"The song so lacerated the national conscience," Zinsser tells us, "that radio stations tried to ban it; they said it was 'sympathetic to the unemployed.' " Zinsser's book leaves us with a renewed appreciation, not only for some wonderful songs, but for a vibrant era in American culture.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World