Academic journal article Parnassus : Poetry in Review

I Could Write a Book: Popular Song Lyrics of the Twentieth Century

Academic journal article Parnassus : Poetry in Review

I Could Write a Book: Popular Song Lyrics of the Twentieth Century

Article excerpt

Reading Lyrics. Edited by Robert Gottlieb and Robert Kimball. Pantheon 2000. 706 pp. $39.50

The New Conservatism hasn't led to much good art. In poetry, painting, classical music, and architecture, "traditional values" have more often than not meant dead values. But at least one positive development has resulted from our recent impulse to look back: a fresh interest in the classic American song. While traditional European lieder recitals seem to be a dying art in this country, there's a new generation of cabaret singers trying to keep this major American contribution to world culture alive.' Record companies (especially Sony and Decca) have begun reissuing "historic" original cast albums on CD, some of which (like Decca's original cast album of the 1943 revival of Rodgers and Hart's A Connecticut Yankee-- the last show Hart worked on before his death) have been unavailable for as long as half a century.'

After decades of popular music that has more to do with performance than with songs that stand on their own (as manifested in the increasing number of singing "groups" and the increasingly reverberative, "fuzzy" sound that blurs the lyrics), this pendulum swing has perhaps been touched off by the fundamental human need to sing in the shower. "Extraordinary how potent cheap music is," says Amanda in Noel Coward's Private Lives. What our great songwriters accomplished was far from trivial or cheap. They found a way of tapping the undercurrents of emotion in contemporary musical and literary idioms, especially in "everyday" spoken language and in immediately recognizable popular forms. My mother, who is in her late nineties, no longer recognizes me or remembers that she has a son, but she can still sing "Button Up Your Overcoat" and "Gimme a Little Kiss"-songs she taught me when I was a child.

Unhappily, there hasn't been much useful criticism of classic popular songs, partly because permission to reprint lyrics has been prohibitively expensive, when it's been granted at all.3 In a culture where social singing-friends gathering around a piano-has all but disappeared, so that sheet music itself is no longer an inevitable household item, there's been less and less access to the "texts" themselves, except through recordings. Even if we remember tunes, how often we forget the intricacies of the lyrics.' I've lived to regret that, in a fit of teenage housecleaning that may have also been an aberrant, temporary rejection of my passion for popular music, I threw out what would now be an invaluable collection of a decade's worth of Hit Parader magazines from the Forties and Fifties, monthly issues that published complete lyrics to current songs. (Random copies turn up on eBay-though it's the entire run that's of significance.)

But now there's a full-scale anthology that might make a difference. There's never been a volume nearly as thorough as Robert Gottlieb and Robert Kimball's Reading Lyrics, a collection of the words to some one thousand American and British popular songs from 1900 to 1975. And not only is this a useful sourcebook just for looking up the words. Implicit in its publication is the assumption that song lyrics are a legitimate literary genre, that they have a compelling history, and that they are worth reading even without the accompanying music, though the most familiar lyrics are virtually impossible to read without hearing in the back of one's mind the tunes they were written to. Even without a score, there's always the "ghost limb" of the absent tune.

Of course, not every lyric can-or has to-stand on its own. Schubert used wonderful poems by Goethe and Heine, and even the Wilhelm MUller poems he used for Winterreise and Die Schone Miillerin, with their cries from the heart and occasional leaps into the surreal, are effective on the page. But the music for some of his greatest songs transcends undistinguished texts. This is often the case with popular songs, yet even uninspired lyrics are worth examining for what they reveal about the culture that produced them. …

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