Magazine article The Sondheim Review

The Great American Songbook's Rise and Fall: The Change in Pop Music's Landscape Liberated Sondheim

Magazine article The Sondheim Review

The Great American Songbook's Rise and Fall: The Change in Pop Music's Landscape Liberated Sondheim

Article excerpt

Despite errors in factual detail, Ben Yagoda's The B Side (Riverhead Books, 2015) reads like a good detective story, pulling strands of disparate information together to show how the Great American Songbook first came into being in the 1920s and '30s only to become marginalized in the 1950s as popular music was hijacked, first by novelty ditties such as "Come On-a My House" and "The Doggie in the Window" and then by the advent of Bill Haley, Elvis and rock'n'roll. Though Stephen Sondheim shows up only briefly toward the end of the book, its effect on him was nevertheless notable.

Yagoda goes deep with his research and largely persuasive theories, beginning in 1885 with Charles K. Wright, author of the monster hit "After the Ball," continuing through the invention of the 78 RPM wax record, the ascent of radio, the dominance of Broadway and Hollywood songwriters, the ASCAP broadcasting strike that pushed BMI into prominence, the hugely successful record producer Mitch Miller and his control of artists and use of payola, and concluding in the 1960s with the Beach Boys, the Beatles and Burt Bacharach.

Yagoda examines the hidden effects of the obvious. For example, when recordings surpassed sheet music as the most popular way of buying music, it didn't just change a profit-making industry; it changed the very nature of songwriting. Before radio, songs were written to be sung around the family piano. These songs had many lyric choruses for variety's sake and had to be reasonably simple to play. On the phonograph or radio, the singer became important, arrangements demanded significant elaboration and the four-minute-or-less length of a 78 required fewer verses, concentrating the pop song with haiku-like constraints.

The newly compressed construction paradoxically put the writer front and center, allowing the music greater complexity and giving the lyric more weight. The fortuitous arrival of so much talent at the same time - Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, George and Ira Gershwin, Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II, Cole Porter, Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz, among others - engendered a friendly competition that spurred artists to greater heights.

The hubris of ASCAP is an interesting component to the Songbook's end. …

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