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What Is a Standard?


Book cover Wilfred Sheed "The House That George: Built"
Wilfred Sheed, The House That George Built: With a Little Help from Irving, Cole, and a Crew of About Fifty,
New York: Random House, 2007 (paper-bound Ed., 2008 shown)








book cover: Max Wilk, "They're Playing Our Song"
Max Wilk, They're Playing Our Song: Conversations with America's Classic Songwriters (originally published 1973 as They're Playing Our Song: From Jerome Kern to Stephen Sondheim—The Stories behind the Words and Music of Two Generations), New York and Stratford, CT: Easton Studio Press, 2008.







book jacket: "Easy To Remember" by William Zinsser

William Zinsser.
Easy to Remember
The Great American
Songwriters and Their Songs
Jaffrey, New Hampshire:
David R. Godine, 2001.










Astaire and Rogers
Ultimate Collectors Edition

DVD box set includes








Book cover: Alec Wilder, "America's Popular Song"
Alec Wilder, American Popular Song The Great Innovators, 1900-1950, New York: Oxford University Press, 1972 (paper-bound Ed. pictured).







book Cover: Ira Gershwin, "Lyrics on Several Occasions"
Ira Gershwin, Lyrics on Several Occasions
New York: Limelight Editions,1997 (originally published by Knoph, 1959)




book cover: David Lehman. A Fine Romance Jewish Songwriters,  American Songs

David Lehman. A Fine Romance Jewish Songwriters, American Songs. New York: Next Book/Schocken, 2009.

The core of The Great American Songbook (but by no means its entirety*) is a group of songs, each of which is generally called a "standard" -- a term difficult to define. An example of the difficulty lies, by analogy, in the problem Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart encountered when, in 1964, he was struggling to put into works a definition of the term "obscenity." He showed his frustration when he famously declared, "I know it when I see it!" Giving exact words to the meaning of "standard" as it applies to a popular song is similarly elusive in that when we hear Cole Porter's "Night and Day," or Rodgers' and Hart's "Where or When," or Irving Berlin's "Blue Skies," or Harold Arlen's and E. Y. Harburg's "Over the Rainbow," we may not know exactly why it's a standard, but when we hear it, we know it is.

Definitions of "standard" are, nevertheless, not that hard to find, though they are often different from one another. Wilfred Sheed is his book The House That George Built writes that by a standard he means a song that fifty years after it was written "is still popular enough for most cocktail lounge pianists to have a rough idea of and for their copyrights still to be worth fighting for." Similarly Max Morath called a standard "a song whose words and music every professional musician is supposed to know." Stephen Holden, music and film critic for The New York Times, inclines toward the psycho-social notion that a standard is a song "deeply embedded in the American psyche." For our purposes, this last factor is key, but by itself insufficient.

It is possible to specify quite a few of the qualities that have enabled these songs to become permanent fixtures hanging in the American imagination. A Great American Songbook standard is a song that 1) derived from a specific period in American history -- c.1920-1960; 2) was created within a specific tradition of American songwriting, a tradition the foundation of which is the crafting of popular songs by professional composers and lyricists, among whom are a core group whose names are virtually synonymous with the idea of a standard: Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, Rogers and Hart, et. al.; 3) was written with the intention that it be sung and played by professional singers and musicians on the Broadway stage, or in a Hollywood movie, or by the purchasers of sheet music published, most likely, on Tin Pan Alley; 4) survived the generation by which it was created by having been taken up (performed and recorded), perpetually it would seem, by singers and instrumentalists of succeeding generations; 5) often, though not always, has a lyric that expresses a modern American sensibility -- meaning the American sensibility of the first half of the twentieth century, a sensibility more often than not invested with urbane wit, sophisticated irony, language that at one moment is highbrow and at the next right off the street, and quite often expressing a degree of ambivalence and uncertainty toward love and life ("This can't be love because I feel so well"; 6) has a melody you cannot only whistle but can't forget; 7) and as a package of words and music is capable of touching the most fundamental of human emotions: love, loss and occasionally qualified joy ("Forget your troubles / Come on get happy.").

The quality of apparent musical and cultural immortality is, perhaps, the standard's most distinguishing characteristic. Before a song qualifies as a standard it must pass the test of time. Many songs that were hits during the standards era have disappeared into musical and cultural oblivion. A standard, however, defies oblivion.

Moreover, the standard song manages to live on through later periods even though audiences who have come of age during these subsequent times have by and large enthusiastically embraced new genres of popular music. Even the extraordinary advent of Rock and Roll, which signaled, in the mid-1950's, the end of standard type songs as mainstream popular music did not eliminate a vital existence for standards. A factor not listed above that has helped to accomplish this is the special relationship that has developed between standards and jazz, a topic that will be taken up in a future article. For now suffice it to say that jazz musicians and singers have found in Songbook standards a rich vein of melody on which to improvise, at once making jazz, or at least a portion of the jazz repertoire, accessible to a wider audience while at the same time providing an expanded and extended life for The Songbook.

Also, this survival through time manifests itself not exclusively or perhaps even mostly through the playing of the "original" recordings of these songs (as we see occur for other popular genres, for example, on oldies radio stations), but through performances and recordings by new generations of musicians and singers who put their own stamps on the songs and make standards either the centerpiece of their careers or a major part of their repertoires. More than half a century after George and Ira Gershwin wrote "'S Wonderful" (1937), a standard if there ever was one, it has been recorded by, among many others, Diana Krall, John Pizzarelli, Tierney Sutton, and Harry Connick Jr., all artists who came into prominence well after the end of the standards era and for whom standards represent the cores of their repertoires.

Rock (and other genres), of course, have themselves produced songs that have stayed alive beyond the time of their composition. Their extended life, however, has much less to do with performances and recordings of artists from succeeding periods than with the continuing popularity of the original artist's recording. "Rock Around the Clock," often cited as the first major rock and roll hit, is familiar to many who weren't around when it first came out; but virtually everyone who is familiar with it, knows the 1955 version by Bill Haley and the Comets. It has been covered many times by other artists, as have covered songs by Elvis, The Beatles, Paul Simon, James Taylor, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and countless other performer-composers of the post-standards era, but few if any of these "covers" have a life of their own or are significantly responsible for the continued life of the song. The original version, with few exceptions, remains the sustaining force behind the contemporary popularity of the song. And it should be noted that one of the reasons for this is that Songbook standards in a sense have no original version. They were written by professional songwriters for professional performers (not the songwriters themselves) to perform.

On the other hand, very few of the people who know Cole Porter's song "Night and Day" or most any other standard could say who first sang it or what its origins were -- though this may be changing with the advent of Turner Classic Movies, DVD and streaming versions of everything: every movie ever produced as well as websites like this one. Still, most would have no idea that "Night and Day" was originally sung and danced by Fred Astaire and Claire Luce in the 1932 Broadway musical Gay Divorce. Such songs, by the time they have become standards have become detached from their original contexts and are not primarily associated with an original performer. They are just songs that most everybody knows, at least a little. They do maintain an association with their cultural roots, undoubtedly sensed by their performers and listeners alike, but such associations are not definitive for them. A standard is like the baton in a relay race that never ends, being handed off from one runner/performer to another conceivably forever. Switching from a track and field metaphor to a philosophical one, the "original" of the standard is Platonic. It is an abstraction, an ideal, with all actual performances becoming shadows of it on the cave's wall.

There is, of course, a manifestation of the original of the standard more substantial than a shadow: the fully notated composition -- still available (often on Amazon, eBay, etc.) to anyone via what most of us know as sheet music (See Zinsser, Ch. "Sheet Music." The existence of this clear and distinct blueprint for standard type songs yields yet another distinguishing characteristic, certainly an important one for separating the standard from other memorable pop songs: that we connect standards primarily with their creators (composers and lyricists) not with their performers, as is the case the in the post standards era of popular music. "I Got Rhythm" is a Gershwin song; "How Deep is the Ocean" is a Berlin song; "My Funny Valentine" is a Rodgers and Hart song; but "Here Comes the Sun" is a Beatles song (not a George Harrison song, at least in the popular consciousness). This latter-day primacy of the performer is the case even for the contemporary singer-songwriter, in whom writer and performer are one. The primary connection fans make is to Paul Simon the performer of "Still Crazy after All These Years" more than to Paul Simon the songwriter, though the knee-jerk response is that the performer wrote it. The performers of the standards era were also typically better known than the songwriters, but over time standard songs retain their connection with their creators in a manner that post-standard era songs mostly do not. No doubt the multiplicity of recordings and performances of standard songs by different performers contributes to this. There are exceptions of course. "White Christmas" may be more associated in many people's minds with Bing Crosby than with Irving Berlin. Similarly Sinatra's version of "The Lady Is a Tramp" is so classic as to make more people, even now, connect the song to him rather than to Rodgers and Hart. And perhaps most of all "Over the Rainbow" has become known as a Judy Garland song not a Harold Arlen/Yip Harburg song, no matter how many hundreds of performers over several generations have performed and recorded it. Nevertheless, from where we sit, Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg are its creators and finally it is their song.

Being able to define the nature of a work of art, or, as in the case of the standard, of a category of works, with some degree of precision requires caution. Holden's notion that the standard is a song deeply embedded within the psyche of Americans (Cole Porter might have put it, that a standard is a song that's gotten under our skins) is by itself perhaps not enough to make us understand how we instantly know a song's a standard when we hear it. So we push for a more complete definition. But that might be, in Edith Wharton's words, like trying "to learn a butterfly's color by knocking the dust from its wings. To seize on the wonder would be to brush off its bloom."



*The portion of The Great American Songbook that does not consist of standards consists of songs that have many of the characteristics of standards but that have not become "deeply embedded in the American psyche"; in other words songs less well known to the generations that followed the time of their creation, but still wonderful songs good enough to be worthy of inclusion in the Cafe Songbook catalog.

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"What Is A Standard?"


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Posted Comments on "What Is a Standard?"

May 12, 2014: "Neuman" advises, "Yip Harburg wrote the lyrics of 'Over the Rainbow' (not Johnny Mercer)."

"Neuman" is, of course, correct, and we have made the change.

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