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A great number of the songwriters of The Great American Songbook knew each other, were even friends. After all, they worked together in the same industry that had a very limited number of focal points:Tin Pan Alley, Broadway, Harlem, Hollywood. And they not only partnered up with one another to work, but they played together: open houses at Lorenz Hart's parents' apartment, parties at the Gershwins', (both in uptown Manhattan), tennis and golf in southern California. As late as the last half of the 1960s, Wilfred Sheed tells us in his book The House That George Built: With a Little Help from Irving, Cole, and a Crew of About Fifty, that he himself was able to run into some of them in New York. He had "lucked into" living in the same building as "the great lyricist Yip Harburg" and became his "devoted friend and fan." Sheed manages to capture the nature of these songwriters' world when he describes how "Yip invariably lingered in the lobby [of their apartment building] or in the open elevator doorway, pulling bits of paper out of his pockets, on which he jotted some verses about the day's news, and reading from them with glee, or else telling me how his friend Harold Arlen was coping with his recent depressive breakdown." He was also able to meet one of Harburg's writing partners, Burton Lane, who loved to talk, like Harburg, about politics or about songs, as long as Sheed wanted to, "especially if the topic was Judy Garland, whom he discovered, or the Gershwins, who discovered him." And it was in Harburg's apartment that Sheed met Arlen, then recovered, as well as Arthur Schwartz who told him how his co-writer Howard Dietz was inclined to comment on any of life's difficulties by asking the question, "What is life but dancing in the dark?" (Sheed, pp. xi-xii). These fellows, and all of them except for Dorothy Fields and a couple of others were men -- She called herself "one of the boys." -- constituted a world of their own, an exclusive club the members of which gazed on the world around them with an ironic yet deeply romantic eye.
When thinking about the songwriters of The Great American Songbook, this club as it were, the notion of tiers comes to mind. Some of these writers were extraordinarily well known and still, to an extent, are. Others were not very famous then and completely unknown now. The first tier includes those Songbook songwriters everyone has heard of or, if that is too optimistic a notion in the twenty-first century, then the first tier are those everyone who has any idea about The Songbook at all has heard of; that is, George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein II, Duke Ellington, Johnny Mercer and a few others. And it should be added that many people who have, in fact, heard of these songwriters will not associate them with The Songbook, e.g. Ellington will be associated with jazz, Rodgers and Hammerstein with musical theater, Berlin with "God Bless America" and "White Christmas" (the former of which isn't even in "The Songbook," at least as it is construed by us).
All of them lived (and most were born between the last two decades of the nineteenth century and the first decade of the twentieth) in New York City. The great majority were from first or second generation Jewish immigrant families. Only when the money ran out on Broadway when The Depression began, did they hop trains for Hollywood where the movie studios were booming and hired them to write songs for their creations. Some, such as Harry Warren, lived out their careers there. George Gershwin, who after becoming king on Broadway, moved with his brother and writing partner Ira to Beverly Hills in 1934, where he wrote scores for the Astaire-Rogers films, and died there at thirty-seven of a brain tumor, perhaps the most severe premature loss in the history of American music, both popular and classical. Rodgers, Hart, Hammerstein, Arlen, Loesser and others moved back to New York and Broadway sooner or later to write again for musical theater.
The second tier includes songwriters like Harold Arlen, Hoagy Carmichael, Frank Loesser, Lorenz Hart, Dorothy Fields, and others whose names are familiar to those who have done even a little reading about The Songbook -- or listen to Jonathan Schwartz on the radio. And yet looking at the Cafe Songbook Master List of Great American Songbook songwriters, which appears immediately at the right of these words, one can count the names of over 200 songwriters, the great majority of whom constitute the third tier, those who these days lie in virtually total obscurity even though they have written songs many of us know and even love, songs that are still sung and listened to with some regularity in cabarets and jazz clubs, on certain radio stations and cable TV music channels, and on iPods around the world.
The names on this list are mostly men and a few women who, to a great extent, made their livings writing songs for American musical theater, for Hollywood movies, for publication as sheet music onTin Pan Alley, to be sold to professional performers or to a piano playing and singing public. Mostly they wrote in teams of two: a composer and a lyricist, thus instigating the most commonly asked question of songwriters of the era, "What came first the words or the music?" (The answer depends on which writing team is being discussed. For example, Rodger's music generall came before Hart's words, but Hammersteins words were usually written before Rodgers' music.
They were, almost exclusively, professional songwriters as opposed to performers. Still most of them (composers and lyricists alike) could sing their own songs. Indeed Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer were both professional singers, Mercer having had a singing career that came close to rivalling his work as a songwiter.) An image that comes to mind from early TV is of the songwriter sitting at the piano having been asked to do a few of his songs and invariably using the transition phrase "and then I wrote" to move from one to the next, with the audience applauding as it recognized one cherished melody after another. If the audience was fortunate enough to have both composer and lyricist present, the composer was usually at the piano with the other, or maybe both of them, doing the vocals. In this age, however, we are used to the concept of the singer-songwriter uniting creator and performer into one entity, leading to the "original" version of a song being written and performed by the same individual (or group) and forever associated with him, her or them. All performances or recordings of the work by others are called "covers," meaning the song does not "belong" to that performer, he or she is only covering someone else's work. "Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes" (1986) will forever be associated with singer-songwriter Paul Simon (and a little with Ladysmith Black Mambazo). On the other hand, "Diamonds Are a Girls Best Friend" took a different path, had what might be termed a different trajectory. It was written in 1949, with music by Jule Styne and lyrics by Leo Robin for the Broadway show Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and was introduced in that show by Lorelei Lee. It had only one recording that was a modest hit: Jo Stafford in 1950. When the show became a movie in 1953, it was sung mainly by Marilyn Monroe and secondarily by Jane Russell, to be followed over the years by countless others performing it in clubs and on records, on the radio and on TV. What is revealed by this is the idea that there were, with few exceptions, two distinct classes involved in the process of producing popular music during the first half of the twentieth century in America: one was the songwriters, the other the performers -- and this was not just songs for musical theater and movie musicals; all popular music was done pretty much this way. There was Johnny Mercer, of course (as noted, both songwriter and singer), but he sang mostly songs written by others. And these songwriters' songs have continued to exist in the American culture in their own right, pretty much separate from their creators and their performers. The best of them are simplystandards, performed by everybody and his brother.
The singer-songwriters of the last forty years sing, almost exclusively their own songs. The songs of The Songbook writers were sung and played by a host of performers from the moment they came out or just after they were introduced in movie or show, right up to now. So although the songs, if they were hits (and not all Songbook songs were) might be associated with the performer whose recording was the biggest hit, finally they were the songwriters' songs. "Over the Rainbow" is certainly associated with Judy Garland but having been sung by so many others, its ownership goes finally to Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg. Even in that earlier era, the great performers were generally far better known than the great songwriters, nertheless, the songwriters did have a following. William Zinsser recalls in his elegantly written book on this music, Easy to Remember, how as a young person, his enthusiasm for it resulted from becoming a fan of the writers:
Zinsser not only enumerates his songwriting heroes but with his own marvellous economy of expression, captures the essence of their accomplishment as well as perhaps the most salient quality of the body of work we are calling The Great American Songbook: "that so much originality and wit could be achieved in so small a space" (Zinsser, pp. 9-10). The songwriters with whom Zinsser came of age lie at the center of The Songbook. It is their names, both great and a little less great, that appear on The Cafe Songbook Master List.
The most often sited and no doubt the most revered commentator on these songwriters' body of work is Alec Wilder, a highly regarded composer in his own right, who in his classic study American Popular Song emphasizes two, among many, qualities inherent in The Songbook. James T. Maher, the author of the introduction to the book, points them out. One is that despite the widespread use of the term "America's Classical Music," to describe the contents of The Songbook, Maher wishes to disabuse Wilder's readers that the book is any kind of academic study, even though for a long while Wilder was an academic. And despite the degree of musical and lyrical sophistication that can be found in their work, these composers and lyricists should not, in Wilder's view, be treated with "undue gravity," as that would be a violation of the essence of their art, an art that was popular at its core and beyond.
Another of these qualities that Wilder conveys is that these songwriters and their work are distinctly American; and although there is no attempt to derive an over-arching principle that defines exactly how American popular song of the era is more native than foreign (i.e. European), the genius of these songwriters was their "creative ingenuity," seen in their ability to express over and over and over again "within the musically narrow confines of a popular song" the fusion of a street smart simplicity and a marvellous sophistication. It doesn't get more American -- or more Songbook than that.
We hope that the above yields up some sense of the songwriters who reside, along with their songs, between the covers of The American Songbook, and that it is obvious both from the list of links in the Master List of Songwriters at the right as well as from the pages of this website that Cafe Songbook is striving to provide a multi-media presentation of the songs and stories of the songwriters of The Great American Songbook. Much of it is still a work in progress but much is also here now. Take a look. The most comprehensive point of entry is The Cafe Songbook Catalog of The Great American Songbook.
Cafe Songbook Songwriter pages provide an array of information and material relating to songwriters, both composers and lyricists, who have written at least two songs that have Cafe Songbook song pages devoted to them. Songwriters who have written only one such song are listed on the Cafe Songbook Master List of songwriters, but no songwriter page is devoted exclusively to them.
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Master List of Great American Songbook Songwriters
Names of songwriters who have written at least one song included in the Cafe Songbook Catalog of The Great American Songbook are listed below.
Names of songwriters with two or more song credits in the catalog (with rare exceptions) are linked to their own Cafe Songbook pages, e.g. Fields, Dorothy.
Names of songwriters with only one song credit in the catalog are linked to the Cafe Songbook page for that song, on which may be found information about the songwriter or a link to an information source for him or her.
Please note: Cafe Songbook pages for songwriters are currently in various stages of development.