Saturday, May 8, 2010
The History of Popular Song
My lifelong avocation has been studying what's commonly referred to as the Great American Songbook. I am passionate about what constitutes a great song, and wrapped up in the mystery of what makes it memorable.
May I recommend a tremendous DVD on this subject? It was made 7 years ago. The host for the nearly 3-hour presentation is Michael Feinstein. Perfect choice! When he was a young man, he worked with Ira Gershwin on the latter's archives. There is no doubting Feinstein's erudition on the subject. Put that together with the fact that he's a fine pianist and interpreter, and you know you're in good hands.
The DVD takes you all the way through the history of popular song, from Stephen Foster to Stephen Sondheim. There are rare clips of performers such as Bessie Smith, as well as complete presentations of songs, such as Dorthy Dandridge and the Nicolas Brothers performing "Chattanooga Choo-Choo". Looking back, I was pleased to remember that the only "talking head" in the movie was Feinstein, and he was narrating, not commenting. It is an exceedingly pleasant ride for the viewer.
I was struck by how popular music has a strong sentimental strain in it. It always seems to be referring to a more innocent time--perhaps I shouldn't be surprised because much of music is wishing and dreaming, isn't it? Anyway, this thought occurred to me especially when the film chronicled the music of the 1940s and 1950s--which was basically recycling songs from the previous 30 years.
Of course, what does that say about my musical passion for the Songbook? What time am I longing for? Perhaps I'm emotionally journeying back to my parents' time. I feel closer to them when I listen to the Songbook. I also feel closer to my own feelings, more sensitive and alive.
Yep, that's all part of what make a great song!