The melodies still linger on

The B-Side: The Death of Tin Pan Alley and the Rebirth of the Great American Song

By Ben Yagoda

Riverhead Books, 2015

This past New Year’s Eve I stayed at home watching PBS instead of partying (I had the flu!). The contrast between the two programs I watched was interesting: One was New York Philharmonic New Year's Eve: A Gershwin Celebration a performance of the Gershwin repertoire ranging from classical pieces like “Rhapsody in Blue” to vocal performances of George Gershwins’s popular repertoire by actor-singer Norm Lewis and jazz vocalist Dianne Reeves all filmed live at Lincoln Center.  The next program was Michael Feinstein New Year's Eve at the Rainbow Room a cabaret style concert starring cabaret singer/pianist Michael Feinstein, and several guest vocalists including Broadway performers Christine Ebersole, Kelly O’Hara, Aaron Tveit (Catch Me if You Can), cabaret legend Marilyn Maye, and actor Darren Criss (Glee).

The vocal performances on the Gershwin special were uniformly excellent: Lewis’s soothing baritone and confident command of the stage exemplified the kind of tender 21st century virility he brought as Porgy in acclaimed 2012 Broadway production of The Gershwins’ Porgy & Bess. Similarly, Reeves, who recently won her fifth Grammy in Vocal Jazz Performance, commanded her material gently embellishing Gershwin’s melodies with her signature warmth of tone, elegant enunciation, and rhythmic acuity. Gershwin could not have been in better hands.

The performances on the Feinstein special were generally successful on their own terms. Tveit had fun with “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby”; Maye is always a pleasure to hear; and Feinstein has become a more confident and enjoyable performer over time, though I was not compelled by he and Criss’s renditions of Sinatra’s material and found his rendition of Jerry Lee Lewis’s “Great Ball of Fire” superfluous.  

What stood out for me from the Feinstein special was the emcee’s pretentious voiceover declaration that Feinstein was “The Ambassador of the Great American Songbook.” Though he began his career doing archival work with Ira Gershwin, and has dedicated much of his career to singing the pre-rock repertoire, including unreleased or rare songs, the Songbook’s songs have done a great job of selling themselves without such pretenses. As such he is really no more of an Ambassador to this kind of material than Lewis or Reeves who delivered the goods without the pretension.

The Great American Songbook is comprised of highly melodic, romantically themed material with broad harmonic ranges commonly written for musical theater and film beginning around the 1920s. This material had enough musical meat to be adapted widely by pop and jazz musicians, and was the bread and butter in the careers of many of American’s greatest singers for decades, including Tony Bennett, Ella Fitzgerald, Judy Garland, Sarah Vaughan, and Sinatra. Though it is commonly believed that rock ‘n’ roll “killed” the songs and composers who authored the Songbook this is simplistic and inaccurate.  Since the ‘70s rock era singers as disparate as Willie Nelson, Linda Ronstadt, Natalie Cole, Rod Stewart, and Queen Latifah/Dana Owens have had considerable commercial success releasing albums of “standards.” They arguably introduced these songs to new generations of listeners who may not normally purchase jazz or cabaret albums.

Fears that “quality” songs have disappeared from the pop landscape undoubtedly inspired Feinstein to found the Great American Songbook Foundation to keep the legacy of this material alive but again there’s no proof it was ever going to die, even if a decline in popularity was inevitable. These and other issues surface in journalist and professor Ben Yagoda’s The B-Side: The Death of Tin Pan Alley and the Rebirth of the Great American Song. Yagoda is on more of a quest to trace the historical development of standards of the 1920-60s era to understand their unique artistic characteristics, their commercial dominance, and their gradual decline in the mainstream, than to argue that “standards” need to be preserved. He does so eloquently in eight chapters covering 1885-1965, but his discussion is somewhat unsatisfying and incomplete. As a U.S. music history primer it’s very readable and accessible; kudos to him for employing some fresh sources (i.e. songwriters Ray Evans’s and Carolyn Leigh’s archived papers) to tell this familiar story. But Alec Wilder’s American Popular Song:  The Great Innovators: 1900-1950 and Wilfrid Sheed’s The House that George Built have covered this territory well previously. For readers who already understand the basic shape of the music industry his Epilogue is actually more compelling.

                                                           Copyright   ©   Riverhead Books, 2015.


                                                        Copyright © Riverhead Books, 2015.

The eight chapters address the music industry’s shift from dependence on sheet music sales (necessitating relatively simple songs amateur pianists could pay) to the rise of radio and its displacement by records. He also tracks the artistic maturation of musicals from revues to book musicals, and the race and class tensions between the licensing agencies ASCAP and BMI, which ultimately opened the door for regional and “ethnic” music to begin taking center stage in the 1940s. As he moves toward the conclusion he notes how by the late 1950s crooners fell out of favor at radio stations that increasingly targeted teenagers, depicts Hollywood’s waning interest in producing film musicals, and illustrates the declining appeal of Broadway to mass audiences. Each of these changes impacted American songcraft in some fashion which he addresses throughout the book.

But these chapters are a mere precursor for his stirring Epilogue which argues that by the 1950s “a space had been cleared in which a new sort of song could emerge…Rather than jazz, they came out of folk, country, rhythm and blues, and the blues itself. The beat was right there on the surface, inescapable. And the harmonic structures were simple, though not always simplistic.” (242). Over the course of 23 pages he notes often overlooked continuities between Tin Pan Alley and rock era fare, and cites some of the era’s greatest writers including Burt Bacharach and Hal David, Carole King, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, Randy Newman, Allen Toussaint, Jimmy Webb, Brian Wilson and The Beatles (“They took the tools and ideas of the 1957-1963 American songbook and exploded them in a glorious centrifugal cascade of melody and riveting vocals with a backbeat you couldn’t lose,” 262) to point out the emergence of a new songbook. Hopefully, Yagoda plans a sequel because this premise is more compelling than the backstory the other chapters detail even if they do so lovingly.

Despite the rhetorical reduction of rock ‘n’ roll to three chords and raw emotion composers like Bacharach, Newman, Webb, McCartney and Lennon, as well as Laura Nyro, Joni Mitchell, and Bob Dylan are hardly musical primitives. Within cabaret and vocal jazz, interpretive genres that have traditionally relied on the standards repertoire, songs by these “rock” composers are sung commonly enough that they are unremarkable. Bacharach-David, the Beatles, Dylan, Mitchell, Newman, Nyro, and Webb have all been saluted by album length tributes by multiple singers, as have Leonard Cohen and Motown. Songs by composers ranging from Janelle Monae to Radiohead to Rufus Wainwright have also found homes on the albums and in the concerts of contemporary interpretive singers as well. In 2005 Lea DeLaria’s Double Standards placed punk rock songs in jazz settings; progressive vocal artist Theo Bleckmann recorded the Kate Bush songbook album Hello Earth—The Music of Kate Bush in 2012, and perhaps it’s only a matter of time before singers recast songs by respected writers like Rosanne Cash and Kurt Cobain. 

This diversification of repertoire illustrates an ongoing “canon-busting” by singers themselves that warrants a full-fledged study. They, more than other force, are determining what songs endure and they continually prove how songs from different eras born out of different sensibilities can co-exist. Additionally, the rise of singer-songwriters in jazz (i.e. Patricia Barber, Ann Hampton Callaway, René Marie) also challenges the commonsense view of the genre’s usual sources of repertoire. Yagoda’s The B-Side is a good conversation starter but there’s a lot more to be said about the changing shape of what constitutes a “classic” song.