Saturday, August 2, 2008

Songbooks Exhumed

Among the items paroled from storage have been songbooks, many of which feature ballads from the 30s, 40s, and 50s. By accident, I started playing these ballads as I was teaching myself to play piano, using the quick-and-dirty "chord" method. So there I was, age 16, playing songs like "Two Sleepy People." Two things interested me about the songs--the complicated chords, never just a D minor, but always a D minor seventh or something like that, clusters of notes; and the lyrics, which were often sentimental, true, but just as likely to be whimsical, wry, and ironic. They were way over my head, of course, written by "sophisticated" and rich lyricists in New York or Palm Springs.

So it's been great playing the songs and reading the lyrics again. There's probably a book to be written out there about American ballads being an important window on American culture, and on the complicated "icons" that sang the ballads, like Sinatra, who in one sense was a hack and a thug but in another sense was a very puzzling amalgamation of traditional American manhood, celebrity, androgyny, money, poverty, East Coast values, and West Coast values. He was also an Old School liberal, who, of course, became a conservative, as almost all Old School liberals did and do. Scratch a Northern White liberal, and you almost always find a redneck, as James Baldwin articulated. Thus has it always been so.

Ah, but the lyrics are so smart, especially those written by Johnny Mercer (not a pleasant person, alas: read Skylark, the recent biography), Dorothy Fields, Billie Holliday, Cole Porter, Jules Styne, the Gershwins, Harry Warren, et alia.

Some will say the wry, ironic, whimsical poetry has disappeared from American popular music, and to some extent that's true. Most popular songs are about as subtle as an avalanche. But you will still find a great deal of subtlety and wit even in some Hip Hop music, such as that by the Fugees (one example). Nonetheless, the Great Age of the Ballad has passed. Hence the importance of exhumed songbooks.

Not that you asked, but my all-time favorite Sinatra "album" is the one recorded live in Las Vegas with Count Basie's orchestra and Quincy Jones's arrangements. There's an edge to the swing that you don't find in the Nelson Riddle arrangements, and you sense that Basie, Jones, and Sinatra are engaged in a healthy competition. Sinatra is 50, I think, so the voice is down an octave or two, but the schtick is finely tuned. When Basie's orchestra is about to take off on an instrumental raid, Sinatra warns, "Run fuh covah; run and hide!" If you like Sinatra, you'll love (and probably already know well) this CD. If you don't know much about Sinatra or are skeptical, give a song or two a listen on this one. A fascinating artifact.
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