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Tony Grist

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The Great American Songbook [Apr. 10th, 2010|11:02 am]
Tony Grist
BBC 4 devoted an evening to the Great American Songbook. I watched Astaire and Rogers singing not dancing- or rather, singing a lot and not dancing very much, a clutch of modern jazzers rendering classic songs all but unrecognisable- and an hour and three quarters of Johnny Mercer. Mercer seems to have been a darling man- except when he was being a mean drunk- and his CV-  standard after standard over a forty year period- is awesome. 

There's a big difference between writing lyrics for music and lyrics for the page. Don't bother to read Mercer's lyrics because they're kitsch.  You've got to hear them sung. The marrying of words to music is a precise and self-effacing art. In the film last night Tony Bennett said that for him Mercer was American literature. But that's wrong. Literature is exactly what he's not.  If you were the editor of a poetry magazine and someone sent you the lyrics of Moon River you'd put them straight in the reject pile, but marry those lyrics to the Henry Mancini tune they were written for and they're as lively and affecting as Keats.

I grew up with Mercer and all those guys. It's the music of my parents' generation.Then along came rock and roll and I gladly shovelled them aside. But now I find- to my surprise- that I'm really rather partial. The things that make a great song- melody and wit and je ne sais quoi- hold steady from generation to generation- and what I notice now is not so much the difference as the continuity.  Mercer's One for My Baby and Lennon's Day in the Life- same weariness, same pain, same rythmical ingenuity, same smarts.
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Comments:
[User Picture]From: shullie
2010-04-10 11:59 am (UTC)
Moon River was my parents 'song',it makes me cry and sends shivers up my spine every time I hear it, as I know my mum's around and it's what my dad wants playing at his funeral, as he knows my mum will be waiting for him, as she is '...waiting 'round the bend,'

Crying now ( not sadness) ....
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2010-04-10 12:05 pm (UTC)
That's beautiful.

It's a lovely song.
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From: mamadar
2010-04-10 01:23 pm (UTC)
I really think there's a continuity in art song, or artful song, well-crafted song, from the troubadours through Dowland into the nineteenth century and thence to the Gershwin brothers, Cole Porter, and so on, to the Beatles, to Sting's solo work. As you say, melody, wit, a certain flexibility that gives an individual singer room for scope. There are lots of great songs from the thirties and forties that look ridiculous if you just read the lyrics, but you can listen to half a dozen of the great singers render them and have a completely fresh experience every time.

Coincidentally, we watched an episode of Deep Space Nine last night that starred James Darren as a holographic character who is a '50s lounge singer. He got to sing and dispense advice on love, and one of the regulars got to sing "Fever". :)
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2010-04-10 01:44 pm (UTC)
I'm very fond of DS9 and have never thought it got enough respect.

I remember when the Beatles were still together some music critic comparing them to Schubert- and being laughed at- but a good song is a good song is a good song.
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[User Picture]From: oakmouse
2010-04-10 04:48 pm (UTC)
Mercer's songs are good by themselves but they really shine when sung by someone who is good at interpretation. One for my Baby done by Ella Fitzgerald in her prime is a magical experience.
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From: algabal
2010-04-10 06:27 pm (UTC)
I've always thought Ella was superb technically but had fairly little depth in her lyric interpretation, especially compared to someone like Lee Wiley.
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[User Picture]From: oakmouse
2010-04-11 01:30 am (UTC)
I know she recorded a fair number of crap pop songs where she didn't bother (see: A Tisket, A Tasket et al), especially in her years with Chick Webb. She had the capacity for more even then, though, and she covered some of the Boswells' most emotionally challenging songs with considerable maturity. Later on, during the Verve years and her recordings with Pablo, she did a fair number of songs that were anything but shallowly interpreted. Even when her voice began to go, she was able to use it very effectively. Fitzgerald and Pass... Again is a prime example.

Still, horses for courses. You may simply disagree with my opinion; no problem.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2010-04-10 07:26 pm (UTC)
What I hadn't realised before last night was that Mercer was a singer himself- and apparently quite a good one.

One for my Baby was written for Fred Astaire of all people. They showed us the film sequence in which he first sang it. There's a dance (of course) and a lot of glasses get smashed. It's not at all bad.
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[User Picture]From: oakmouse
2010-04-11 01:08 am (UTC)
Astaire was a very talented singer and actor. I've heard it was a great frustration for him that once he got a reputation for being a dancer, nobody would let him do anything else until he got too old to dance anymore.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2010-04-11 08:56 am (UTC)
But he was such a wonderful dancer.

As a singer and actor he had equals- and betters- but as a dancer he was quite simply the best.
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[User Picture]From: oakmouse
2010-04-12 12:19 am (UTC)
Oh, agreed. It's just that being typecast as a hoofer apparently irked him.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2010-04-12 04:25 pm (UTC)
I haven't seen On The Beach since it first came out- but I remember he was really good in that- as a non-dancing, playboy racing driver.
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