Tony Grist (poliphilo) wrote,
Tony Grist

The Great American Songbook

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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