American Stardust

My post about “September Song” earlier this week got me thinking about the Great American Songbook. It’s a body of songs that became part of the shared experience of American culture starting sometime around 1930, give or take a few years. It encompasses the works of Hoagy Carmichael, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hammerstein, and many others less well-known, songs made famous on Broadway, in the movies, and to a lesser extent on radio, songs that were interpreted and re-interpreted over the years by dozens, if not hundreds, of performers.

The Songbook’s importance began to shrink in the 1960s, with the rise of the singer/songwriter and the self-contained band. Pop and rock songs became identified with performers more than their composers, although a few such songs slipped into the Songbook, too: Lennon and McCartney’s “Yesterday” comes to mind first, then Stevie Wonder’s “For Once in My Life,” and you can probably think of others. But what’s the most recent song to make this transition? “Wind Beneath My Wings,” maybe? My point is that as the years go by, the Great American Songbook becomes less and less important in American popular culture. It’s not extinct yet—Rod Stewart has mined it for something like four albums, and artists from Boz Scaggs to Queen Latifah have recorded standards albums in recent years. But all of them, even Queen Latifah, were raised in an era when the Songbook still meant something in mainstream popular music. I wonder whether it still does. Precious few people under the age of 40 are buying Stewart’s standards records, I’ll wager. While some of us still dig performances of (and understand the importance of) songs like “Stardust,” “The Way You Look Tonight,” “Night and Day,” and “My Funny Valentine,” for millions more people, they’re just old songs nobody listens to anymore.

And so, an aging music geek wonders what the pop standards of tomorrow are going to be, or if there will even be such a thing. Perhaps the marketplace has become so fragmented that no song can generate enough critical mass to become part of the shared experience of millions. And if that’s true, we’re going to have to modify our definition of popular culture. It won’t be the same as it’s been since the concomitant rise of the film, recording, and broadcasting industries nearly 80 years ago.

I found myself listening to Nat King Cole’s 1957 recording of “Stardust” earlier this week. It’s been a particular favorite of mine for years, although I haven’t heard it in a long while. It opens with a verse not always included on recordings of the song (it’s not on Nelson’s version, for example):

And now the purple dusk of twilight time
Steals across the meadows of my heart
High up in the sky the little stars climb
Always reminding me that we’re apart

You wander down the lane and far away
Leaving me a song that will not die
Love is now the stardust of yesterday
The music of the days gone by

Under the proper circumstances—the coming of autumn, for example—Nat’s reading of “Stardust” has staggering mojo. I don’t care who you are, or how old you are—if you can’t appreciate the poetry and feel the emotional power of Mitchell Parish’s words, you and I probably shouldn’t have lunch together anytime soon. And if you can’t dig Cole’s performance (and the beautiful melody written by Hoagy Carmichael), you might want to think about giving up music altogether.

4 thoughts on “American Stardust

  1. Shark

    Although he was a star, Nat King Cole should’ve been a HUGE star. It was absurd that CBS cancelled his show back in the 1950s, in part, because executives thought the “white” background singers appearing behind him looked like “the white man was working FOR the black man,” something that was unacceptable in segregated America in the 1950s. I’m sure there was no such thing as a “black” executive at CBS back then. It’s a shame because Nat King Cole was just SOOOO good…that voice…that “cool” stage presence….Nat King Cole was just one of the best!

  2. I think part of the equation here is thinking of a song and the lyrical content as opposed to thinking of a record and the sonic/melodic content. You can argue about when lyrics began to take a back seat to performance … was it the early days of rock? the disco years? … but certainly much of today’s popular music has extremely low lyrical content even if there are a good number of records that are popular. The current Black Eyed Peas songs come to mind. No lyrical genius there.

  3. jb

    Chuck: excellent point. It’s not a distinction everyone makes, but “good record” and “good song” are not the same thing. A good record has unique sonic/melodic qualities tied to a specific performer; a good song is something that would sound at least decent in the hands of any competent singer.

  4. Miles

    I studied piano for a number of years growing up and Stardust was my mother’s all-time favorite song. No small surprise that I was “encouraged” on a frequent basis to learn the song. Fortunately, that fact didn’t stop me from listening to, and greatly appreciating, many songs from my parents generation and subsequently, music from all eras and genres. You may not like some things you have to do as a kid, but sometimes the impact on the rest of your life can be extraordinary.

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