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.