Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Easy To Remember

I don’t often read about music, but Easy To Remember, by William Zinsser is one of those books that make reading about music almost as pleasurable as listening.

The subtitle of Easy To Remember is The Great American Songwriters and Their Songs and Zinsser takes us on a fascinating grand tour of the history of American songwriting from Sigmund Romberg (The Desert Song), through the “golden age” of American song with Jerome Kern, (Show Boat) George and Ira Gershwin, (Someone to Watch Over Me, The Man I Love and so many more), early and late Rodgers and Hart (We’ll Have ManhattanPal Joey) to some modern day composers such as Lerner and Lowe (My Fair Lady) and Kander and Ebb (Cabaret and Chicago).

The book is very well written, in a breezy, conversational style that is compelling, but at the same time instructive. As familiar as some of the lyrics of these songs are, their derivation – how they are musically constructed and what kinds of cultural backgrounds they were derived from – were (to me at least) totally new and unexpected.

In the chapter about the Gershwin brothers, Zinsser tells us about how they managed to combine their own Russian-Jewish musical heritage with the African American rhythms they were hearing in Harlem to produce the unique syncopation and notation that they were famous for.

"You’re sweet expression, the smile you gave me, the way you looked when we met,
It’s easy to remember, but so hard to forget."

Zinsser’s chapter on Cole Porter is masterful. He states that “It was from Cole Porter, in 1934, that I first glimpsed what it might mean to be sophisticated,” and surely his narrative about Cole Porter and Porter's music is just that – sophisticated and sparkling.

You’re the top – you’re Mahatma Gandhi,
You’re the top, you’re Napoleon brandy
You’re the nimble tread of the feet of Fred Astaire,
You’re an O’Neill drama, you’re Whistler’s mama, you’re Camembert.

There used to be an afternoon show on NPR radio out of Boston called The Great American Songbook. I loved listening to that show, because it played many of the show tunes and classic American songs I loved. Easy To Remember is a book about that music and how it grew. Meg



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