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The American Songbook

Cole Porter. Duke Ellington. Irving Berlin. Rodgers and Hammerstein. Singer, revivalist Michael Feinstein and the Boston Pops’ Keith Lockhart on the Great American Songbook.

Composer and bandleader Duke Ellington plays the piano in this undated photo. (AP)

Composer and bandleader Duke Ellington plays the piano in this undated photo. (AP)

The “Great American Songbook” is a river of classic songs that runs from, let’s say, 1910 to the age of rock and roll.

You can argue about what belongs and what doesn’t, but nobody argues about the songs at the heart of it. If you’re singing “Stardust” or “Singin’ in the Rain” or “Mood Indigo” or “Begin the Beguine,” you’re in.

What made it? What makes it last? Today, we’ll ask two of it’s top interpreters.

This hour On Point: singer/revivalist Michael Feinstein and Boston Pops conductor Keith Lockhart on the great American songbook.

- Tom Ashbrook

Boston Pops conductor Keith Lockhart and singer Michael Feinstein visited On Point's home station, WBUR, in Boston. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Boston Pops conductor Keith Lockhart and singer Michael Feinstein visited On Point's home station, WBUR, in Boston. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Guests:

Michael Feinstein, singer, pianist, great American songbook revivalist. Creator of the PBS Series “Michael Feinstein’s American Songbook.” Founder, Michael Feinstein Foundation for the Preservation of the Great American Songbook in Carmel, Ind.

Keith Lockhart, conductor of the Boston Pops, the BBC Concert Orchestra and the Brevard Music Center.

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  • Tina

    I’ve mentioned this here before:  

    My father’s job had him travel a lot, but everyday that he was home, we would play songs from the Great American Songbook on the upright piano, singing along with quite a few of the songs.  He played all on the black keys; couldn’t read a note of music, and couldn’t identify Middle C, but he played with Vitality and Romance, playing most of the songs as Love Songs to our Mom.  I believe that the Optimism of those tonalities and the Devoted Love implied by most of the lyrics (some of Cole Porter only sardonically so!) set me on a Good Path toward growing up.  By junior high school, the Beach Boys were singing about California girls and blondes, and I knew I wasn’t either of those; later, the Rolling Stones were singing, “Hey, you, get off of my Cloud,” which, for some reason, I took personally.  The first rock ‘n roll song where I ever thought I might recognize myself as being the girl who was loved was Van Morrison’s Brown-Eyed Girl, and I was well into college by then.  But, having heard those Great American Songbook songs from my earliest years, and knowing that my Dad expressed his deep love for our mom everyday in many ways, but especially each time he sang those songs, were what gave me Optimism that I would be Romantically Loved myself one day.  And then there was the music itself, which is probably why I LOVED to dance, and was delighted with the Swing Dance revival that we have experienced in Rhode Island over the last number of years!  Thanks for this show, in advance!

  • Tina

    I’ve mentioned this here before:  

    My father’s job had him travel a lot, but everyday that he was home, he would play songs from the Great American Songbook on the upright piano, singing along with quite a few of the songs.  He played all on the black keys; couldn’t read a note of music, and couldn’t identify Middle C, but he played with Vitality and Romance, playing most of the songs as Love Songs to our Mom.  I believe that the Optimism of those tonalities and the Devoted Love implied by most of the lyrics (some of Cole Porter only sardonically so!) set me on a Good Path toward growing up.  By junior high school, the Beach Boys were singing about California girls and blondes, and I knew I wasn’t either of those; later, the Rolling Stones were singing, “Hey, you, get off of my Cloud,” which, for some reason, I took personally.  The first rock ‘n roll song where I ever thought I might recognize myself as being the girl who was loved was Van Morrison’s Brown-Eyed Girl, and I was well into college by then.  But, having heard those Great American Songbook songs from my earliest years, and knowing that my Dad expressed his deep love for our mom everyday in many ways, but especially each time he sang those songs, were what gave me Optimism that I would be Romantically Loved myself one day.  And then there was the music itself, which is probably why I LOVED to dance, and was delighted with the Swing Dance revival that we have experienced in Rhode Island over the last number of years!  Thanks for this show, in advance!

    • Tina

      I posted an earlier version of this with a mistake in it, so I tried to “collapse” that comment.  Who knows if it truly disappeared, but this comment, above is the one without the (major) typo. 

  • Cory

    Jazz.  America’s great contibution to the world of music.

    • LB

      Is that right Cory?  And all this time I thought it was the Macarena. 

      • Cory

        Just a jazz lover.  Besides, I think the makers of the Macarena are from Spain.  (Los Del Rios?)

        • LB

          You’re probably right.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=551696977 Skip Shea

    Don’t forget George and Ira Gershwin.

    • Gregg

      Absolutely! It took me years to learn to play “Rhapsody in Blue” and I don’t mean to take anything away from Ira. Together they were remarkable.

  • Anonymous

    There is a huge difference between Duke Ellington and Cole Porter, the Gershwin brothers, Irving Berlin. Rodgers and Hammerstein, Rogers and Hart. Elliington had that band. He also composed a very different kind of music than Cole Porter or Irving Berlin. Rodgers and Hammerstein. They wrote musicals for Broadway and for films. This does not diminish the work, it’s just a different genre and milieu than Ellington’s.

    Ellington came out of the African American experience and he told that story.  While I think all of these composers are great American composers, Ellington is in a class by himself. Up there with Bach, Beethoven and many more. Ellington is one of our premier American composers, he’s in the same league as Copland and Ives and deserves to be more recognized other than tunes such as “Take The A Train”. Which he did not write anyway. Billy Strayhorn did. Why Billy Strayhorn is not on this list is beyond me. Lush Life is one of the best tunes ever written. 

    • Tina

      Geffe, I’m trying to reply with the “like” button, but it keeps on twirling, so, in words, I’ll say, “I like your comment!”  There is a very old NPR Music Site that tells the story of many American jazz masters.  They are featured thru their music and even thru their own speaking voices.  Each piece is about 45 – 60 minutes long, I think.  They are hard to find, probably because they are several years old.  You might want to try to find them.  IF I have a chance later, I might try to find the link for you, because Duke Ellington is one of the featured musicians, and the whole thing is EXTRAORDINARY!!  Check back here to see if I’ve been able to find it for you. Forgive me if I can’t find it or if I don’t have the stamina to look.

  • ThresherK

    What makes it last?

    I remember a snippet of “Catcher in the Rye” where Holden is in a club in New York, and describes Cole Porter’s “Just one of Those Things” as a song that’s so good that you “can’t ruin it no matter how badly you play it” (paraphrased).

  • ThresherK

    Begin the Beguine is from “Jubilee”?

    Now Tom, we all know that with scant exceptions (“Anything Goes”, “Kiss Me Kate”) Cole Porter wrote jewels of songs which were typically set in paste of shows.

  • Leslie (Concord, MA)

    My family has always loved and listened to the Popular American songbook but it is even more special now — my mother had a stroke a few years ago leaving her unable to talk much at all (aphasia) but she can still sing and we sing Gershwin and Kern and Arlen (among others) together.  Those songs really engage her and that’s pretty wonderful.  Thanks for the show!

    • Tina

      Same with my Dad’s Alzheimer’s.  He couldn’t remember how to Sit Down, but he remembered how to play the Great American songbook songs he’d always played, even varying one of the segue sections that he’d frequently done in one way — in other words, his musical creativity was MORE enhanced even when he was profoundly unavailable to us!  I’m so happy for you that you’ve found a way to engage with your Mom.

  • Anonymous

    Listened to the Glenn Miller Orchestra this weekend at the Chattanooga Choo-Choo with my wife, father-in-law (72) and grandmother (90). My grandmother had see the GMO three times in the 30s in Chicago. She smiled all night. The current brand leader Gary Tole mentioned that this music was different from modern music b/c you could understand the words. And how! I like modern radio music – for a while – but some music from every generation endures decade after decade. Most does not. Listen to a dedicated oldies channel (any genre) and you realize that the old favorites only represent a small number of songs. There are many of songs that don’t get much airplay from every decade. I still hear “new” music from 50+ years ago. Some good, and some rightly forgotten. 

    • Gary

      Gary Tole here from the World Famous Glenn Miller Orchestra. When I make the comment about music of today and not understanding the words, I’m referring to Rap music. Yes, there are many modern and “new” songs that are great and are very much appreciated.

      • Anonymous

        Great show Gary. We’ll be there next year too. 

  • Dan

    I’m in my early 30s now, but I grew up listening to the likes of Gershwin and Cole Porter, since they were favorites of my parents. (Although I get the feeling I’m one of the few guys of my age who appreciate them.) 

    In fact, I’ve got fond memories of listening to Michael Feinstein’s Irving Berlin album Remember on long car rides, and repeatedly demanding they rewind and play Puttin’ On the Ritz again….

  • ThresherK

    As a younger person I listened to WNEW-AM from New York; what’s taking the place of that now, in an age of atomized media?

  • Dennis in Boston

     George Gershwin’s piano rolls are amazing pieces of music.  I’m wondering why we don’t hear new interpretations or updates on them very often.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1125975244 Aaron K. Hallquist

    I’m 34 and the main reason I have a grasp of the importance of so many of these standards is because advertisers and screenwriters constantly use them in their work either on the small or large screens.  I know songs like Autumn in New York from watching Frasier on Cheers sing it for example.  As long as the work is constantly referenced in other media they’ll remain in circulation and hence timeless.

  • Dean

    We’re a mixed aged crowd, 20s through 40s, and every holiday season, my husband and I host a party at which our good friend, Dana Whiteside (with the Cantata Singers), leaves the world of opera and art songs for an evening to enchant us with ‘Lush Life,’ ‘All the Things You Are,’ ‘My Funny Valentine,’ ‘Good Morning Heartache,’ ‘My Favorite Things,’ and so many other great old standards, accompanied by my husband on the piano.  Every one of our friends looks forward to this magical moment as 30 of us cram into our living room to listen and swoon.

  • Tina

    Yes, Stardust!  …. for the Ages….

    And, Someone to Watch Over Me

    Summertime, Autumn Leaves, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, Deep Purple, Tenderly, September Song, Where or When, Moonlight Becomes You

    Today, people are into how “hot” the performers are, not the “romance”.  

  • Kitty Wilkes

    Harry Nillison – A Little Touch of Smillison in the Night.  The Best!

    • Kristen

      I just listened to clips of this on Amazon — sounds great!  Anyone have other “Songbook” albums they like?  I’ve got Ella, of course, but always looking for more.  

  • Allison

    I am 42 and love this music.  My Dad has played it around the house since I was young and saw many of the greats perform.  My dad has a radio show every Tuesday(today :)).

    His show is on WPKN.org http://www.wpkn.org/wp/

    12 Noon: Jazz and Standards: Malcolm C. Dankner.Listen and enjoy, I know I will be. I am so proud of my Dad and the knowledge he shares, and love the music he plays. 

  • Steve

    Learned to appreciate jazz from Ron Cuzner and “The Dark Side” in Milwaukee. The radio station was sold off in the mid-eighties to fund a senate campaign.

    Ron later opened a record store devoted to jazz but could never make a profit because he would sit around for hours educating people about this music.

    He passed away several years ago now, but I wanted his family to know how much he is missed

    • Jagodensky

      Ron Cusner was truly a Milwaukee treasure. Mostly jazz but he introduced me to Nancy LaMott and others. Thanks, Ron.

  • joanj

    My sibling’s friends (about 15 years older than I) asked me if I liked music from the 60′s or 70′s.  I said 30′s and forties. My father passed away when I was young, so I spent my childhood listening to his old records and of course, Lawrence Welk every Saturday night. 
    My favorites include the (original) Ink Spots, early Bing Crosby (very bluesy), the lovely deep voice of Alice Fay and  Libby Hollman, an interesting life and her music was released on cd within the past year. 

    Thank you for a great show which finally explains my ipod.

  • Steve bialostok

    Are there *any* contemporary composers who will write the Great American songbook for the future? I can’t think of a single one. It seems as if the robust reinterpretations of old standards are the result of the poverty of craftmanship.

  • Lizsenkbeil

    For me the music was played on the piano by my mother growing up and often my dad would join in singing. It has a sense of security, happiness and hopefulness as well as an easy attunement somaticlly. Liz

  • Etye Ryu

    Talking about ruining old standards, Ray Coniff definitely ruined Getting to Know You.

  • Racmty

    Found a 24/7 standards Internet station at http://www.beautifulinstrumentals.com linked to this site.

  • Julie

    I try never to listen to any music that does not come out of the 30′s and 40′s. My grandfather use to play his old “records” and would set me on his lap and sing all the songs from those records and if not he would find a station of those years and we both would sing along with anyone that was on. When the fifries music came along I was spoiled for the old ies and to this day I am a “snob” for only what my grandad let me listen to  with him. I just hope they have that kind of music in heaven….I’m just sure he has the control over what is being played. Thank God!!!!
    Julie
    ripstrip@shentel.net

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