Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Interview with Philip Furia, Author of The Poets of Tin Pan Alley - Part 3 of 3

George and Ira Gershwin
The interview with Philip Furia, author of The Poets of Tin Pan Alley, among several other books on songwriters and songs from the Great American Songbook, comes to a close with this third and final part. On this occasion, Mr. Furia discusses the lyrics of Ira Gershwin, speculates as to why not many songs from the Golden Age of American songwriting are overtly political, and talks about the often difficult relationship between songwriters and Hollywood, as well as telling us a little about his many other projects. I would like to thank Mr. Furia for his dedication to researching the work of the great composers and lyricists, and also for the time and effort that he has put into this interview. I hope the readers enjoy this final part of our conversation, which was most interesting for me.

The Vintage Bandstand: In your very insightful chapter on Ira Gershwin, you observe that “what really interested him was less the romantic message than the medium of language itself—the vocabulary, idioms, and phrasing of American speech.” While I completely agree with that statement, it makes me wonder—isn’t that the case with every lyricist whose work you examine in your study? Or do you think that this concern with language is more obviously acute in the lyrics of Ira Gershwin?

Mr. Furia: Hmmm. This one made me really think. Let’s go back to an earlier question about the difference between poetry and lyrics. When we read a lyrical poem, such as Yeats’ “Easter 1916,” we assume that Yeats is writing about what he deeply feels about something that has happened to him. When Ira Gershwin writes “Someone to Watch Over Me” (1926), we don’t feel he is writing about his personal feelings or experience, however much he may share the lyric’s longing to be loved and protected. Songwriters of this era, like the troubadours of Provence, were ringing changes on a handful of romantic themes—falling in love at first sight, cataloging the beauties of their beloved, suffering the anguish of romantic rejection. Occasionally, a song such as the current hit, “Someone Like You,” may register the songwriter’s own personal romantic agony, but for the most part, particularly in the Golden Age, songwriters were understood to be crafting variations of a few romantic themes that had only remote resonance with their personal lives.

Yet in crafting those variations, some lyricists emphasized romantic passion, heartache, and euphoria in a wider variation more than did others. Hart, Berlin, Mercer, and Porter seem to me the lyricists with the greatest emotional “range,” from the ecstasy of “Wait Till You See Her” to “Nobody’s Heart”—to take two examples from some of Hart’s final songs in 1942, a year before his death. Other lyricists seem to treat romance playfully—but no less brilliantly. Here I’d place Ira Gershwin and Yip Harburg, who met in high school and remained lifelong friends. Ira wrote almost no lyrics of burning passion or wrenching romantic heartache until, late in his career, he wrote “The Man That Got Away” (1954) with Harold Arlen. Same with Yip Harburg, whose “Last Night When We Were Young” (1936, also with Arlen) was a rare but moving plunge into the depths. Both “Yip” and “Gersh,” as they nicknamed themselves in high school light verse, reveled in linguistic playfulness: Ira rhyming “You say ‘either,’ and I say ‘eye-ther'"; Yip twisting words in “I simply relish this swellish condish.” In such lyrics, it seems to me the linguistic play upstages the romantic passion.

TVB: The foremost lyricists of the golden age became masters at “saying ‘I love you’ in thirty-two bars,” to use your quotation from the biopic of Gus Kahn. However, as you point out in your book, many of them often depicted love in their songs from a markedly anti-romantic perspective. How do you explain this lyrical phenomenon?

Mr. Furia: Playing off my answer to the previous question, “saying ‘I love you’ in thirty-bars” meant finding new twists to the standard romantic themes of longing for love, falling in love, and losing love. A good lyricist always handled these standard situations with a clever twist, frequently a seemingly anti-romantic twist. Ira Gershwin describes a man’s reaction o his first passionate kiss with something we say when find our lover in bed with someone else: “How Long Has This Been Going On? (1928)” He and Yip Harburg wrote a song in 1934 called “What Can You Say in a Love Song (That Hasn’t Been Said Before)?” And what lyricists came up with was often unromantic, such as Larry Hart’s saying in “My Funny Valentine” (1937), “Your looks are laughable, unphotographable . . . “ or Cole Porter saying, “It’s the wrong time, it’s the wrong place, though your face is charming it’s the wrong face . . . but it’s all right with me” (1953). The best twist a lyricist could give to saying “I love you” was to say it unromantically

TVB: In your chapter on Howard Dietz and Yip Harburg, you note that Harburg was “deeply political.” We can clearly see that in his excellent lyric to “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” However, not too many lyrics from the golden age are overtly political. Why do you think that is the case, especially at a time when the United States were going through a harsh economic depression?

Mr. Furia: Another good question that I’ve thought about for years. You had political songs in the nineteenth century and certainly since the rise of rock and folk music in the 1950s and ‘60s, but very few in the Golden Age (Harburg’s “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” from 1932, always the exception that proves the rule). I think it goes back to the fact that most popular songs in this era came from Broadway and Hollywood musicals. With a few exceptions, such as “Ol’ Man River” from Show Boat (1927), these musicals were not overt political vehicles, and they called for frothy songs about love that suited their boy-meets-girl stories. I’m not a cultural historian, but my guess is that their apolitical nature also suited what radio stations wanted to play. The few musical films and shows that offered more political fare, such as Hallelujah! I’m a Bum (1933) and The Cradle Will Rock (1937), produced virtually no hit songs. While some songwriters, such as Woody Guthrie, were writing political protest songs, what most people listened to were the songs of Cole Porter and Irving Berlin, who even took heat in 1938 when he updated an old World War I song, “God Bless America,” for presuming, as a Jewish immigrant, to speak for America on the brink of World War II. Lyricists did much to look at depression tangentially in romantic lyrics such as Ira Gershwin’s “Things Are Looking Up” and “Nice Work If You Can Get It” (1937).

TVB: Though Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, the Gershwins, Rodgers & Hart, and Harry Warren, Al Dubin, and Mack Gordon graced movie musicals with some memorable songs, many composers and lyricists felt deeply constrained and unhappy in Hollywood. Why was the movie industry so reluctant to transpose Broadway musicals onto the screen? In retrospect, it seems that a good opportunity for the creation of great songs was wasted in most movie musicals whose plot revolved around the production of a musical. Don’t you think that the inherent metafictional nature of such films could have spawned some interesting songs on the subject of songwriting itself?

Al Dubin and Harry Warren
Mr. Furia: Songwriters who worked on Broadway musicals were at the center of the production from the outset and continued working with playwrights, directors, choreographers, and others through rehearsals and out-of-town tryouts, adding songs, altering songs, and doing everything they could to pull the show together. On opening night, their names were in lights on the theater marquee as “Rodgers & Hart’s Babes in Arms.”

When they went out to Hollywood after sound came to the movies, a very different system was in operation—one that pushed songwriters to the sidelines. They had little say in how their songs were used and sometimes only given the outline of a screenplay to work with. They were simply expected to “write hits” that would earn additional money for a film. “Out here,” composer Harry Warren observed of Tinseltown, “songwriters were the lowest form of animal life.”

As I said earlier, Hollywood at first worried that audiences would find it ludicrous if characters suddenly burst into expressive song then went back to dialogue. Therefore early movie musicals were “back-stagers” in which characters portrayed singers and dancers putting on a stage musical. When they sang, it was because they were rehearsing or performing a song before an on-screen audience. The songs they usually sang were the pop hits of the day. For example, when Jolson sang Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies” in The Jazz Singer in 1927, the song had already been a big hit from the previous year.

Realizing that they would need lots of songs for such back-stagers, Hollywood studios bought out the catalogs of the old Tin Pan Alley sheet-music publishing firms and moved their composers, lyricists, and arrangers to the West Coast. Old songs could be recycled into new films and become money-making hits (which is what “As Time Goes By,” a song by Herman Hupfeld from 1931, did when it was inserted into Casablanca in 1942). When a studio did a film version of a Broadway musical, they frequently gutted all or most of its songs and had their in-house songwriters write new songs which the studio owned and could make money on. Occasionally, a song from a Broadway show was so well-known that the movie had to keep it (and pay for it). Cole Porter’s “Night and Day” was so famous that the musical it came from, The Gay Divorce (1932), was referred to as “The ‘Night and Day’ show.” When RKO did a film version of the show, they had to keep “Night and Day,” but they threw out all of Porter’s other songs and added new ones to the score. They also had to change the title of the show to The Gay Divorcée. It was 1934, the year the censorship “Code” came into force, and, while divorce could never be gay, a divorcée could since musicals had long before proved that even a widow could be merry.

To answer the last part of this question, a few of the early back-stager musicals did portray the creation of songs for a show, such as Lord Byron of Broadway (1930), but the films were generally so unimaginative that these opportunities were squandered. Even when Hollywood started making “biopics” about songwriters, such as Rhapsody in Blue (1945) and Night and Day (1946), the “inspiration” scenes for songs are frequently ludicrous. An exception is the scene where James Cagney, portraying George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), writes “Mary’s a Grand Old Name.” Such songs still fall within the “performance” convention of presenting song in film. That convention, however, robs song of its expressive power. As I said earlier, when characters sing in opera, operetta, and stage musicals, they are not “performing” a song but, in the context of character and story, expressing what they feel at a heightened dramatic moment. That kind of expressive song only entered film in the early 1930s and largely disappeared by the 1960s. The few movies that tried to present songs expressively, such as At Long Last Love (1975), bombed with audiences, who had come to view characters in movies breaking into song as ludicrous. The only exceptions to that lost convention were cartoon musicals, musicals aimed at children, such as Mary Poppins (1964), and movies that were film adaptations of Broadway musicals. Only in these cases do contemporary movie audiences allow characters to sing expressively. In all other movies, a song must be presented as a performance—just as in the earliest days of film musicals.

Hoagy Carmichael at the piano
TVB: In your book, you observe that songs that originated as jazz instrumentals seldom received lyrics worthy of note, Hoagy Carmichael’s “Star Dust” and Duke Ellington’s “Satin Doll” being among the notable exceptions. What is it, then, that makes jazz instrumentals particularly difficult to tackle for lyricists?

Mr. Furia: Since I’m not a lyricist, this is only speculation, but I imagine that there is virtually no collaboration between composer and lyricist when words are set to a jazz instrumental. Even though the music came first in other collaborations, composer and lyricist were usually in the same room together sweating out the lyric. The toughest thing for a lyricist, I imagine, is trying to hear what the music is “saying”—what latent emotional meaning lies in those abstract musical notes and phrases, rhythms and harmonies, that must be made articulate in words. There are several stories about the Gershwins, Dietz and Schwartz, and other collaborators in which the lyricist has asked the composer to slow a sprightly melody down to a languid ballad to suit the emotional contour of a lyrical idea. That kind of interplay usually didn’t happen when a lyricist added words to an existing jazz instrumental. With the great lyricists, of course, there sometimes didn’t need to be. In 1954, when Johnny Mercer heard Lionel Hampton and Sonny Burke’s “Midnight Sun” on his car radio as he drove along a California freeway, he was so taken with the instrumental that he pulled into a gas station, called the radio station on a pay phone (these were the days before cell phones), and asked them to play the song again. On just this second hearing, Mercer came up with a seamless, sensuous lyric, and he claimed the first thing that came to him were those opening feminine rhymes—“palace,” “chalice,” “aurora borealis.”

I suspect another problem is the lack of what Ira Gershwin called “particularity.” Jazz instrumentals were not written for a Broadway or Hollywood musical so there is no character or dramatic situation to help a lyricist come up with a new way to say “I love you.”

TVB: Besides The Poets of Tin Pan Alley, you have written whole books about Johnny Mercer, Irving Berlin, and Ira Gershwin. What was it about those lyricists that drew you to study their lives and careers more in depth? Are you currently planning or working on any further similar studies?

Mr. Furia: I wrote the book about Ira Gershwin right after The Poets of Tin Pan Alley. I wanted to look at one of those lyricists in depth, and Ira seemed a good choice. He’d had a fairly long collaboration with his brother but then wrote with a variety of other composers—Kern, Arlen, Weill—each with a very different musical style. He’d also worked with equal success on Broadway and in Hollywood. And he’d also written a lot about the art of lyric writing, especially in his wonderful anecdotes about his own songs, Lyrics on Several Occasions (1959). By sheer luck, the Gershwin family had just created an archive of the papers of the Gershwin brothers in Beverly Hills, so I got to be one of the first to work on that huge collection of manuscripts and other materials. Sheldon Meyer, my editor at Oxford, was enthusiastic when I proposed the idea for the book, so I could easily “get started.”

I had started working on another book for Oxford, about Hollywood lyricists, when another editor, from Simon & Schuster/Schirmer, approached me about doing a book for a series they were starting about popular song composers. I said I’d be interested but that it would have to be a composer who was also a lyricist. That pretty much meant Berlin or Porter, and I thought I’d be better able to follow Berlin’s music than Porter’s (though I still had to bring in a former music graduate student I’d taught at Minnesota, Graham Wood, to help me with the musical analyses). Berlin was also a good choice because his extensive manuscripts, scrapbooks of newspaper articles and interviews, and correspondence was just then being catalogued at the Library of Congress, so I was, again, one of the first to work on that collection. When I was writing The Poets of Tin Pan Alley, I was fortunate to be one of the few writers to receive permission to quote from Berlin’s song lyrics. Berlin was his own music publisher, so he owned the copyrights to his songs (unlike most other songwriters). He and his assistants were notorious for refusing—sometimes angrily so—to allow anyone to quote from his works. But his attorney read my chapter on his songs in The Poets of Tin Pan Alley and went to bat for me, so I was pretty sure I could get permission to quote from his songs. Finally, a colleague here at the University of North Carolina Wilmington turned out to be a friend of Mary Ellin Barrett, Berlin’s oldest daughter, and put me in touch with her. She is a writer herself and was enormously helpful.

The only downside to the Berlin book was that Sheldon Meyer, my editor at Oxford, felt betrayed that I had gone with another publisher and halted work on the book on Hollywood lyricists. We mended fence after the Ira Gershwin book did well, and the Gershwin family invited me and my wife to the big centenary celebration for Ira at Carnegie Hall, which Sheldon and his wife also attended.

Songwriter and singer Johnny Mercer
By this time I had already left Minnesota for North Carolina, and a natural subject for a book was Johnny Mercer, the only major lyricist of that era from the South. Savannah, his hometown, to which he returned frequently throughout his life, is only a few hours’ drive from Wilmington, so I could go there to interview friends and family members. I also interviewed people in California, New York, and other places, making this a true biography of Mercer rather than just a study of his songs (as my books on Ira Gershwin and Irving Berlin had been). Once again I had the good fortune to have access to Mercer’s papers, including a manuscript of an autobiography. His widow Ginger bequeathed all of this to Georgia State University in Atlanta, which set up a superb Mercer Archive.

Two years ago, after more than fifteen years of research, I completed the book on Hollywood lyricists, though by then it had expanded to include how songs were presented in all movies—not just musicals but dramatic films as well. My wife, Laurie Patterson, and I watched more than a thousand movies, many in film archives at UCLA, the Library of Congress, and the Wisconsin Film Archive. Our co-authored book, The Songs of Hollywood, came out in 2010 from Oxford University Press. Although Sheldon Meyer, by then retired, died before its publication, he knew it was finally coming out.

Right now I don’t have another book in progress but for the last couple of years I’ve been doing a series of short programs for our local public radio station. It’s called The Great American Song Book and each day I take one of the classic standards, talk about how it was written, why it’s so good, and tell an amusing or poignant story associated with the song. Then we play two versions of the song—a classic rendition by Sinatra, Ella, or another period singer, then a contemporary version by Rod Stewart, Willie Nelson, or the Supremes. I’ve been thinking about ways of turning these programs—now more than two hundred of them—into a book. If I do, I’m going to dedicate it to the memory of Sheldon Meyer.

Philip and his wife, Laurie (Photo: Jamie Moncrief)

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Interview with Philip Furia, Author of The Poets of Tin Pan Alley - Part 2 of 3

Philip Furia, author of The Poets of Tin Pan Alley
In the second part of this long, detailed interview, Philip Furia, author of the excellent book The Poets of Tin Pan Alley (Oxford University Press), discusses the success of integrated musicals in the 1940s, comments on the influence of ragtime on the lyricists of the Golden Age of songwriting, elaborates on the so-called "list songs," and attempts to explain the possible reasons why Cole Porter's work embraces both witty and overtly sentimental lyrics. I hope you enjoy this second installment of my conversation with Mr. Furia, and if you are interested, the first part can be found here.

The Vintage Bandstand: And, while we are on the subject of witty, urbane lyrics, what changed during and after World War II that put an end to this heyday of urbane lyrics and ushered in the era of integrated musicals such as Oklahoma!?

Mr. Furia: I’m not a cultural historian, so let me quote Irving Berlin in the 1940s, saying “Nothing is so old as yesterday’s sophistication.” I think he meant that during the depression Americans loved to fantasize about sophisticated couples in evening clothes, drinking champagne, engaging in witty banter, and dancing on ocean liners. With the onset of World War II, Americans rallied to more homespun themes. When Richard Rodgers proposed to his longtime collaborator Lorenz Hart, that they do a musical based on a play about cowboys and ranchers in the Oklahoma Territory, Hart refused saying Broadway audiences would never be interested in such a corny subject. When Rodgers learned that Oscar Hammerstein was interested in turning the same play, Green Grow the Lilacs, into a musical, the collaboration of Rodgers & Hammerstein was born.

Richard Rodgers & Oscar Hammerstein II
Hammerstein was one of the few lyricists of his generation to write the book for his musicals as well as the lyrics. Ira Gershwin, Lorenz Hart, Cole Porter, and others were content to work with a playwright and tailor their lyrics to his or her script. But Hammerstein was so committed to the “integration” of story, lyrics, and music that Rodgers altered his usual working habits and let Hammerstein write lyrics first, which he then set to music—much like the collaborative practice of Gilbert & Sullivan. Yet Hammerstein had long worked in the “music-first” fashion with Jerome Kern and other composers that he would write lyrics to melodies he made up himself before he gave them to Rodgers. Hammerstein’s wife said her husband’ melodies were terrible, and Rodgers always insisted that Hammerstein just give him the lyrics and not sing them to his own melodies.

The phenomenal success of Oklahoma! on Broadway—a musical that opened not with a bevy of chorus girls but an old woman churning butter—spawned other “Americana” works—Bloomer Girl (1944) and Annie Get Your Gun (1946). While songs from these productions were tied to character and dramatic situation, the creation of “Original Cast Recordings” in boxed sets of 78rpm records made even such “integral” songs as “I Cain’t Say No” popular. In the 1950s, with the invention of LP (Long-Playing) records, such cast recordings could make a hit of so unlikely integral songs as “The Rain in Spain” from My Fair Lady (1956) or “Ya Got Trouble” from The Music Man (1957).

Another force that fostered the integrated musical was Hollywood. By the late 1940s, television had invaded the American home, and movies found it hard to lure audiences out of their living rooms. Film production was scaled back, especially in movie musicals, which were the most expensive kinds of films to mount. The few movie musicals that were made increasingly became film adaptations of Broadway musicals. Why risk an original film musical with new and untried songs when you could make a film version of a successful Broadway show with already-established hit songs. Most of these film adaptations, such as South Pacific and West Side Story, were cinematically dreadful—stiff, stagey, and frequently with dubbed singers. But the fact that audiences could see a film version of a Broadway show most could not afford to see on the stage made such movies successful. That audiences loved them attests to the power of the original stage musical that somehow survived the transfer to the screen.

TVB: I find your observation about the way that lyricists like Irving Berlin “ragged” the lyrics of some of his songs very interesting. You compare some lyrics by Berlin and Hart, for example, with the works of 1920s poets like Marianne Moore and William Carlos Williams, which show similar word-ragging techniques. In your opinion, is it possible that these poets were, in turn, influenced by the works of the popular songwriters of the day?

Dorothy Parker
Mr. Furia: It’s tempting for me to speculate that poets were influenced by song lyrics—or even vice versa—but I think each group moved in its own world. While poets such as Williams and cummings certainly heard popular songs (and sometimes alluded to them), they were experimenting with the poetic line in free verse. Pound even wrote a poem to Whitman that credited him—“You broke the new wood” of free verse--but criticized him for a lack of structure in his poetic line: “Now is a time for carving.”

The lyricists, in turn, were much more interested in rhymed, metrical verse of poets like Ogden Nash and Dorothy Parker. Remember, that while we now think of Stevens and Williams as among the great poets of the early twentieth century, at the time they were unknown except to a small circle of readers.

TVB: And, speaking of rag, how important was the arrival of ragtime, with its rhythmic syncopation, for American mainstream music at large? I find that African American music played an important role in the development of early commercial country music, but to what extent was the work of white songwriters such as the Gershwins, Irving Berlin, Johnny Mercer, Harold Arlen, and Rodgers & Hart, to name but a few examples, influenced by black musical forms?

Mr. Furia: This is more of a musical than a lyrical question, since ragtime, blues, and other African-American musical forms had a deeper influence on music than on lyrics until the advent of rock ‘n’ roll in the 1950s. I’m not musically hip enough to describe that influence, but musical friends tell me that composers such as Gershwin and Arlen, as well as Porter and Rodgers, blended African-American musical styles with those of European classical music. Even Irving Berlin, hardly a classically trained musician, was familiar with opera and symphony. His early work abounds in ragtime songs, including his first big hit, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” (1911), but he also wrote syncopated ragtime songs in classical counterpoint, such as “Play a Simple Melody” (1914), in which two different melodies and two different lyrics are sung simultaneously.

Stephen Foster
American popular song, since Stephen Foster’s day, has been an amalgam of European and African-American musical styles. While Foster kept these styles separate, writing such elegant ballads as “Beautiful Dreamer” (1864), as well as such rhythmic numbers as “Camptown Races” (1850), by the end of the nineteenth century songwriters were fusing the two styles. Commercial ragtime songs, unfortunately dubbed “coon songs,” were enormously popular in the early twentieth century, their sprightly syncopation challenging the solemn rhythms of waltzes and ballads. Lyrically, the most important influence of these ragtime songs was to make vernacular and slang the idiom of popular song. Songs such as “Hello! Ma Baby” (1899) and “Bill Bailey, Won’t You Please Come Home?” (1902) were a breath of fresh air from such solemn lyrics as “After the Ball” (1892). By 1910, such colloquial lyrics as “Some of These Days (You’re Gonna Miss Me, Honey”) were jostling against such pious sentiments as “Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life (At Last I’ve Found Thee).”

TVB: It is noticeable that many Tin Pan Alley songwriters were adept at writing “list songs.” Why do you think that type of song was so prominent during the golden age? What is it about a list song that appeals so much to a lyricist?

Mr. Furia: The “list” or “catalog” style goes back well beyond the Golden Age of American popular song. We find it in Shakespeare’s sonnets, Mozart’s operas, and such Gilbert & Sullivan numbers as “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General.” It also is used by Edmund Rostand, when Cyrano “lists” all the ways his dueling adversary could have insulted his big nose. Whitman uses the catalog structure throughout his poetry. I think the appeal of the list structure to writers is the challenge to come up with item after item, each funnier than the previous one. There’s something infectious about the catalog that keeps listeners asking for more and writers wanting to “top” themselves.

Ira Gershwin and Vernon Duke at work

Catalog songs had their heyday in the 1930s with such numbers as Ira Gershwin and Vernon Duke’s “I Can’t Get Started” (1936) and Rodgers & Hart’s “The Lady Is a Tramp” (1937). The master of catalog songs, of course, was Cole Porter, and his best was “You’re the Top” (1934), which drew so many calls for encores on the opening night of Anything Goes that Ethel Merman had to tell the audience, “There are no more lyrics.” Porter continued to add to the song, and secretly his good friend Irving Berlin even added a risqué refrain:

You’re the primal heat of a bridal suite in use;
You’re the breasts of Venus,
You’re King Kong’s penis,
You’re self-abuse.

Such songs were perfect for the sophisticated 1930s, for they blended literate allusions—“You’re Botticelli . . . You’re Keats, you’re Shelley . . .”—with contemporary ones—“You’re cellophane . . .you’re Pepsodent.”

One problem with such list songs is that over time, many of these contemporary allusions lose their currency, such as “You’re Garbo’s salary.” A bigger problem is that the list is merely that—a list—and the song has no narrative or dramatic development. That’s why I admire a list song such as Leo Robin & Ralph Rainger’s “Thanks for the Memory” from the film The Big Broadcast of 1938, in which a divorced couple played by Shirley Ross and Bob Hope sit at an ocean liner bar, down martinis, and recall images from their marriage—“Castles on the Rhine . . . nights in Singapore . . . swingy Harlem tunes . . burning toast and prunes.” As the song builds, however, they realize that they are still in love but too “sophisticated” to let their emotions show.

Cole Porter
TVB: Cole Porter has always fascinated me because of the witty spontaneity of his lyrics and the sheer exuberance of his list songs. Yet, as you point out in your book, there is a sort of schizophrenic quality to his output as a whole, in that the pure urbane wit of his most enduring work contrasts starkly with the excessive sentimentality and melodrama of some of the songs he wrote. How, if at all possible, can these two opposed sides of Porter’s oeuvre be reconciled?

Mr. Furia: Boy, that one has stumped me for years. It would be easier to explain if other lyricists had done the same thing, but the only major one who did was Howard Dietz, who could write the elegantly urbane “I Guess I’ll Have to Change My Plan” (1929), then turn around and write such histrionic stuff as “Alone Together” (1932) and “You and the Night and the Music (Fill Me with Flaming Desire)” (1934). Larry Hart only rarely dropped his wryly mordant style in such lyrics as “With a Song in My Heart” (1929), and Ira Gershwin did so only when he was stumped by a Jerome Kern melody and finally, in desperation, came up with the overblown “Long Ago and Far Away” (1944), which embarrassed him so much he “phoned it in” to the studio.

But Porter shifted from extremes of debonair wit—“I Get a Kick Out of You” (1934)—to lugubrious melancholy—“Begin the Beguine” (1935)—throughout his career. Toward the end of his working life, he could write such a sophisticated, casual come-on as “It’s All Right with Me” (1953) alongside the cloyingly sentimental “True Love” (1956).

Go figure. My best guess is that, like Irving Berlin (who could also do the same but within a narrower spectrum between smart and sappy), Porter was of an older generation. Born in 1891, he was a step older than Hart, Ira Gershwin, and others born about five years later, and well older than Dorothy Fields and Johnny Mercer. At that age, he would have grown up with the sentimental ballads of the 1890s, and the first song of his that had any measure of success was the very Victorian “An Old-Fashioned Garden” (1919). He went without any other success for years, while Hart, Gershwin and other lyricists ushered in a new age of literate sophistication in the mid-1920s. Porter embraced that style and in 1928 had renewed success with such witty and suggestive hits as “Let’s Misbehave” and “Let’s Do It,” but I think he still had one foot back in that late Victorian era.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Interview with Philip Furia, Author of The Poets of Tin Pan Alley - Part 1 of 3

Many years ago, when I was an undergraduate at the University of South Dakota, in Vermillion, SD, and I was already deeply interested in jazz, the crooners, and the Great American Songbook, I first came across Philip Furia's The Poets of Tin Pan Alley. I was immediately impressed by this work, because to my knowledge, it was the first book I ever read that sought to explore the poetic and literary quality of the lyrics from the Golden Age of American songwriting. Mr. Furia's incisive criticism and enlightening comments about the lyrics of Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Johnny Mercer, and many others, clearly stated in print something that I had been thinking about for quite a while: that some of these lyricists should be counted among the foremost American poets of the twentieth century, that their work is, indeed, poetry set to music or music set to poetry.

A couple of years ago, my brother and sister-in-law gave me a copy of The Poets of Tin Pan Alley for Christmas, so I read it again and enjoyed it just as much as the first time I encountered it at the library of USD, so I decided to seek out Mr. Furia and ask him for an interview for The Vintage Bandstand. I soon found out that he was teaching at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, so I contacted him, and he willingly agreed to the interview, joking that anyone that has read any of his works twice deserves anything that he or she wants. Mr. Furia gave graciously of his time and throughout the interview freely shares his knowledge about the Great American Songbook, its composers, its lyricists, the Broadway stage, the movies, poetry, and a great many other subjects. His answers to my questions were so long and detailed that I have decided to divide the interview into three parts for publication. Here is the first part, which I hope the readers will take the time to read carefully, because there is a great deal to be learned from Mr. Furia and his Poets of Tin Pan Alley.

Professor and author Philip Furia
The Vintage Bandstand: Ever since I first heard the lyrics of Lorenz Hart, Cole Porter, Ira Gershwin, and many of their contemporaries as interpreted by the likes of Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, or Lee Wiley, I discovered that a great number of them were worthy of being considered among the best American poems of the twentieth century. For that reason, I was very happily surprised when, several years ago, I first encountered a copy of The Poets of Tin Pan Alley. How did this project come about?

Mr. Furia: For twenty-five years (and twenty-five winters), I was an English professor at the University of Minnesota, and my specialty was 20th-century American poetry. Because much of this poetry—Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, Hart Crane—was so difficult for students, I began introducing painting, music, and other modern arts into the course. Students still found Gertrude Stein incomprehensible, but they could see that Picasso was equally puzzling. I called the course “The Jazz Age,” and it helped me win a Fulbright professorship at Austria’s University of Graz in 1983 (at the time the only European university to have a “Jazz—pronounced “Yass”—Institut”).

As I was teaching “The Jazz Age” to my Austrian graduate students, I played them some pieces by Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and other jazz artists. But they wanted to know what popular music was like in the 1920s and 1930s. I had to say “I don’t know”—something always hard for a professor to say but even harder in a foreign country where you’re supposed to know your American “specialty.”
After class, I went to the university’s American Studies library and there I found a book, published by Oxford University Press, American Popular Song, 1900-1950 by the composer Alec Wilder. Reading it, I realized that many songs I knew growing up with recordings by Frank Sinatra, Polly Bergen, and other singers had been the popular songs of the 1920s, ‘30s, and ‘40s. While I knew these songs, I did not realize which were written by Porter, Berlin, the Gershwins, Rodgers & Hart, or other composers and lyricists.

Cole Porter at the piano
Since I had brought my cassette tapes of these albums with me to Austria, I thought, “Not only can I tell my students about popular songs in the 1920s and 1930s, I can play them some examples.” But as I listened to some of the tapes, I realized that, as good as their English was, my Austrian students would have trouble following such lyrics as Porter’s

You’re a rose, you’re Inferno’s Dante
You’re the nose on the great Durante.

So I typed up some of these lyrics and photocopied them for the students to follow while I played the tapes. As I typed, I began looking at the lyrics on the page and thinking that Larry Hart was playing with the poetic line in ways that were similar to the poems of William Carlos Williams or that Cole Porter was twisting words in the same way e.e. cummings did.

Composer Alec Wilder
That’s when it dawned on me that I could write a companion book to Wilder’s American Popular Song, 1900-1950. Wilder had focused on the music of Kern, George Gershwin, Harold Arlen, and others; I decided to write a book that focused on the lyrics of Larry Hart, Ira Gershwin, Dorothy Fields, and other writers I had just gotten to know—even though I’d known their songs for years.

There were a lot of hurdles—particularly copyright issues over quoting from song lyrics--but it all worked out and Oxford University Press published The Poets of Tin Pan Alley in 1989 as a kind of lyrical “companion” to Wilder’s book about the composers of these songs.

TVB: I am aware that since the advent of cultural studies theories, works like The Poets of Tin Pan Alley are more readily accepted within the academic world than they would have been before. How was a serious study of the poetry of popular music lyricists received in the academic arena? Did you encounter any objections to the project while you were researching and writing it?

Mr. Furia: The way was paved for such a book by a brilliant editor at Oxford University Press named Sheldon Meyer. In the 1960s, he argued that Oxford should publish books about American popular song, and it was Sheldon who got Alec Wilder to write American Popular Song, 1900-1950. At first, I’m told, there was a lot of opposition from Oxford University Press, but Sheldon persisted, getting Mel Tormé and other performers and songwriters to write books that were scholarly solid yet sold so well that Oxford University Press came to regard Sheldon’s line of books as one of its proudest list of titles. My colleagues at the University of Minnesota English Department were very supportive of my work on Poets of Tin Pan Alley. The year after I came back from Austria I published a book on Ezra Pound’s Cantos, which sort of “earned my spurs” as a scholar of modern American poetry. That book got me promoted to full professor, so I was pretty much free to do what I wanted. Many colleagues were themselves writing about popular culture, and they happily read drafts of the book and made suggestions (one had even known Ira Gershwin). One day, one my most conservative colleagues, a Romanticist who had written a classic study of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, confronted me in the mail room of the department. “I hear you’re writing a book about popular song lyricists.” “I am,” I said, standing my ground ready to fight it out. “Good,” he said, “We don’t need another book about Wallace Stevens or T. S. Eliot, but we do need a book about Cole Porter and Ira Gershwin.”

TVB: You mention in your book that critics often overlook lyricists while composers walk away with most of the credit for what is essentially a team effort. Why do you think that this is the case? Doesn’t a good lyric make a good tune more instantly recognizable to the public, thus helping it achieve success?

Irving Berlin
Mr. Furia: I’m not sure I know why this is so. I suspect it’s because a melody can stand by itself as an “instrumental,” while a lyric is totally dependent on the music. One of the great forces in preserving these songs is jazz. Jazz musicians have made the songs of Rodgers, Gershwin, Berlin, and other composers the bedrock of their repertory. Musician friends of mine say that the melodies and harmonies of these songs are so much richer and more intricate than blues or ragtime. While there are great jazz singers, from Billie Holiday to Ella Fitzgerald, jazz musicians have made these songs famous primarily as instrumentals. Still, the blend of word and music is crucial. There’s a story that Wynton Marsalis once stopped a rehearsal and sent a musician home to “learn the song.” “I know the song,” the musician shot back. “You know the melody,” Marsalis said, “You don’t know the lyric.”

TVB: You discuss the works of Tin Pan Alley lyricists in the context of light society verse. What are the main differences between a song lyric and the poetic form of vers de société? And, ultimately, how do we draw the line between what constitutes a poem and a song lyric?

Mr. Furia: Seeing the relationship between society verse and these lyricists was the great light bulb that went off as I was working on the book. Many of the lyricists—Ira Gershwin, Dorothy Fields, Howard Dietz—started off writing light verse, which was very popular in the first half of the 20th century. Big newspapers carried columns of light verse by Dorothy Parker and Ogden Nash, and I can even remember, as a kid, reading sports writer Grantland Rice summing up the previous day’s baseball results in light verse. So light verse was much more alive and kicking in this era, and it was not a big step to bringing the qualities of light verse—flippancy, vernacular ease, witty twists on romantic themes—to lyric writing.

E.Y. "Yip" Harburg
I love the story lyricist Yip Harburg (“Over the Rainbow,” “April in Paris,” etc.) told about being in the same high school classes as Ira Gershwin. Seated near each other alphabetically, the boys discovered they both loved light verse and created a school newspaper of light verse to amuse their classmates. Yip once told Ira his favorite poet was William Schwenck Gilbert. Ira said, “You do know there’s music to his poems, don’t you?” Harburg who had grown up in the wretched poverty of the Lower East Side had never heard of Gilbert & Sullivan. So Ira invited him to the Gershwins’ middle-class apartment and put H.M.S. Pinafore on the Victrola. Yip was astounded to hear poems he knew set to music and dated his ambition to become a lyricist from that moment.

This story also goes to your question about lyrics and poetry. Ira Gershwin always insisted that lyrics were words set to music. In answer to that perennial question, “Which comes first, the music or the words?” for Ira it was always the music that came first. And the same was true for most songwriters of his era. The composer created a melody, then gave it to a lyricist whose job was to fit syllable to note, verbal phrase to musical phrase, as if he or she were working a musical crossword puzzle.

With Gilbert & Sullivan, it was just the opposite: Gilbert would write a light-verse poem, then Sullivan would set it to music. That’s why Gilbert’s lyrics have a regular meter—just like poetry—with regularly accented syllables:

When I mere-ly from him part-ed,
We were near-ly brok-en heart-ed.
When in se-quel re-u-nit-ed,
We were e-qual-ly de-light-ed.

That’s why Gilbert’s lyrics can be read by themselves on the page. They are essentially light verse set to music. Yet their rhythm lies in the words—not the music.

But in a lyric, the rhythm is in the music, which, usually, came first. Without its music, the lyric seems rhythmically lifeless:

I got rhythm,
I got music,
I got my guy,
Who could ask for anything more?

But wedded to the rhythm of the music the lyric can, as Ira put it, “throw its weight around.”

TVB: I am in complete agreement with the claim that there is a sort of “golden age” in American popular songwriting spanning the mid-1920s through to the mid-1940s. As you point out in your study, this was an era when “listeners all over the country delighted in the urbane lyrics of Hart, Gershwin, and Porter.” In your opinion, what are the factors that brought about this golden age?

Mr. Furia: I think the major factor was that popular songs began to emanate from the Broadway stage around 1915. Up until then, Broadway featured (with a few exceptions, such as the shows and songs of George M. Cohan) operettas such as The Merry Widow (1905) or American knockoffs such as Naughty Marietta (1910). While some of these songs became popular, most popular songs by 1910 were ground out from the assembly line sheet-music publishing houses collectively known as “Tin Pan Alley.” The success of Tin Pan Alley songs prompted Broadway producers to invite songwriters such as Irving Berlin to write scores for Broadway musicals and revues. It was also World War I, when Viennese operettas and their American imitations were becoming increasingly unpopular.

Lorenz Hart and Richard Rodgers
By the 1920s, most popular songs emerged from Broadway shows. Songwriters for the theater assumed their audiences were more sophisticated than the general public that Tin Pan Alley addressed. Classically-trained composers such as Rodgers, Porter, and Gershwin could bring musical intricacy to the simple formulas of Tin Pan Alley. Lyricists, trained in light verse forms, could amuse theater audiences with trenchant wit in the tradition of Gilbert & Sullivan (whose operettas had long been popular in America). A song such as “Manhattan” (1925), Rodgers and Hart’s first big hit dazzled audiences with its clever rhymes (“The city’s clamor can never spoil/ The dreams of a boy and goil”) and deft matches of words and music. Hart’s lyrics were reprinted in newspapers across the country, and he and Rodgers were hailed as America’s Gilbert & Sullivan.

Ira Gershwin noted that almost all of his songs were written for stage or film musicals. He called them “lodgments,” since they had to be tailored to a specific character in a particular dramatic situation. That gave them what he called “particularity”—not just any “I” singing to a “you,” but a particular character voicing feelings at a certain dramatic moment. This was still a long way from full dramatic “integration” between character, song, and story, but it lifted songs above the banalities of most Tin Pan Alley fare.

Theater songwriters of the 1920s, ‘30s, and ‘40s, considered a hit show a show with a lot of hit songs. Shows such as the Gershwins’ Girl Crazy (1930), Berlin’s As Thousands Cheer (1933), Porter’s Anything Goes (1934), and Rodgers & Hart’s Babes in Arms (1937) each produced several hit songs. Even an early integrated musical, Hammerstein & Kern’s Show Boat (1927), saw several of its songs—“Make Believe,” “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man,” “Ol’ Man River”—become independent hits despite their close ties to the story and characters of the musical.

In the same year of 1927, song came to the movies with Warner Bros. The Jazz Singer (which was not the first “talkie” but a silent film with its own musical soundtrack so that theaters could dispense with live piano or violin accompaniments to films). Only a few scenes used sound to present songs, and Jolson’s irrepressible haminess couldn’t keep him from talking as well as singing. That spontaneous combination of singing and talking brought on the “talkie” revolution. But studios worried about presenting songs on the screen. Sound made movies very realistic, and studios feared audiences would find it ludicrous if screen actors suddenly went from talking to singing and back to talking without even the applause that cushions such transitions in stage musicals.

So for the first few years of movie musicals, studios declared that actors in a musical film always had to have a realistic excuse to sing, and the easiest excuse was that they were portraying singers, as in The Jazz Singer, and sang because they were rehearsing or performing before a theater or nightclub audience. Most early film musicals, such as The Broadway Melody (1929) and Forty-Second Street (1932) were called “back-stagers,” because they told the story of putting on a Broadway show. The drama happened in the back-stage intrigue of show business, while the songs were presented “on stage” as rehearsals or performances.

But audiences soon wearied of this back-stage formula of songs presented as performances, which robbed song of its expressive power. When performers sing in opera, operetta, and stage musicals, they are not presenting song as a “performance” but as an expression of what they feel at an intense dramatic moment. So by the early 1930s, Hollywood had to experiment with presenting songs as expressively as Broadway musicals did. Films featuring Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald at Paramount and Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers at RKO (Radio-Keith-Orpheum) presented songs that were as tied to character and story as songs on the Broadway stage. The only difference was that they delivered their songs with a nonchalant, conversational style, closer to talking than singing, so that their breaking into song seemed more “realistic” than the “theatrical” presentation of song in a stage musical.

This shift to expressive song in Hollywood corresponded to the worst years of the Great Depression, when Broadway lights were dimmed, so all the great theater songwriters—Porter, the Gershwins, Kern, Berlin—headed west where the movie musical was booming. They brought their same sophisticated songwriting style to the screen, so that both Broadway and Hollywood were providing the bulk of American popular song with such urbane sentiments as Leo Robin and Ralph Rainger’s “Thanks for the Memory” for Bob Hope and Shirley Ross in The Big Broadcast of 1938:

We said good-bye with a highball,
Then I got as high as a steeple,
But we were intelligent people.
No tears, no fuss,
Hooray for us.

Between Broadway and Hollywood in this period, we had the most sophisticated songs by Porter the Gershwins, Rodgers & Hart, Johnny Mercer & Harold Arlen, dominating the pop charts.

The fact that these songwriters all knew each other, hung out together, and demonstrated their latest wares to each other kept the quality of songs high. If you were one of these songwriters at a New York or Hollywood party, you would never play a banal melody with Jerome Kern in the room or risk an off-rhyme with Cole Porter standing over your shoulder. They were writing popular songs for all of us, but they were also writing for each other’s demanding standards.