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.


Chester Proudfoot said...

Very nice article, Anton! Good question about the line between poetry and lyric. When I was in junior high school we had an 'English' class called 'Poetry of Rock' that many students considered a throw-away class, yet dealt with this among other ideas. Despite the abundance of insipid writing in the music world, there is nonetheless some very good lyrics to be found still. Happy new year, by the way! Cheers.

Anton Garcia-Fernandez said...

Dear Chester,

It's nice to hear from you, and of course, happy New Year to you, too! Thanks for your very kind comments about this article. However, most of the credit should go to Mr. Furia, whose very detailed, knowledgeable answers to my questions are what really makes the article interesting. I have always been interested in the relationship between poetry and song lyrics, and that is why I was so impressed by The Poets of Tin Pan Alley when I first read it. It is now quite common to consider lyrics by Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, &c. as poetry, and I am in total agreement with this. However, I think that more attention should be paid to the lyrics by Gershwin, Mercer, Porter, &c., because, in my opinion, they are poetry set to music, or music set to poetry, and I think Mr. Furia does a very interesting literary analysis of these lyrics in his book. If you haven't read it yet, I recommend it!