Friday, January 21, 2011

Friday Songbook: I Thought about You

This Friday series is all about me indulging my love for the music of the the 2nd quarter of the 20th century. I've been calling it "the great American songbook," as many others have done before me. Songwriters from Tin Pan Alley to Hollywood were providing a near flood of music, and ever since then singers and musicians have been interpreting them in wildly divergent ways. Indeed, one of the strengths of these songs is their flexibility. Their composers provided the melodic starting-point for a thousand jazz combos, would-be crooners, and even rock, punk, and bluegrass singers. And the songs continue to be re-interpreted, re-recorded, and thus rediscovered by each new generation.

Last week I featured the rather starkly realistic 'Brother, Can You Spare a Dime,' but most of the songs of the depression era were remarkably sprightly and optimistic. One might even say, escapist. Ultimately, more than anything else they were romantic. The best of them expressed love and longing without ever seeming merely adolescent. During the war, many songs were about missing a loved one who was far away.

Lyrically, the vocabulary and the rhyming were often deceptively simple. Aspiring writers and poets can learn a lot from their use of single-syllable words, understatement, and impressionistic imagery. I could pick a hundred examples, by a myriad of composers. One of my favorite lyricists was Johnny Mercer. His songs had an easy conversational tone, one person speaking to another. Mercer wrote way too many great songs for me to name here, but a few are my particular favorites are 'That Old Black Magic,' 'Skylark,' 'Blues in the Night,' 'Come Rain or Come Shine,' and 'Moon River.' The following example, I Thought about You was written by Mercer with composer Jimmy van Heusen. Frank Sinatra's well-known version swings, and seems to have the tone of joy when lovers are reunited, but when Billie Holiday sings it, you feel she is mourning the increasing gulf that seems to be opening between her and the one she loves. She makes it a more poignant song by her vocal interpretation.

No comments: