Great American Songbook Part One: What Makes a Song Last?

Feb 24, 2012

Current popular singers like Queen Latifah, Rod Stewart, Paul McCartney, and even country singer Willie Nelson, are tackling old songs written by the great composers and lyricists from the first half of the 20th century.    

In this three-part series, WHQR's Rachel Lewis Hilburn takes a deeper look at the history of the Great American Songbook with author, historian, and host of WHQR's Great American Songbook Philip Furia.  In this first edition, Furia explains why these old songs continue to draw young listeners, young singers, and new musicians.

RLH:  The songs we’re talking about are songs that often debuted in big Broadway musicals and classic Hollywood movies.

[FADE IN “Puttin’ On The Ritz”]

“Different types who wear a daycoat

pants with stripes and cutaway coat

perfect fits… puttin’ on the ritz…”


[FADE IN “This Is A Fine Romance”]

You won’t wrestle.  I might as well play bridge with my old maid aunts.  I haven’t got a chance.  This a fine romance…”


[FADE IN “I Got Rhythm” – instrumental]

Phil Furia:  Many of them were actually written by a fairly small handful of writers.  Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, George and Ira Gershwin.  When you’re thinking about people like that you’re thinking about songs like, uh, “I Got Rhythm” and “Anything You Can Do”. 

These songs have done what popular songs rarely do – that is – stay popular.  I mean the whole idea of a popular song is based upon transience.  You know, it’s popular for a while and then it has to disappear so that other songs can be popular. 

The great rock and roll writers, Mike Lieber and Jerry Stoller, they described what they wrote.  They said, ‘We write disposable songs.’  Disposable songs.  Cole Porter would be appalled at that notion.  I mean, he was writing songs that going to last.  And one of the reasons they last is because they were in Broadway shows and the shows get revived.

RLH:   What’s the difference between a disposable song and a song that’s written to last? 

PF:  It’s quality.  The songs are so good that younger performers want to do them.  Sinatra started it.  But Linda Ronstadt came by.  And she said once you get inside one of those songs, it was unlike anything she’s ever sung.  She said it was like climbing this ladder up and up and up…

[FADE IN Linda Ronstadt singing “I’ve Got A Crush On You”]

I’ve got a crush on you, sweetie pie,

All the day and night time,

Hear me sigh.

I never had the…”


PF:  But it’s a wonderfully democratic process because the singers decide they want to sing these songs. 

RLH:  What initially sparked your interest in this genre?  Is there a particular song or was there a particular musical or movie that just lit you up?

[FADE IN music]

PF:  I hate to admit this.  But when I was in high school, I was in love with Doris Day.

When I fall in love, it will be forever…

PF:  [laughter] … whom I can’t stand now as a singer, [FADE OUT music]

but she was so gorgeous in movies like “Calamity Jane”.  Then singers like Sinatra and Doris Day said, well, we can’t sing current pop hits because that’s mostly rock and roll.  So let’s go back to the 20s and the 30s and the 40s and usually to Broadway and Hollywood and sing some of these great songs that were popular back then but need to be resurrected.  And by using that repertoire, of songs by Porter, Kern, Arlen, and Mercer… 

[FADE IN “New York, New York”]

…singers like Sinatra and Doris Day helped actually create the Great American Songbook ‘cause they made these songs popular all over again.

[FADE TO music full]

“Start spreading the news.

You’re leaving today.

Tell ‘em, Frank!

I want to be a part of it.

New York, New York.

Your vagabond shoes…”

[FADE OUT music]