The Great American Songbook is an informal term referring to a period of American popular music songwriting that took place between the 1930s and 1960s. It also refers to a canon of songs written in this style.

Most of these songs are written in verse-chorus form, with a 32-bar chorus most often in AABA or ABAB form...

Wikipedia*

NOPE

The years from about 1920 to 1960 represented a unique period in the history of American popular music. It was a period that saw the advent of a new type of songwriting, utterly original in some respects, but grounded in the simple structures of the Tin Pan Alley era that had preceded it, and strongly influenced by the nascent musical form known as Jazz (and by jazz’s precursors, ragtime and blues).

Mostly composed for Broadway shows and Hollywood musicals, picked up and performed by singers and musicians of every variety, recorded on disk and broadcast on radio, this songwriting style quickly won the favor of the mass listening audience.

— Max Morath
National Public Radio
Curious Listener’s Guide

ALMOST, BUT NOT QUITE

Myriad definitions exist regarding exactly what the Great American Songbook is. Both of the definitions hereinabove give a well-written, good idea for someone who's going to utilize the term, let's say, in writing - or explains it for someone happening upon the term for the first time. But just like the rest of music, it's:

A MATTER OF PERSONAL TASTE, SHOE-HORNED INTO A GENRE

A gentleman who's quite knowledgeable in this field insists that "every song written after 1950 is pure garbage." (Now, mind you, this fellow has a few CDs in his collection; remember, we're talking about date written; not recorded.) I respect his opinion, but don't agree with it. For instance, author and music critic Bruce Crowther's definition of the Great American Songbook extends the period in which it was written well into the 1980's. There are plenty of lay purists who're dedicated to the genre who tell me that they're waiting for the next great song to be written (sorry, folks, "The Macarena" doesn't count).

On the other side of the continuum, great argument exists as to exactly when the first Great American Standard was written. Why limit it to Wikipedia's "1930s," or even Morath's "1920." What about the Jazz Age - the Gay Nineties?

You see, popularity in general doesn't make for a standard. It also goes unspoken that, like certain antiques, they must have stood the test of time in order to become "Classic" or in our terms, "Great." Additionally, what definitely makes a song a Standard is that it's:

  • Hummable

  • Danceable (more often than not)

  • Cleverly written musically, lyrically, or both

  • Memorable

WHY DOESN'T CLASSIC ROCK COUNT AMONG "GREAT AMERICAN STANDARDS?"

Good question. The same reason that the "Classical" music genre encompasses everything from Gregorian Chants to the music of turn of the century composer Bela Bartok. A standard can even cross-over into the Classical genre; Bernstein's music for the play "West Side Story" has been called by some one of the greatest pieces of classical music to come from an American Composer since Aaron Copeland's "Fanfare for the Common Man." There is no single arbiter, individual or collective, of what becomes a "Standard."

Typically, a Standard has been recorded by a number of different artists over a fairly wide contemporary time continuum, e.g.:

Trumpeter Chris Botti, in a 2006 CD release, echos the fabulous Burke/Haggart tune penned in 1935; the same tune echoed in 1984 by Linda Ronstadt and Nelson Riddle and his Orchestra; but originally heard on 1939 recordings performed by such Big Band legends as Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman.

Fabian Andre, Gus Kahn, and Wilbur Schwandt wrote a song in 1928 that's been covered by Louis Armstrong as early as 1928, Ella Fitzgerald in 1938, Bing Crosby in 1957, and, of course, the great Mama Cass Elliott in 1968; not to mention other more recent covers. (Oh, the title of the song, by the way, is "Dream a Little Dream of Me" - as if you didn't guess already.)

To confuse you even more, there have been quite a few instances the reverse of the above. Performers who typically perform from the Great American Songbook find a tune by a popular or rock composer and themselves, in their own style; a good example being James Taylor's "Everybody Has The Blues" performed as a duet by Tony Bennett and Ray Charles on Bennett's 1986 Columbia release, "The Art of Excellence." A poor example of this was Paul Anka's 2005 release "Rock Swings" in which the man (whom I'm convinced has gone utterly mad) covers tunes by Kurt Cobain, Eric Clapton, and other rock "oldies but goodies" including "Jump" and "Smells Like Teen Spirit." All this with the aid of a 20-piece Vegas orchestra. 'Nuff said.

SOURCES:

  • *Wikipedia (a source that THIS writer insists he'd never, ever utilize when doing a writeup, but used here for dramatic effect): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_American_Songbook (accessed 11/22/06)

  • The Website of Author Bruce Crowther: http://www.swing2bop.com/index.html (accessed 11/23/06) as well as various email interviews with the author

  • All Music Guide: http://www.swing2bop.com/index.html (accessed 11/23/06)

  • Interviews and anecdotes from composer Lew Spence

  • Interviews and anecdotes from Carmen McRae, pianist Donn Trenner, vocalist Bobbi Rogers, and saxophonist Jackie McLean

  • Information garnered from the private list-serv on Yahoo Groups, "Songbirds," from a mess of pompous asses who'd not let their name be published on a website; and whom I'd hazard a guess would only accede to having their names printed in Variety, Billboard Magazine, or, dream of dreams, Vanity Fair. (I'd give you the URL, but the group's very exclusive, full of snobs, and harder to get into than Fort Knox. Trust me. I've been thrown off twice for ranting on-line like this, and don't wanna get thrown off again.)

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