Words for music

One of the best book reviews the Wall Street Journal has ever run is a review by songwriter extraordinaire Jimmy Webb of a compendium of song lyrics selected by Robert Gottlieb and Robert Kimball. In the review, Webb notes the difficulty of placing words to music. In a well-written song, the words seem magically to flow right out of the melody. Webb powerfully testifies to the difficulty involved in creating this magic. Below is an excerpt of the review, which ran in the Journal in February 2001 under the heading “Singing the praises of song”:

Despite the controversy over the Grammy nomination of “The Marshall Mathers LP,” a recording that has outraged gay- and women’s-rights groups because of its sociopathic bent, many influential critics continue to praise Eminem’s skills as a rhymer and songwriter. Along comes “Reading Lyrics” (Pantheon, 706 pages, $39.50), an anthology of songs, to give the lie to the emperor’s new groove.

Don’t expect to find Lennon and McCartney here. The editors cut this enormous field down to a manageable size by focusing on lyrics written between 1900 and 1975, especially those created for the theater and cinema. “Though a collection of lyrics that excludes, say, Bob Dylan or Hank Williams is obviously one that is far from complete,” the editors explain, “their stories are not the stories we can tell here.” Rock ‘n’ roll, folk and contemporary pop lyrics are passed over without prejudice.

Not unexpectedly, the titans are well-represented: Berlin, Porter, Hart, Gershwin, Hammerstein II, as well as Noel Coward and Frank Loesser. In the second echelon are Gus Kahn, E.Y. Harburg, Dorothy Fields, Johnny Mercer, Sammy Cahn, Alan Jay Lerner and Stephen Sondheim, among others. There are also lesser heroes whose names are virtually unknown to the general public.

Many of these lyricists are Jewish. Some are black. A few are gay. Eight are women. All share a certain meticulous touch, a finesse in their choice of what is right or wrong, moving or mawkish, ill-tempered or bittersweet, that sets their work apart, placing it high in the rarefied firmament of true art.

From the gemstone biographical details that introduce each songwriter we learn that Cecil Mack’s “That’s Why They Call Me Shine” (1924), an anti-prejudice benchmark, was a hit four times with the California Ramblers, Bing Crosby, Louis Armstrong and, surprisingly, Frankie Laine; Jack Lawrence wrote “Linda,” the well-known standard, to celebrate the birth of Linda Eastman McCartney; Haven Gillespie wrote “the most recorded song in American history,” “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town”; and Noble Sissle, who wrote “I’m Just Wild About Harry,” was also the first black DJ.

We also discover the identities of the authors of some of our most enduring examples of Amerimusicana. Lyricist Marilyn Bergman has written eloquently about “the invisible songwriter,” and here a lyric’s fame is often disproportionate to the dismal obscurity of the writer. “Without a Song” was written by Edward Eliscu, a “jack of all trades around the Broadway theatre.” Eric Maschwitz, a longtime executive with the BBC, wrote “These Foolish Things.” Irving Kahal, who died before the age of 40, did not live to see the success of his “I’ll Be Seeing You” in 1944…

The anonymity of so many of these authors may be due in part to an attitude pervasive among laymen. Gene Lees, who wrote “Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars” (included here), described it this way: “The tone of voice conveys unmistakably that melody writing is a strange and wonderful gift while just about anybody can toss off a lyric. After all it’s only words.” As a writer of both, I find that improvising a tune is a joyful, natural and even enthralling experience compared with the trench warfare of painstakingly constructing an original, useful lyric. It’s even harder to come up with lyrics for a melody that is already in existence (as most of these were), especially if it has been written by a composer like Jerome Kern, who reportedly disdained to have a single note changed. Each successful lyric of this kind is nothing less than a small miracle, and here are more than 1,000 of them between two covers!

My own personal favorites are the funny ones: Cole Porter’s oh-so-naughty “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” (“If she says your behavior is heinous, Kick her right in the Coriolanus”); Mort Dixon’s wacky, if politically askew, “Nagasaki” (“Where the men chew tobaccy and the women wicky wacky woo”); and Stephen Sondheim’s jauntily perverse “I Never Do Anything Twice” (“As I said to the abbot, ‘I’ll get in the habit, but not in the habit. You’ve my highest regard. And I know that it’s hard. Still, no matter the vice, I never do anything twice'”). All are reminders that sex is sexier when it’s sophisticated, piquant and cheerful.

This is not a book to be read quickly. The wise reader will want to savor lines like Yip Harburg’s “when I can’t fondle the hand I’m fond of I fondle the hand at hand” (“When I’m Not Near the Girl I Love,” 1946). In a more poignant vein, “Lost in the Stars” (Maxwell Anderson, 1944), “The Ballad of the Sad Young Men” (Fran Landesman, 1959) and “Lush Life” (Billy Strayhorn, 1938) deserve special attention for their depiction of the stoic cynicism that accompanies disillusionment…

Scholars and trivia hounds will no doubt find this volume to be an invaluable reference. For younger readers, it will serve as an introduction to a world of fascinating imagery and emotion, much of which existed long before they were born but still throbs with rhythm and passion. For others of us, “Reading Lyrics” will be a companion, like an old friend often consulted for inspiration and solace.

There are good lyrics here from the ’60s and ’70s, including “The Way We Were” (Alan and Marilyn Bergman, 1973), “What Kind of Fool Am I?” (Lesley Bricusse, 1961), “People” (Bob Merrill, 1963) and “Misty” (Johnny Burke, 1962). But as this year’s Grammy nominations demonstrate, we have regressed at light speed through the Platinum, Gold, Silver and Bronze Ages of lyric writing and are well on our way back to the Primeval.

Yet we can still find a reminder of the grace, charm and warmth of which talented men and women of good will are capable in “Reading Lyrics.” This wondrous and magical concoction is hatred-free and highly recommended.

Webb’s review itself stands as a bravura performance. Today the Journal returns to the subject of Robert Kimball and the lyrics of the great American songbook in an interesting profile of Kimball by Joanne Kaufman: “He’s the last word on great American lyrics.” I believe that the Journal’s articles are accesssible online to nonsubsribers through tomorrow in honor of WSJ.com’s tenth anniversary. Enjoy!


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