Songs That Make You Long For
What You’ve Hardly Experienced
For the generation that grew up during the cultural turmoil of the 1960s, a lot of what it was determined to break free from was the placidity, conformity, and political conservatism of the U.S. in the 1950s. The rock’n’roll explosion only made that rupture more visible.
But there was a world that preceded it, marked by two wars, where ideological conflict, social hardship, and technological impact, helped shape a musical tradition that proved itself as one of the greatest cultural achievements of our era: the American Standards.
2015 may turn out to be a landmark year, as milestone anniversaries are bound to shed light on such a rich tradition and its main protagonists. Billie Holiday, Billy Strayhorn, and Frank Sinatra, are just but three of such luminaries who would’ve been 100 this year.
And so would Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, and Les Paul, all giants on their own, whose association with early country, blues, and jazz insert them, permanently, into the mainstream of American music. But it was the deceptively lowly popular song format what helped usher the Standards into an art form.
To many, the addition of Eastern European Jewish melodies, the Klezmer and other Gipsy traditions, to rhythms and syncopations of African tribal beats, converging for two centuries to the U.S., was what created the two main streams of American music, Blues and Jazz. The Great American Songbook is a worthy heir to those two.
It was also a rare combination of a few generations of extremely talented composers and musicians, with race and immigrant blood running in their veins, that took advantage of a nascent record industry, and offered the perfect antidote to the bleakness and economic despair of the early 1900s in the just industrialized world.
ALT-PORTRAIT OF A WORLD AT WAR
Armed conflicts helped spread that sense of urgency – French songbird Édith Piaf would also be 100 this year – with vaudeville, music hall, variety theater, and a general cultural miscegenation of sorts, all fit snugly into 3-minute songs that encapsulated a badly needed sense of hope for the era.
Even though such gems were not exclusively American, it was in the U.S. that the genre thrived and produced some of the most memorable and enduring melodies and lyrics ever written in English. Then, they were supposed to be about escapism and romance. Now, they can be enjoyed for their distilled wisdom and artistry.
Which is odd, since those Tin Pan Alley composers were working overtime to meet an inflated demand for hits. But what their produced then, under pressure, now betrays none of the rush with which they were writing them at that time; the craftsmanship of some of these songs still has few peers compared with much of those that came after.
The songwriters created an alternative universe, where longing, redemption, and the allure of romance is always within reach, even when they refuse to concede the singer the grace of happiness and fulfillment. At times, the world these songs promise or allude to was the only world worth living for, even if only for a few minutes.
AN ENTIRE NOVEL IN A FEW VERSES
Lovers who wished to be reunited with their dears, warriors whose losses made them cry silently for the first time, common people who saw their world coming apart right in front of their eyes, found comfort in these lyrics that invite them to dance, to dream, and to remain hopeful for another shot at life.
Thankfully, the great majority of American Standards stayed clear of any exacerbated patriotism or xenophobic sense of entitlement towards the enemy. Down to their core, even in the heat of bloody battles, soldiers were probably humming the songs they were brought up with.
For they’re the crucial point of shared humanity that no amount of carnage would have the power to take away from anyone. That this is so makes one wonder whether those currently fighting the permanent wars of our time have the songs to turn their sacrifice into transcendence and lessons for the future.
To be fair, rock has also created enduring art in songs, by groups and songwriters born during or after the war. Chuck Berry, Beatles, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, the list is too long to name, all have crafted a melodic and literary vocabulary bound to last way after their grandchildren passed away.
WE WILL ALWAYS HAVE OUR SONG
No wonder several of them, have recorded albums with mostly unremarkable versions of the American songbook, in what seems to have become yet another rite of passage for an aging generation, as many face mortality and old age, and passion, as Dylan said, is ‘a young man’s game.’
Around the world, almost all human beings have been touched by the transformative power of a song or two, and their ability to tell their personal stories, and lend their routine lives a glint or a spark of someone else’s heroic journey, making them their very own.
So is the ability of a song. We’re probably very lucky to have known some of those written in the previous century, and how they illuminate our own journey towards oblivion. In fact, however hardened and impervious to emotions one may be, it’d be virtually impossible to meet anyone not ever affected by music.
Sinatra probably recorded, and arguably set a definitive version, for most American Standards. But so did Billie, and Ella Fitzgerald, and Sarah Vaughan, and Nat King Cole, and Ray Charles, again, the list is way too long. As so is the one that includes Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Hoagy Carmichael, and so many others.
THERE WILL NEVER BE ANOTHER ONE
It may be ‘ageism’ to say that the particular conditions, and cultural context, which gave birth to Standards, in all their depth, quality, and universal appeal, won’t ever repeat themselves. But that’s to miss the point; what’s crucial is that they’re here, and now, as they’ve been for over a century, and likely, won’t go away.
It’s also no excuse to complain about the lack of places to dance these tunes in today’s world. The scene when Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek, characters in Terrence Malick‘s Badlands, dance to Cole’s A Blossom Fell, in the middle of the desert and by their car’s headlights, comes to mind.
While it’s a rare moment of tenderness in an otherwise based-on-a-true-story brutal movie, the song, and what it makes the characters do, perfectly conveys the urgency and imminent threat surrounding the two lovers. Only a certain kind of song (or movie) can make betrayal sound so virtuous.
IN THE WEE HOURS OF YOUR LIFE
When English dramatist Dennis Potter picked songs for his television series The Singing Detective, he was not only paying homage to a lyrical universe shaped by American songs from before, during, and after the war. He was also highlighting their enduring redemptive powers.
Ultimately, the experience of listening to them now tells a richer story of their time, with none of the shallow optimism and schematic reductionism of songs of victory and praise. Their pathos, clarity and economy of ideas point to the common human experience in ways no anthropological treatise can.
How these songs understood our pain, longings, hope, and love for one another is at par with the way great literary and artistic works impact our world, or at least, the part of it that makes everything else pale in comparison: when we love, dream, and conceive a better reality.
There are few more pleasurable things about America than the songs that Irvin Berlin, the Gershwin brothers, Vernon Duke, Harold Arlen, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, Johnny Mercer, Sammy Cahn, and Jimmy Van Heusen and others, wrote, even if many of them were not even born in the U.S.
Even there, the Great American Songbook shows its universality. Other classics will be added to them, no doubt. But if this is a world hardly worth saving, some of these songs can definitely make the case for jumping into the burning house and rescue them. After all, we’ll be salvaging much of our own humanity.
* 50 Summers