gershwin, rodgers, porter, kern, and berlin -- 7/08/15

Today's selection -- from The B Side by Ben Yagoda. In the 1920s, 1930s, and beyond, the America music scene was dominated by five composers -- George Gershwin ("Someone to Watch Over Me"), Cole Porter ("I've Got You Under My Skin"), Richard Rodgers ("My Funny Valentine"), Irving Berlin ("White Christmas"), and Jerome Kern ("All the Things You Are"). The work of these five giants still pervades American music today:

"The quintet of writers just named represented a rare flowering of genius; as noted, a comparison to Renaissance Florence may seem excessive, but then again it holds up to scrutiny. Unlike Italian painters, they did not all undergo extensive training. But the trailblazer, Jerome Kern, certainly did. Born to a middle-class German Jewish family in New York in 1885, he studied music in the United States and Heidelberg, worked as a Tin Pan Alley song plugger, and contributed numbers to Broadway and London shows as early as 1905. His 1914 song 'They Didn't Believe Me' -- with its stately, lingering melody; its 4/4 rhythm that could go fast or slow, syncopated or straight; and its simple, conversational ('and I'm certainly going to tell them ... '), resonant lyrics by Herbert Reynolds -- has been credibly nominated as the first modern American popular song. By his early thirties, Kern was the dean of Broadway composers, unmatched in the way he combined the influences of operetta, English music hall, and ragtime to create a new American sound.

"Comparable in genius, close in age, Kern and the second great figure were different in almost every other way. Israel Baline, the son of a cantor, was born in Temun, Russia, in 1888. He came to New York at the age of four and by fourteen was on his own, with a new name Irving Berlin -- working as a saloon pianist and a singing waiter in a Chinatown joint called Nigger Mike's. He had no musical training, and his piano skills were the most rudimentary of all the great composers, but he had an ear for melody and soon he began writing music as well. (Famously, Berlin only ever learned to play in the key of F-sharp, and had a specially designed piano that allowed him to transpose keys by turning a small wheel.) In 1911 came 'Alexander's Ragtime Band,' which, while not technically a rag, had a syncopated vitality the American popular song had never seen before and which singlehandedly changed everything. Over the next forty years, Berlin produced hundreds and hundreds of first-rate songs. Alec Wilder said, 'I can speak of only one composer as the master of the entire range of popular song-Irving Berlin.' Berlin appears in retrospect as a freak of nature. The combination of his lack of training, on the one hand, and seemingly inexhaustible, high-level production, on the other, spawned urban legends, which would persist his whole life, that he had between one and three 'colored boys' in the back room who wrote his songs.

"The Gershwins' parents were Russian immigrants as well. But both George and Ira were born on this side of the Atlantic (Ira in 1896 and his brother two years later), and their father worked steadily and earned enough money for the family to buy a piano, which George learned to play magnificently. Rodgers (born 1902) came from a well-to-do German Jewish family in New York, and Porter (born 1891, a comparatively late bloomer), whose grandfather was known as the richest man in Indiana, went to Yale. Rodgers, Porter, Gershwin, and Kern all had significant musical training, were familiar with classical composition, and were amenable to incorporating the innovations of classical modernists into popular songs.

"Genius is seldom a discrete phenomenon. It certainly wasn't in the case of these ground breakers. They were inspired and goaded to greater achievement by each other; Gershwin once remarked that it was Kern's music that made him realize most popular songs were of an inferior quality. And their presence, in and of itself, inspired other talented young people to go into the field, where the bar of acceptability, and the bar of excellence, were now considerably higher than they had been. Among all songwriters, there was an implicit and sometimes explicit competition to advance the craft. With one exception, the inspiration these men provided was a result less of their personalities than of their artistic example. Kern and Rodgers were introverts, as was Berlin, whom many colleagues found cold and distant, especially as he got older. Porter tended to consort more with upper-class socialites than songwriters. The exception was Gershwin, who was charismatic, glamorous, and generous in encouraging younger songwriters such as Arthur Schwartz, Harold Arlen, and Vernon Duke. If he hadn't died young, in 1937, he would have encouraged even more."


Ben Yagoda


The B Side: The Death of Tin Pan Alley and the Rebirth of the Great American Song


Riverhead Books


Copyright 2015 by Ben Yagoda


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