Singing the Praises of American Popular Songwriters

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Sunday, June 12, 2005


The Great Innovators, 1900-1950

By Alec Wilder

Oxford University. 1990 reissue. $45.

Alec Wilder, who died in 1980, was one of the least classifiable human beings who ever lived. A sort-of-classical composer who doubled as a sort-of-popular songwriter, he wrote a few hits ("I'll Be Around," "While We're Young") and a medium-size stack of not-quite-standard ballads ("I See It Now," "South to a Warmer Place," "Did You Ever Cross Over to Sneden's?") sung and adored by such stellar vocalists as Frank Sinatra and Mabel Mercer. Late in life, Wilder was persuaded to set down his thoughts on the great popular songwriters of the 20th century, and despite his well-deserved reputation as a chronic procrastinator, he finally managed to produce a full-length book (written in collaboration with the popular-music scholar James Maher, who served as his patient amanuensis).

Though published by an academic press, "American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, 1900-1950" (Oxford University, 1990 reissue, $45) is about as scholarly as a late-afternoon chat in a dark, oak-paneled bar. Holding forth in an informal, unabashedly opinionated style, Wilder offers a guided tour of the collected works of Harold Arlen, Irving Berlin, the Gershwin brothers, Jerome Kern, Rodgers and Hart, and a sprinkling of lesser but still important lights, writing both as a connoisseur and as an important songwriter in his own right. The results border at times on thinly disguised autobiography: "In 'One for My Baby,' marvelous as is the musical setting, I believe the honors must go to the lyric. I've lived this story too many times, in too many towns, with too many long, long roads outside those doors, not to be hooked. Just imagine having the acuity and courage to start a song, as [Johnny] Mercer does, with 'It's quarter to three'!" Never has so much concentrated insight about an art form been packed into so irresistibly readable a package. My friends clearly agree: I've worn out one copy, given away three as presents and had at least two others stolen.

-- Terry Teachout, arts writer

© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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