They got the obituaries all screwed up last week. Wallis Warfield Simpson, a person of bottomless venality and stupefying superficiality, was all over the front pages and the news broadcasts: in death, as in life, grabbing the limelight without actually having done anything to earn it. But you had to hunt around in the back sections to find notice of the death of Harold Arlen, age 81, whose legacy will bring pleasure and satisfaction to millions for years to come, as it already has for more than half a century.
If ever anyone deserved a front-page send-off it was Harold Arlen. He was a composer of popular music, and more than a few people think there has never been a better one. Among the public at large he was not as well-known as his more celebrated contemporaries: George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers, Hoagy Carmichael. Yet his songs are as deeply embedded in our popular culture as those by any other composer, and his standing among musicians -- especially among jazz musicians, the true judges of excellence in popular music -- is exceptionally high.
It is a measure of his reputation that of the 110 songs in "American Popular Song," a superb recording issued two years ago by the Smithsonian Institution, 12 -- more than 10 percent -- were composed by Harold Arlen. And what songs they are: "I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues," "Stormy Weather," "As Long As I Live," "Get Happy," "The Man That Got Away," "Blues in the Night," "Come Rain or Come Shine," "When the Sun Comes Out," "My Shining Hour," "Last Night When We Were Young," "A Sleepin' Bee" and "Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive."
Which is a great tribute to Arlen except that it barely scratches the surface. "American Popular Song" may be comprehensive but it is also quirky, so it omits these Arlen classics: "Over the Rainbow," "We're Off to See the Wizard," "Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea," "Ill Wind," "I Love a Parade," "I've Got the World on a String," "Let's Fall in Love," "Any Place I Hang My Hat Is Home," "Legalize My Name," "That Old Black Magic," "I Never Has Seen Snow" and "It's Only a Paper Moon." Is that or is that not a Page 1 legacy?
Now that Arlen is dead only one of the giants is left: Irving Berlin, who will be 98 years old next month and has lived as a virtual recluse for years. The "golden age" of American popular song is over, and it can never be revived because the conditions that spawned it have disappeared. Not merely is the musical revue a thing of the past, but the Broadway theater no longer nourishes innovation and the Hollywood musical is a dying breed, shrunk to remakes of Broadway shows and rock extravaganzas. In a time when lyrics have to be printed on record jackets so that listeners can comprehend them, the witty, sophisticated, melodic music of the golden age seems an anachronism.
But what an age it was! In the whole history of popular music, has there ever been a burst of creativity to match this one? It was ignited in 1911 by Berlin with "Alexander's Ragtime Band" and doused in 1964 when the Beatles came to town and started their own revolution. For more than 50 years it enriched our musical heritage as nothing except jazz has done -- and without it jazz would have been both different and poorer, for many of the songs played by black musicians from the South and Midwest were written by white composers from the North.
Most of them were Jewish; Harold Arlen was born Hyman Arluck, and his father was a cantor. Their music blended the seemingly irreconcilable styles of the synagogue, the musical stage and the jazz club into a form all its own, one that is uniquely American; if jazz is the music of people who came to this country against their will, what we know as popular song is the music of those who came eagerly and expectantly. Popular song is the creation of first- or second-generation immigrants from Europe who found, in the brash irreverence and pervasive vitality of their new land, the spark that set their imaginations free.
No other country has produced a 20th-century popular music to match it. Music written for the stage and screen in Britain is for the most part a pale imitation of it; the notable exception is the music of Noel Coward, though he is more accomplished as lyricist than as composer. Latin music is more interesting rhythmically than melodically. The French have had some wonderful singers and composers -- heaven knows there could be only one Edith Piaf -- but their music is decidedly French and loses much of its charm when performed by musicians from other countries.
The music of the American composers, by contrast, has traveled the whole world. You can hear "Stormy Weather" at a nightclub in Japan, "Blues in the Night" on a radio broadcast in Germany, "Over the Rainbow" at a concert in New Zealand. The sound of the music may be distinctly American, but the emotions it touches are universal and the melodies by which those emotions are expressed cross national borders as easily as the breeze. Perhaps, in the era of Bruce Springsteen and Twisted Sister, those melodies now seem a trifle innocent, even naive -- "I've Got the World on a String," wonderful though the song itself most certainly is, isn't a sentiment attuned to the age of anxiety -- but they speak to feelings that aren't any passing fad, and they will endure.
Harold Arlen's music is characteristic of the golden age in its jauntiness, its rich melodic texture and its emphasis on love songs, but it also has qualities all its own. Perhaps the most notable of these is its heavy debt to the blues, a decidedly black form with which most white composers have been uncomfortable; it's a measure of how well Arlen wrote the form that many of his best blues have been jazz standards for decades. His range was extraordinary, encompassing everything from blues to novelty songs to ballads to crowd pleasers to uncategorizable songs -- "When the Sun Comes Out," "Last Night When We Were Young," "I Never Has Seen Snow" -- that are models of subtlety and sophistication.
His death is the penultimate reminder that we'd better hang onto this music for all it's worth, because there isn't going to be any more of it. Stephen Sondheim's celebrated music is too often arid and arch; only Cy Coleman, on Broadway, and Dave Frishberg and Blossom Dearie, in nightclubs, write music of golden age wit and sophistication, and their followings are relatively small. But of course nothing lasts forever; classic American popular song was bound to run its course, and there's not much to be gained in fretting over its demise. We do best to celebrate its legacy, and to rejoice in the knowledge that the celebration can go on for as long as there is music.