There, 'neath the light of the moon We sang a love song that ended too soon The moon descended and I found with the light of dawm You and the song had gone, but the melody lingers on . . .

-- LYRICS BY IRVING BERLIN

AMERICAN popular song, disenfranchised since the arrival of rock in the mid-'50s, is coming back. The songs of Harold Arlen, the Gershwins, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, Rodgers and Hart and others constitute a remarkable body of work that dominated American culture for more than 50 years. After lingering in the dark corners of unfashionability, it has become once more audible, visible and respectable. Among the signs of health:

* Today, singer Rose Murphy kicks off the Corcoran Gallery's third installment of "The Great American Songwriters," a widely praised series linking top vocalists with classic repertory.

* Some of the brightest business for area jazz clubs in recent months has been inspired by the appearances of such cabaret luminaries as Bobby Short, Barbara Cook, Tammy Grimes and Morgana King.

* The Smithsonian, having forged impressive and historic album sets for jazz and country, is already working on "American Popular Song," which will show up in the spring of 1983 as a pair of multi-record boxed sets.

* National Public Radio is having great success with Eileen Farrell's new series, "American Popular Singers," a follow-up to "American Popular Song: Alec Wilder and Friends," which has been re-broadcast every year since its debut in 1976.

* A new label, Applause (run by former UA Records president Artie Mogull), is producing albums by overlooked pop singers like Peggy Lee, Chris Connor, Robert Goulet, Steve Lawrence and Edie Gorme, Jack Jones and Tony Martin, all of whom have been unrecorded in recent years.

* Many of the most succesful shows on Broadway in recent years have been revivals built around the popular songs of Harry Warren ("42nd Street"), Eubie Blake ("Eubie") and Duke Ellington ("Sophisticated Ladies").

No one is predicting a full-scale revival or the displacement of rock and country as leading forces in contemporary music. "Music used to be a special event, you sat down to listen to a tune," says Joel Siegel, director of the Corcoran series that will bring in Blossom Dearie, Sheila Jordan and Jackie Cain and Roy Kral. "Then it became background music. It certainly won't go back to the way it was, but it's accessible again, which it wasn't for a long time."

"This too shall pass, nothing is forever, life is cheap, the ballad remains constant" adds veteran songwriter Sammy Cahn, who also heads the Songwriter's Hall of Fame in New York. "When all the noise passes -- and the noise must pass -- this music will last."

Tony Bennett, one of the finest pop singers around, has his own viewpoint. "About 1955, the music business went toward imitating Detroit, the General Motors approach of planned obsolescence. Originally, a record was made on the premise that it was quality and it was made to last forever, that was the magic. Then they went into mass production and things didn't have to last."

To those under 30, Berlin, Arlen, Gershwin, Youmans, Harburg, Carmichael, Hammerstein and others must seem like so much ancient history. Rock, a generic term that tends to include all forms of popular music since 1955, often looks to its own Golden Age, but it is minor compared with the flowering of popular song from 1900 to 1950, and particularly the great period of activity between the wars.

Before 1900, American entertainment had centered on vaudeville and variety shows, and minstrel shows before that. By the 1910s, the first significant tunesmiths began to appear: George M. Cohan, Harry Von Tilzer and, more important, Irving Berlin and Jerome Kern. Berlin, uncannily attuned to the public heart and mind, would become the most influential and prolific songwriter in American history, while Kern brought substantial musical sophistication to a field that had been somewhat moribund. Alec Wilder, in his landmark study "American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, 1900-1950," wrote that "just before the turn of the century, American Popular Song took on and consolidated certain native characteristics -- verbal, melodic, harmonic and rhythmic -- that distinguished it from the popular songs of other countries."

The energies of the era would be centered in three areas -- Tin Pan Alley, Broadway and Hollywood musicals. According to Wilder, more than 300,000 songs emerged from this era; scores of talented songwriters and lyricists churned out songs that charmed and soothed their fellow Americans and played a vital role in the continuing emergence of a uniquely American culture. (Wilder, once described as the guardian of the tenuous dreams created by writers of songs, is greatly responsible for the resurgence of interest in popular song through his book, radio programs and a major concert series at the Smithsonian; he also provoked the Smithsonian's current record project before his death in 1980.)

For years the popular song remained a vital and viable form. Ironically, such Berlin ballads as "Blue Skies" and "All By Myself" redefined the populist sounds. As Charles Hamm wrote in "Yesterdays; American Popular Music," those quiet ballads "helped change the taste of the American public from the rhythmic, dance-oriented songs of the 1910s to the slower, more introspective ballads that formed the core of the popular song repertory between the wars." That ballad mentality would backfire in the '50s as the emerging teen culture sought out music more appropriate to high-energy dancing -- almost a reprise of the 1910s.

By the late '40s, according to Joel Siegel, popular song was already on a "self-destruct trip. The people in charge had begun to prostitute the music to a level so low that anything was better. Most of the composers were cultured, and to sell more records, they had to lower their sights." The innovators lost their cutting edge and fell into stylistic recycling. But external factors were at work, as well. One can look to 1940 for an early barometer reading on changing tastes.

Since 1914, ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers) had been the monopoly performing rights organization, representing the old line and excluding composers and songwriters who worked outside the classical and popular song traditions. ASCAP collected royalties mainly through recordings and sheet music and was mistrusting of the new kid on the block, radio, which they felt would diminish royalties. At the end of 1939, ASCAP doubled its rates for broadcasters, who refused to pay; after Jan. 1, 1940, no ASCAP songs were heard on the radio. Broadcasters formed their own performing rights organization (Broadcast Music Inc. or BMI) utilizing songs in the public domain (Stephen Foster enjoyed a brief revival). More important, hillbilly and race records, populist white and black music that had been ignored by ASCAP, aligned itself with BMI and slipped in the heretofore closed door of wider public consciousness provided by radio. "They created that other kind of music," says Sammy Cahn about BMI.

Tin Pan Alley, insulated and self-obsessed, seemed oblivious to either the past or the future. When early rock 'n' roll emerged out of rhythm & blues and country, the old school ignored and underestimated its impact. They forgot Billboard magazine's 1932 obituary for vaudeville: "Vaudeville and its performers are still riding high bicycles." They forgot Hollywood's initial reaction to talkies as a passing fad and novelty that was "uniformly uninteresting."

As the postwar baby boom grew up, that old bugaboo, the generation gap, went to war over music. The older generation looked at rock as too loud, too sexually explicit and promoting interracial mixing. "People identify the pop of their adolescence as a very personal thing," Siegel points out, "and there's nothing so bald as the contempt between generations. If one has something, the next one almost has to hate it." Pianist George Shearing concurs, saying that "trends move with political or economic unrest." (Ironically, Siegel points to the current electronics and video-game boom as a possible break with rock, whose revenues have in fact, been decreasing. "Maybe the rock of the '60s and '70s is perceived by kids as something antique and they're moving in another direction. To a 15-year-old, the Beatles are as much an antique as Bing Crosby is to a 30-year-old.")

Post-World War II America itself was undergoing profound social and economic changes. An exploding teen culture experienced sudden economic power and technology was there with new products -- portable radios, cheaper hi-fi systems, television. On Tin Pan Alley, songwriters were still reeling from two major shifts in the '40s when the dance bands started going out of business and singers like Frank Sinatra, Jo Stafford, Rosemary Clooney left the bands for solo careers. The result was a new primacy for singers and the devaluation of songwriters and publishers that would come to a head in the '50s with the most fundamental change of all as technology forced oral-based music into ascendancy over music coming out of the written tradition.

In Hollywood, a 1948 Supreme Court ruling broke up the exhibitor/production combines; as the studios divested themselves of theaters, they also brought an end to the Hollywood musical, which with the musical theater of Broadway, had been one of the chief arenas for launching and popularizing hit tunes, as well as developing singers. Broadway itself was in the doldrums. "The first generation got old and even their later shows weren't good," says Siegel. Second generation tunesmiths like Johnny Mercer, Jimmy Van Heusen, Alan Jay Lerner and Frank Loesser contributed powerful songs to successful shows, but the third (and current) generation -- Kander and Ebb, Boch and Harnick, Cryer and Ford, Adler and Ross -- seldom benefitted from radio exposure or widespread critical attention. There are notable exceptions, like Stephen Sondheim, onetime apprentice to Oscar Hammerstein II, who seems to be elevating the art to a new level and whose "Send In the Clowns" has become a modern-day classic.

BY THE '50s, though, there was a widespread reaction to Tin Pan Alley's pervasive escapism. "People were getting tired of sleepy, contented music," says Shearing. The medium didn't really evolve in its latter stages and eventually the songwriters and their audience reached a mutual saturation point.

Some singers tried to bridge the gap with albums of contemporary material, but Siegel points out, "They had trouble recording tunes they believed in; it was embarrassing for mature artists. They knew they couldn't get recorded unless they adapted, but it was like people of a certain age trying to wear miniskirts. It was offensive to younger listeners who had their own idols and to older ones who felt betrayed." Many singers became part of that floating pool of performers defined by Whitney Balliett as "singing superior songs, some of them largely unknown, to small audiences in intimate rooms . . . the singers who have been carrying forward this movement have made the beauty and ingenuity of American popular songs clear."

Although many songwriters continued to work, their dominance was usurped by the self-contained singer-songwriters of the rock era who performed in such a way that their material seemed suitable only to themselves; the new breed also benefitted from not having to share performance royalties with songwriters and publishing companies. And it was rock music that garnered the airplay that sold the records that brought in the royalties. Sammy Cahn, admitting he came out of the "moon/June/true/blue" period, remembers working on a television special with Mitch Lee ("Man of La Mancha"). "We did 16 songs for 'The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm,' 16 songs that one night went out into the air . . . and just disappeared." The late Hoagy Carmichael, speaking the fear of many old-timers, once said, "If I took a tune to a publisher today, I couldn't get it recorded."

The songs of the past survived on small labels, in the nightclubs of Las Vegas and Miami, and most of all in New York, where classic cabaret artists like Bobby Short and Mabel Mercer kept the home fires burning. The tunes also stayed alive in countless jazz performances; jazz artists found their intelligent melodies a perfect vehicle, diamonds that lent themselves to ever changing settings. But one had to search for the music on the airwaves, and even more so in most record stores.

Enter Artie Mogull and Applause. "We kicked our audience out of the record stores 20 years ago," he says. Mogull's vision is thoroughly practical: He'll put out 40 records a year, with a sales goal of 50-75,000. "That couldn't be done at a major record company, it would be a losing album." With a budget of $5-10,000 per album, Mogull will go not just to the record stores, but to television and direct mailing to reach what he says is "obviously an older market than the conventional record business." It's an audience that has been excluded from most youth-oriented record stores. Applause has been besieged by artists. "Most of them have never stopped working," Mogull says.

Tony Bennett, a founding father of the Kennedy Center, once described "the pop music business today as dealing in lead . . . and I'm in the silver business." He added that "a large army of people out there have ears, like good solid music and have supported us through the years. These songs will never die." If the songs age well, the graying of America itself may be a factor in the reappraisal of this era. The median demographic age is creeping up, well past 30 now; with age comes an increasing concern with substance, with narrative value, with songs that speak to adult considerations. Many music industry observers attribute the rise of country music to this concern. "It seems to me it's going to stay a minority music, like jazz," says Siegel. "It's okay to like it again. I wonder who told us it was okay not too?" He echoes a classic Nat King Cole complaint that "it's a shame when you're told you can't to something because it's 'too good.' "

Eileen Farrell, best known as an opera star, says of the popular song era, "It was always there, gorgeous music that was part of my life." The current revival of interest may be a harkening back to simpler, more innocent times, or simply belated public recognition of a magnificent musical legacy that has been too long unsung. Charles Hamm in "Yesterdays" speaks to another possibility. "There has always been a place and a need in American life for songs with texts touching on some aspect of the human condition, sung by one singer or a small group of vocalists, to music that enhances the words and their meaning. Whenever the stream of musical fashion has led in directions that threaten to overwhelm the human voice and its texts, popular song has quickly swung back to a style that allows the voice and its messages of nostalgia, despair, hope, frustration, defiance, escape -- and most of all, love -- to sound once again over and through the music."