“The songs of the American Songbook are urban creatures. They breathe city air and make it their own. They sing the city electric.”
What makes a Great American Songbook classic? During the first half of the twentieth century, songwriters flourished in New York City, the home of Tin Pan Alley, Broadway, and Harlem. Michael Lasser, host of popular radio show Fascinatin’ Rhythm, available to listen on WXXI Classical915, believes that nothing defines the songs of the Great American Songbook more richly and persuasively than their urban sensibility.
To celebrate the publication of Michael Lasser’s new book, City Songs and American Life, 1900-1950, he has handpicked ten of the greatest “City Songs” from the American Songbook, so you can create your own read-along playlist.
- Love Is Here To Stay (George Gershwin, Ira Gershwin, The Goldywyn Follies, 1937), from “The City’s Clangor”, Chapter 1, City Songs and American Life, 1900-1950.
Gene Kelly rescued the song from anonymity when he performed it An American in Paris. But he omits the all-important verse. I like Michael Feinstein’s recording accompanied only by his own piano playing.
- Lullaby of Broadway (Harry Warren, Al Dubin, Gold Diggers of 1935, 1935), from “Broadway’s Melody”, Chapter 2.
The best way to capture the song’s hardboiled romanticism is to find the long track from the original movie, readily available on both DVD and CD. For a studio recording, I recommend Ella Fitzgerald’s.
- Pack Up Your Sins (Irving Berlin, Music Box Revue, 1922), from “Harlem’s Renaissance”, Chapter 3.
It was written as a contrapuntal duet—what Berlin called a “double song”—but it’s rarely performed that way. An exception—William Bolcom and Joan Morris on the album, Girl on the Magazine Cover.
- The Joint Is Jumpin’ (Thomas “Fats” Waller, J.C. Johnson, Andy Razaf, 1938), from “Harlem’s Renaissance”, Chapter 3.
This song is about a rent party during the Harlem Renaissance. No one gives you the song’s flavor more fully and satisfyingly than Fats Waller—a great composer, a great pianist, and a great entertainer.
- Blue Skies (Irving Berlin, Betsy, 1926), from “Recordings, Radio, and Talkies”, Chapter 4.
One of the greatest of all the “Pollyanna songs” because beneath its sunny optimism there lingers a trace of melancholy. Al Jolson also sang it in The Jazz Singer, the first important talkie. I recommend Jolson’s version from 1927, but also Frank Sinatra with Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman at the 1938 Carnegie Hall jazz concert.
- Cuddle Up a Little Closer (Karl Hoschna, A.O. Hauerbach, 1908), from “Starting the Century”, Chapter 5.
The most important of the “cuddling songs” from the early years of the twentieth century—both innocent and sweetly sexy. It was an early conversational duet by Ada Jones and Billy Murray, early recording stars, but for more recent recordings, try Julie London or Vic Damone.
- Five Foot Two (Ray Henderson, Sam E. Lewis, Joe Young, 1925), from “The Flapper and the Jazz Age”, Chapter 6.
The heart of the Jazz Age pulsates in this quintessential “flapper song,” a tribute to the independence and appeal of young women during the decade-long party of the Roaring Twenties. The California Ramblers had the most important recording when it was new.
- Over the Rainbow (Harold Arlen, E.Y. Harburg, Wizard of Oz, 1939), from “The Great Depression”, Chapter 7.
Written as an afterthought so Judy Garland would have a song of her own to sing in Wizard of Oz, “Over the Rainbow” emerged as one of the great anthems of the Great Depression—a melancholy tribute to hope. Judy Garland sang it throughout her life, most tellingly in the Wizard of Oz when she was eighteen, and then again at Carnegie Hall more than twenty years later.
- Thanks for the Memory (Ralph Rainger, Leo Robin, Big Broadcast of 1938, 1938), from “The Great Depression”, Chapter 7.
A movie producer told Rainger and Robin to write a serious song but, because Bob Hope would sing it in his first movie, it also needed to be funny. Robin’s lyric takes a divorced couple back over their marriage. No performance equals the original by Hope and Shirley Ross.
- Don’t Get Around Much Anymore (Duke Ellington, Bob Russell, 1942), from “World War II”, Chapter 8.
A deeply melancholy ballad during the darkest year of World War II, this song began as an instrumental entitled, “Never No Lament” in 1938. Russell’s 1942 lyric transformed it into a song for the home front during the war. The Ink Spots had the hit recording.
Michael Lasser is a former teacher and theater critic, and the host of the syndicated public-radio show Fascinatin’ Rhythm (winner of the Peabody Award). His book City Songs and American Life, 1900-1950 will be published by the University of Rochester Press in June 2019.