What Makes a “City Song”?

He doesn’t sing and he doesn’t dance, but he knows all there is to know about American popular music.” We are thrilled to be publishing City Songs and American Life, 1900-1950 by Rochester local author Michael Lasser. As you may know, Lasser is the host of the nationally syndicated public-radio show Fascinatin’ Rhythm (winner of the 1994 Peabody Award) and author of two previous books. City Songs offers an insightful look at the urban sensibility that gives the Great American Songbook its pizzazz. If the syncopated swing of twentieth-century Tin Pan Alley, Broadway, and Harlem puts a spring in your step, you will delight in City Songs, the perfect complement to Fascinatin’ Rhythm.

Our thanks to Michael Lasser for sharing these excerpts from his book for you to read here on Proofed.

I believe that the songs of the first half of the twentieth century are essentially urban. Many of their composers and lyricists were born and raised in New York City, and nearly all of them worked there or wrote for the movies after starting out there. Even when the words “New York” never appear in a lyric, these are city songs in imagery, attitude, and tone. Sometimes they’re explicitly about the city, but it’s more a matter of sensibility than subject matter, more outlook than location. The songwriters did their work when America was becoming—had become—an urban place. They knew a lot more about sidewalks than dusty lanes. The songs of the Great American Songbook are urban creatures. They breathe city air and make it their own. They sing the city electric.

I’m most interested in the urban sensibility in mainstream popular music because I’m convinced that it, more than anything, defines these songs: the bruised romanticism of New Yorkers, for instance, and a way of looking at the world that combined sentiment with wit, engagement with distance, deep feeling with edgy humor. It praised love, relished its beginning, bemoaned its loss, discovered it again, and, in the process, made room for much of what was on America’s mind for fifty years. To delve into these songs and their sensibilities, I usually write about the lyrics.

As attitudes toward love changed, so did the songs. It’s hard to tell what the songwriters believed because they weren’t keeping diaries or writing polemics. Most of the time, they were trying to tease out a melody and shape a lyric that would become a hit because enough people liked what the resulting song had to say and how that song said it. That doesn’t mean they didn’t care about the work they did, but they rarely confused it with their own memories or beliefs. An old story says that whenever anybody asked lyricist Sammy Cahn which came first, the music or the words, he’d answer, “The phone call.” For these men and women, songwriting was a craft and a business. Their songs were rarely personal or confessional.

Ezra Jack Keats was a successful illustrator and author of books for very young children, including the classic A Snowy Day. He once tried to beg off from attending a writer’s workshop at a midwestern university, but his hosts insisted; they wanted a children’s author to speak and offer guidance to aspiring writers. “The money was good, and the food and whiskey promised to be plentiful,” he once told me, sitting in a hotel bar in Midtown Manhattan, “so I went.” On the final night, the writers gathered onstage to take questions. “How many words do you write each year?” somebody asked—as if it mattered. One novelist said twenty thousand, another said thirty thousand, and Jack Keats said sixty-five. When the audience stopped laughing, he waggled his finger at them and added, “But I choose each one very carefully.”2

Ezra Jack Keats, American writer and illustrator of children’s books.

My particular passion is for a song’s words, the few very well-chosen words of a professional lyricist, placed to merge with a melody as carefully as the words of a children’s author sit amidst the illustrator’s art. I savor a good lyric’s dazzling economy, its evocative simplicity, its reanimation of clichés, its brilliant rhyming, and its spicing of romance with the taste of wit.

City people, and especially New Yorkers, like to view themselves as tough and cynical, but their imaginations make room for a belief in the permanence of love along with a healthy dose of skepticism about whether it will survive very long—at the same time. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in “The Crack-Up,” “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” If he’s right, most New Yorkers seem to have “a first-rate intelligence.” The hyperbolic Walt Whitman, who used to cross from Brooklyn to Manhattan by ferry, uttered what must have seemed lofty and revolutionary when he said it, but maybe he was just being a New Yorker: “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / I am large, I contain multitudes.” The playwright George S. Kaufman, a notorious cynic when it came to romance, reacted to Irving Berlin’s “Always,” by suggesting that he change the familiar first line of the chorus to, “I’ll be loving you, Thursday.” An urban sensibility feels at ease with ambiguity and skepticism, with juggling contradictory ideas and attitudes, and with feeling at home in a place that never stops changing. The songwriters of the time wrote songs devoted to the paradoxical propositions that nothing’s better than being in love, it hurts like hell when it unravels, and it’s worth risking again. The characters they created in their songs are the world’s champion bruised romantics.

In 1900, 70 percent of New Yorkers had been born somewhere else. The constantly changing city found its sound in the syncopated music of the day. It was the beat of American optimism, the sound of the modern. It got people moving in a new way, off the beat, with a flirtatious gleam and a suggestive step. There was something free about it, and sexual. This syncopation changed you.

George Gershwin, American composer and pianist

Architectural historian Witold Rybczynski called the twentieth-century city “brash, pragmatic, and often vulgar. Bright lights, skylines, activity, excitement—there was little intellectual underpinning to the vertical city, whose appeal was visual and visceral. . . . Like jazz, the vertical city was marked by improvisation. . . . The builders of New York made it up as they went along.” The songwriters kept up with them, step for step. They were builders—makers—of another sort. Rybczynski is an architect, but one songwriter said much the same thing. In 1927, George Gershwin wrote, “If I were . . . suddenly set down by an aeroplane on this soil and listening with fresh ear to the American chorus of sounds, I should say that American life is nervous, hurried, syncopated, ever accelerando, and slightly vulgar.” In other words, urban. In the middle of Manhattan, Gershwin heard the sound of America in the sounds of the city: “It is black and white. It is all colors and souls unified in the great melting pot of the world. Its dominant note is vibrant syncopation.” Irving Berlin called syncopation “the soul of every true American.” Wilfrid Sheed knew what he was talking about when he suggested that syncopation was at the heart of the popular ballads of the Great American Songbook. Even when you can’t find any syncopation in a particular melody, every song is surrounded by it, born out of it. Thanks to the music of African Americans, it became the American way of moving, the hesitation and quickstep we needed to keep our songs about love on the rhythmic up-and-up. It had nothing to do with speed or tempo, but that underlying grab and go that weds music and words to one another, and then back to the streets where syncopation strived and thrived. Regardless of the intent or effect of a lilting melody or a hot-paced lick, whether they lulled or lambasted, every song added to the cacophony that created the city’s clangor we reveled in.

City Songs and American Life, 1900-1950 is written by Michael Lasser, a former teacher and theatre critic. Lasser is the host of the syndicated public-radio show Fascinatin’ Rhythm (winner of the Peabody Award) and the author of two previous books.

City Songs and American Life, 1900-1950
by Michael Lasser
Hardback / 9781580469524 / £18.75 or $26.21

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