How I learned to love The Great American Songbook

14 Oct

away-1“They can’t take that away from me…”

It began with Fred Astaire and Ginger Roger in Shall We Dance. Fred Astaire was singing “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” and I thought it was beautiful. I wanted to know who wrote it and where I could hear more songs like it.

It wasn’t the first time I had heard such songs. I grew up watching musicals, but as a child I found all “slow” songs boring. I wanted dancing, comedy and funny, upbeat music.

More accurately, it really all began after my grandfather died. One thing that happens when you lose a person close to you is that you don’t know what to do with yourself. Do you sit and cry? Think? Try to forget? Is it okay to do an enjoyable activity? Is that a betrayal? If you have immediate work to do, all the better. But I didn’t have pressing work and I wasn’t sure what to do with myself. I wanted to watch a movie. But I didn’t want to watch just any movie.

This was because my grandfather was such a good man. He was kind, gentle, strong, and always there for you; and it felt wrong to watch the kind of movie he never would have watched. So I watched a musical. And another musical. And another. It all began with a rediscovery of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. I’d never before appreciated what a genius Fred Astaire was. Or Ginger Rogers. In truth, it was the beginning of my love, not just for Astaire, Rogers and The Great American Songbook. It was the beginning of my love for old movies.

But the song that started it all was “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.” The music was by George Gershwin and the lyrics by his brother, Ira Gershwin. It was the last completed film by George Gershwin before he died at 38 years of age. Ira was devastated, as was Fred Astaire, who had known Gershwin for many years.

But at the time of first hearing the song, I knew nothing about it. All I knew was that there was something both touching and enduring about the song and the lyrics: “The way you wear your hat – The way you sip your tea – The memory of all that – No, no, they can’t take that away from me.”


George Gershwin

Many people – including Fred Astaire himself – did not care for the fact that the song was sung briefly, on a ferry boat no less, with no dance. However, I rather like the setting for the song and there is something poignant about the fact that they do not dance at that moment. How the movie messed up was by not having them dance together at the end of the film to “They Can’t Take That Away from Me,” instead of the rather bizarre pseudo-ballet they have instead, with the imitation Ginger Rogers, Harriet Hoctor and very little dance between Astaire and the real Rogers. The lack of a dance, however, did not prevent the song from becoming popular.

I looked up the song and found that the best way to introduce myself to Gershwin’s work was to get my hands on a collection of his songs, sung by Ella Fitzgerald: Oh, Lady, Be Good! – Best Of The Gershwin Songbook. I read a book by Michael Feinstein called The Gershwins and Me: A Personal History in Twelve Songs, which also proved an excellent way to get started.

Since then, I’ve moved on to Jerome Kern (and the sublime 1936 film Show Boat), who has remained an especial favorite, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart (one of the great lyricists of his day), Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Harold Arlen, Harry Warren… They are composers who wrote songs that – no matter how trite the plot of the movie or musical – transcend and endure.

The Great American Songbook refers to popular songs (often overlapping with jazz songs) that were composed during the 1910s-1950s and have since been considered standards. They are mostly romantic songs, 32 bars, but the variety and emotional range is amazing. I was once reading about Byzantine art. I don’t remember much about the book, but the author talked about how great intensity of feeling and brilliance can be achieved when artists mine an art with very specific, confined rules. It’s not that one cannot break rules (not all songs were 32 bars), but the very confinement can yield greater intensity and creativity.


Jerome Kern

The other thing that fascinated me about the standards is how they blend African-American music, Jewish music (most of the composers were Jewish and Cole Porter used to say that his goal was to write “Jewish tunes”) and European operetta with American vernacular. I never used to know much about American music (I mostly studied western classical music in high school and college), but I have come to the conclusion that it should be given much more general attention. In fact I have the somewhat radical idea that American music AND movies should be taught in American schools. There is so much to learn and appreciate and it has been one of the best ways for me to look at  the American melting pot, racism, prejudice, the blending of traditions, creativity and resilience…and simply what it was like to be alive then.

I’ve wandered from my original point. But perhaps that is my point. To see what can start with a movie and a song! They can’t take that away from me…

This post is part of The Things I Learned From the Movies Blogathon, hosted by the wonderful Ruth of Silver Screenings and equally wonderful Kristina of Speakeasy. Be sure to check out the rest of the posts for Days 1, 2, and 3.


Fred Astaire introduces “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” in Shall We Dance (1937). The plot is a little shaky, but the songs are sublime. In this scene, Astaire and Rogers have just married, but are planning on an immediate divorce. This plan, however, unaccountably makes them sad.

And one of several of Ella Fitzgerald’s interpretations. She sang one version with Louis Armstrong, but this version is from her Gershwin Songbook.


Posted by on October 14, 2016 in Music


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32 responses to “How I learned to love The Great American Songbook

  1. Silver Screenings

    October 14, 2016 at 4:26 pm

    This post was helpful. I’ve never paid much attention to the Great American Songbook (likely due to not being an American), but I can see how the music was hugely influential. Now I’m keen to read more about it. I can see why a person would become a huge fan – I’ll likely become one soon, too!

    As for “They Can’t Take That Away From Me”, I adore this song. The tune is memorable, and the lyrics are clever and tender.

    Thanks so much for joining the blogathon and for sharing your passion for this wonderful music. And thanks for sharing the memories of your grandfather, who sounds like he was a remarkable man.

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      October 15, 2016 at 12:17 am

      Thanks! He was a very special grandfather. 🙂

      It is awfully addictive music! Compulsive, almost. 🙂 And universal. Oddly, I’m not sure most Americans are familiar with it (it seems to have been largely overshadowed by rock ‘n’ roll) and some of the books I’ve read on the topic were not written by Americans.

      I really feel it’s a pity it’s not taught as an integral part of American cultural history (jazz, too…classical music used to be popular music; why not admit jazz is just as important?), but it transcends American culture! Like tap dancing and jazz, it seems to have long departed America and become global.

      Thanks so much for hosting this fantastic blogathon!

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Patricia Nolan-Hall (@CaftanWoman)

    October 15, 2016 at 5:17 am

    You radical, you!

    Your idea of teaching this music (and the movies where they were born) in schools is wonderful. I bless the movies for introducing me to Irving Berlin and Harry Warren, etc. Their music has enriched my life immeasurably and, dare I say, made me the person I am today – the better, rather than the worse part.

    The music is an extra legacy from your beloved grandfather, something, like his memory, that will never leave you and be a sustaining element.

    Liked by 3 people

    • christinawehner

      October 15, 2016 at 12:26 pm

      “Sustaining element…” That is a lovely and very true thought! Thank you! 🙂

      It’s so wonderful to hear how much this music has meant to you, too! It is so enriching, isn’t it! The depth of human feeling, creativity, overcoming and pure joy at living…it’s amazing how many songs are appropriate to sing at different moments in life.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Kristina

    October 15, 2016 at 7:16 am

    So true, movies were my intro to swing, jazz, standards too, looking into who the songwriters were, etc. What a great way to learn and then have those associations to great movies/scenes/people too. Thanks for bringing this topic to the blogathon!

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      October 15, 2016 at 12:36 pm

      Thanks so much for hosting!

      Movies are the best introduction, aren’t they! It’s amazing to think how much it was a part of people’s lives, how musicians would appear in a movie like a celebrity and knock it out of the ballpark.


  4. The Animation Commendation

    October 15, 2016 at 8:10 am

    These are pretty much the type of songs I’m into.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Quiggy

    October 15, 2016 at 9:48 am

    I thought I responded to this post this morning… Oh well.

    I am an eclectic person when it comes to music. The older the better, but even then it’s still a pick and choose type of interest. For instance, I’m a huge fan of swing, but only the livelier numbers. And jazz singers, well, I like Sinatra, Vallee, not so much. Just a matter of tastes. This is an interesting post. I’ll be looking for some of the stuff mentioned herer.

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      October 15, 2016 at 12:42 pm

      Thanks! Vallee…yeah, he’s not my favorite, either. I love him in Preston Sturges’ comedies, though!

      I know what you mean about the older the better. It sometimes feels that if the musician/author/actor/artist isn’t dead and decomposing, I don’t like their work. 🙂


  6. FictionFan

    October 15, 2016 at 12:41 pm

    Lovely post! The thing about the Great American Songbook is that the songs are eminently singable, even for those of us who are… ahem… vocally challenged. 😉 They Can’t Take That Away From Me was one of my dad’s favourite songs – it’s from him that I inherited my complete inability to hold a tune, so we used to both chime in on the line “The way you sing off-key” to loud groans from the rest of my rather more tuneful family…

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      October 15, 2016 at 12:53 pm

      That is a great point about how singable they are! Thanks for sharing your memories of this special song!! What a wonderful memory – and it is marvelous how you both sang it, no matter what people thought. That is the important thing, to sing and share! Irrepressible song! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Michaela

    October 15, 2016 at 4:09 pm

    Loved this post! That scene in Shall We Dance is one of my favorite movie scenes. It’s so heartfelt and tender, especially with Fred’s wonderful (and underrated) voice and Ginger’s perfect acting. I get chills just thinking about it.

    I’m actually taking a course this semester that focuses on the Great American Songbook and it’s been really interesting. I’ve preferred the standards for a long time thanks to my love for old movies, but this class has definitely deepened that appreciation just a bit more.

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      October 15, 2016 at 7:06 pm

      Oh, that’s sounds like a wonderful class! My dream of the perfect class topic. 🙂 Is it focused on history, musical theory, culture…?

      I so agree about what an underrated voice Fred Astaire has…and Ginger Rogers’ acting! She was truly unique as an actress…her voice, her dancing, her humor and sense of comedic timing and genuine feeling….it’s hard to imagine anyone in her roles.


      • Michaela

        October 15, 2016 at 7:53 pm

        It’s called Lyrics and Popular Song, so we’re starting from the 1890’s and by the end of the semester we’ll be to modern music, but the primary focus is 1920’s-1950’s. My professor has a huge song list that he takes us through, categorized by who the lyricists are, and he’ll play a few versions of one song and then talk to us about the music and the words. It drives me batty sometimes just because he is somewhat computer-challenged, but it’s still interesting stuff.

        We’re going through the ’30s right now and I was tickled by the sheer amount of popular music that Astaire introduced. Supposedly it was more than any other performer!

        Liked by 1 person

        • christinawehner

          October 16, 2016 at 4:04 pm

          I didn’t realize Astaire introduced more than anyone else, though perhaps it makes sense. He really seems to have been in the middle of it, didn’t he?

          Gosh, that sounds really fun! And fascinating how he focuses on lyrics, too, as well as the music. It must be fascinating to see how it changed through time, too.


  8. Simoa

    October 15, 2016 at 6:30 pm

    “To see what can start with a movie and a song! They can’t take that away from me…”

    Wonderful! I certainly learned a lot (but then again I always do, reading your blog).

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Le

    October 16, 2016 at 1:23 pm

    I also came to know (and love) the Great American Songbook thanks to movie musicals!
    It was a very beautiful post, and I’m sure you wrote it with your hart. And I agree with you that American songs and movies should be taught at school!
    I’m glad my post helped you to try to be more blasé. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      October 16, 2016 at 4:18 pm

      Your post did very much! Just today I was reminding myself to chill and be more blase. 🙂

      It would be so fun to have a class like that! And movies and music seem like one of the best ways to really get in and study culture…how people thought and lived and interacted…as well as the merits of film and music itself.


  10. Katrina Morrison

    October 17, 2016 at 10:34 pm

    You are singing my song Christina, or should I say writing about my songs. I love these wonderful songs from all of these composers. These songs have such wonderful lyrics with such memorable melodies. Gerswin’s American in Paris and Berlin’s What’ll I do, I just love them💓
    I agree with you concerning music should be an important element in education…Thanks for writing about The Great American Songbook and musicals.

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      October 18, 2016 at 11:38 am

      And thank you!!! It is so lovely to share my enthusiasm with others who love it as much. It’s hard to ever get tired of listening to these songs, isn’t it! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • Katrina Morrison

        October 25, 2016 at 7:01 am

        Hi Christina
        Sorry to bother you; but, I started a post on Outlander’s costume designer for your blogfest from fiction to film. I was just on your site but I did not see my name on the roster. I just wonder if there was a problem with my link?
        Or, did maybe my submission was not receive. I resubmitted just in case. Please let me know if you received it today. I hope to submit the post by tomorrow.
        Thanks, Katrina

        Liked by 1 person

        • christinawehner

          October 25, 2016 at 8:58 am

          Hi Katrina – thanks for asking! I was just looking at the roster and do see you under Lifesdailylessonblog, so everything now looks great. I’m looking forward to reading your post very much! 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

          • Katrina Morrison

            October 25, 2016 at 9:05 am

            Oh thanks Christina. I don’t know how I missed it; but, I did LOL
            I look forward to reading the other posts too! Have a lovely day:)

            Liked by 1 person

  11. stephencwinter

    October 18, 2016 at 1:41 am

    I can see that you have had a really good response to this and rightly so! It is a lovely celebration of music that has enriched the whole world. I am reminded of that scene in The Green Mile (itself a very fine film) that takes place in a retirement home where the residents are flicking through TV channels rather unhappily until they find a movie in which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers are dancing together. Immediately a peace descends upon the whole room and I felt it in exactly the same way. I might want to put that scene with the famous one in the prison yard in The Shawshank Redemption. The music is of a different genre but the effect is to point folk to “a dearest freshness deep down things” as Gerard Manley Hopkins put it.
    I am going to play the clips that you generously included now to fill my heart with that freshness now.
    PS. Aren’t all of our societies at their best, happiest and most life giving when we embrace what the world wants to share with us just as America did with those wonderful Jewish musicians? We need to learn that one again.

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      October 18, 2016 at 11:43 am

      Yes, that’s very, very true! I think the very divisiveness of the world today has made me appreciate these songs all the more…not because the past was automatically better or worse than the present, but because these songs are something that indisputably belong to us all, that we can share and find common ground through.

      Liked by 1 person


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