Tag Archives: The Great American Songbook

How I learned to love The Great American Songbook

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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“Autumn Leaves” (Les Feuilles Mortes)

I have a new song stuck in my head that at least has the virtue of being seasonally appropriate, “Autumn Leaves”  was originally titled “Les Fueilles Mortes,” which means “Dead Leaves”. The music was written by composer Joseph Kosma – a Hungarian-French composer – with the music set to a poem by poet and screenwriter Jacques Prevert. It was written in 1945 and officially introduced by Yves Montand in the 1946 French film Les Portes De La Nuit (released in America as Gates of the Night).

The song was not well known in America, however, until 1949, when Johnny Mercer rewrote the lyrics in English and Jo Stafford recorded the song. It received modest attention, but according to really became a popular standard in 1955, when pianist Roger Williams recorded an instrumental version that was a number 1 hit.

The song was then used in1956 for the movie Autumn Leaves – thus titled to capitalize on the popularity of the song – that starred Joan Crawford and Cliff Robertson. The song plays over the opening credits and is sung by Nat King Cole.

The song in the original French has someone reminiscing about how much they love someone, who has parted from them. The singer is comparing life and memories to fallen leaves, which can be blown away, but the singer has not forgotten yet. But there seems to be a shade of sadness, as though even those memories will be blown away inevitably, just as the two lovers were. The English version, written by Johnny Mercer, is a simplified version of the song, about how the singer misses someone most during the fall. There is less imagery of how the memories will blow away and a more general Autumnal sadness with all its inherent nostalgic imagery.

Here is Yves Montand’s version that was introduced in Les Portes De La Nuit. I don’t understand French, so I’m not sure what the man is talking about before the song begins. The song begins officially at 0:50 in the video.

Doris Day is without doubt one of my favorite singers. This version was recorded in 1956, a year after the song became popular because of the pianist Roger Williams.

And here is Roger Williams’ version. I’m not sure I’m a fan, though. It lacks that reflective, wistful quality I like in Day’s interpretation. Frankly, it sounds florid and melodramatic.

I have to include Nat King Cole, who had a hit version in 1956.

And just to mix it up a little, Eva Cassidy does a more quiet, soulful rendition in 1996 which I found very moving.

To end things, Andrea Lundgren reminded me that Victor Borge did an absolutely hysterical comedy routine involving this song. Not to be missed.


Posted by on October 14, 2015 in Music


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“Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries”

Life can be so dreadfully serious; and I have a habit of making it more even serious by thinking too much about it. Which is why I listen to music. It can take you out of your own mind and remind you that life is indeed worth living. One song that reminds me most effectively of this is “Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries” by Ray Henderson and Lew Brown.

I couldn’t find much information on the song. It was written for George White’s Scandals of 1931, which was one of many George White’s Scandals that appeared on Broadway (between 1919-1939) and were produced by George White. It was a revue, which means it was highly episodic, featuring many different acts by different people, strung together with a thin plot. From what I can glean from the Internet Broadway Database and an excerpt on PBS’s webpage for it’s documentary Broadway: The American Musical, Ray Henderson was the composer and Lew Brown wrote the lyrics for that particular show, but for whatever reason Buddy G. DeSylva (a frequent collaborator as lyricist with the two; the team had the wonderful name: DeSylva, Brown and Henderson) is often credited with Brown for the lyrics of “Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries” (which is what Wikipedia told me), but does not appear to be true.

The show also featured Ray Bolger (the scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz) and Ethel Merman and she introduced the song “Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries.” It was then hugely popularized by Rudy Vallee in 1931, who was himself a hugely popular singer (like Sinatra, he was apparently mobbed by women) and was one of the first to utilize the microphone so he could croon softly (as Bing Crosby does, too)

Another rendition that I enjoy is by the Boswell Sisters, a sister trio like the Andrews Sisters; in fact they came first. Their lead singer and primary music arranger was Connee Boswell, who had a wonderful solo career, too. Ella Fitzgerald often credited her as a major influence. For more information on the Boswell Sisters, check out the website dedicated to them: I Get Bozzed.

My last example of the song is by Doris Day from her album The Love Album, which was recorded in 1967 but not released until 1994. According to John Bush, writing on the website ALLMusic, “Day sings simply, sweetly, and straight as an arrow, as always, but she infuses these songs with a multitude of emotion that most singers need a half-dozen notes to get across.”  She slows the song down considerably and makes it much more thoughtful. Here is the link for her version:

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Posted by on March 27, 2014 in Music


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