smacks of the Beatles' own self-assessment -
immodest but not inaccurate - that they were
more famous than Jesus Christ.
I can leave it to the heavyweights to spring to
the defense of the dozens of classical
composers of lieder and operas who wrote songs
of great beauty in the one and a half centuries
that intervened between the death of Schubert
and the rise of the Fab Four. "Carmen" and
"Traviata" hardly lack "joyful music making."
Perhaps we should be grateful that Palmer
conceded us Schubert.
But, classical music aside, what I find
impossible to forgive is that Palmer, a
historian of the popular song, should so
sweepingly have ignored the titans of Tin Pan
Alley. Certainly Lennon and McCartney wrote
some fine melodies, but there is an
unbridgeable gulf between them and the creative
geniuses who formed the Golden Age of the
American Song. That age lasted roughly from the
1920s until 1954, the year that Bill Haley and
his Comets recorded "Rock Around the Clock."
The outstanding composers of the Golden Age were
George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin,
Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers and Harold Arlen.
Of course there were others - notably Hoagy
Carmichael who wrote the evergreen "Star Dust"
- but it was these six who wrote, with
astonishing consistency, the melodies that made
the era famous.
Gershwin apart, the composers of Tin Pan Alley
did not seek to belong to the world of
classical music. They were conscious of their
limitations. But why complain? They gave us
gorgeous, soaring, lilting melodies: tunes to
sing in the shower, tunes to whistle in the
street. If you are an addict like me you will,
merely by reading the titles of the songs that
I mention here, find that those songs invade
your mind and like a "warning voice that comes
in the night" - in the words of Cole Porter's
"I've Got You Under My Skin" - `repeat and,
repeat' in your ears.
In his absorbing book "The Poets of Tin Pan
Alley," Philip Furia finds it surprising that
85 percent of the songs of early Tin Pan Alley
were about love. Certainly if he expected them
to be about stamp collecting he would have been
deeply disappointed. They gloriously, wittily
and unashamedly celebrate romantic love.
In Tin Pan Alley, the music reigned supreme.
Even the best of the lyricists - outstandingly
Ira Gershwin, Oscar Hammerstein, the
incomparable Lorenz Hart and, of course, Irving
Berlin and Cole Porter who wrote their own
music and lyrics - knew that the words must be
subservient to the melody. Many composers
worked with several lyricists. Each of the
three best known Harold Arlen songs, "Stormy
Weather," "Over the Rainbow" and "That Old
Black Magic," was written by a different
lyricist. Jerome Kern worked with many
librettists including - somewhat surprisingly -
P. G. Wodehouse, who wrote some of the songs of
That their lyrics were frequently ephemeral did
not worry the Tin Pan Alley poets. Take Cole
Porter's "You're the Top." It piles up a witty
list of metaphors ("you're a Berlin ballad -
you're a Waldorf salad"), to express the
perfection of the loved one. Many will have
little meaning to a contemporary ear. What is
"the nose on the great Durante" and what is so
special about cellophane, newly invented when
Porter first wrote the song?
Take also Richard Rodgers' "Manhattan" in which
Lorenz Hart, perhaps the most gifted of all the
Tin Pan Alley lyricists, alludes to a now
long- forgotten Broadway hit show:
Our future babies
We'll take to `Abie's
We hope they'll live to see it close.
In a later version it is "South Pacific is a
terrific show they say" and my Ella Fitzgerald
recording updates it to "My Fair Lady." I
expect the latest redaction of that immortal
song refers to "The Producers" but none will
match Hart's deft rhyming scheme.
The changes wrought by time to these lyrics can
also reflect changes in sensitivities. Our
prurient age has consigned "Thank Heaven for
Little Girls,," "My Heart Belongs to Daddy" and
"Little One" to near oblivion. An even more
arresting example is the history of the words
of "Ol' Man River" from Jerome Kern's "Show
Boat": Oscar Hammerstein's original 1927 lyric
has "Niggers all work on de Mississippi." By
1928 the first words had become "Colored
folks." In 1936 it metamorphosed to "Darkies
all," and in 1946 "Here we all." The 1994
Broadway revival caps it with the pallid
By and large they were a remarkably homogeneous
bunch. The archetypal Tin Pan Alley songwriter,
whether composer or lyricist, was a Jew from
New York. It is tempting but dangerous to build
a theory on this undeniable fact. The melodies
possess no strikingly Jewish flavor but the
lyrics, particularly of Hart, have a wit and
sophistication that we often associate with
Jewish New York.
Cole Porter was conscious of standing out as the
token goy. The scion of a wealthy Wasp family,
he sought to succeed in this alien environment.
He confided to Richard Rodgers that he had
found the formula for writing hits. "Simplicity
itself" he told Rodgers "I'll write Jewish
tunes." And he did too. Rodgers found it "one
of the ironies of the musical theater" that
Porter - particularly with his frequent use of
the minor key - should be the most "Jewish" of
the song-writers of the Golden Age.
Irving Berlin, however, had no interest in
writing Jewish tunes. Musically illiterate all
his life - he had an assistant who transcribed
his melodies - he tried to distance himself
from his origins, though he could not escape
them. Philip Furia instances "the Yiddish
penchant for answering a question with another
question" which Berlin employs by answering the
question "How deep is the ocean?" with "How
high is the sky?"
Of them all, Berlin knew best how to satisfy his
public as is evident from the success of "White
Christmas," often called a "secular hymn."
Francois Villon, the medieval French poet who
pined for les neiges d'antan - the snows of
yesteryear - could hardly have foreseen the
moneymaking possibilities in those snows.
Berlin, a musical alchemist, did; He turned
snow into dough. Like Villon, and like Orson
Welles, who made Citizen Kane's toboggan
"Rosebud" the symbol of his desperate yearning
for the innocence of his childhood, Berlin
recognized the potency of snow in the
A book - by Jody Rosen in 2002 - is devoted to
the history of "White Christmas." Arguably the
most popular song of all time it is a
phenomenon that merits a book. Aside from the
record-breaking version by Bing Crosby (which
has sold 31 million copies), it has been
recorded hundreds of times and has sold at
least 125 million copies (some estimates reach
as high as 400 million). There are versions in
Hungarian, Japanese, Swahili (!) and - the
imagination boggles - Yiddish. The Bing Crosby
version was the best-selling single of all time
until 1998. In that year Elton John wrote
"Candle in the Wind" for the funeral of
Princess Diana. We can only regret that Irving
Berlin was not around then to sanctify that
apotheosis of kitsch.
In his novel "Operation Shylock," Philip Roth
pays mock homage to the success of "White
Christmas" and another Berlin hit "Easter
Parade" by depicting them as Berlin's Jewish
revenge on Christianity - turning Easter into a
fashion show and Christmas into a holiday about
The only song that approaches "White Christmas"
in canonical status was written by two New York
sophisticates - Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg -
for a film about the adventures of a country
girl from Kansas. For many, "Over the Rainbow"
is the greatest of them all. Philip Furia
growls that its popularity "was yet another
signal that a flood of sentimentality ... was
about to engulf New York urbanity, from top hat
to tails." Maybe; but it is, by any standard, a
Each of the great Tin Pan Alley composers was
prolific. It is near impossible to select a
representative song for, say, the consistently
brilliant Rodgers or the long-lived Irving
Berlin: but putting my money where my mouth is,
I conclude by naming six songs, one by each of
the six, that can knock the socks off anything
by Lennon and McCartney.
So, douze points to Gershwin's "Summertime,"
Kern's "All the Things You Are," Porter's
"Night and Day," Berlin's "Always," Rodgers'
"My Heart Stood Still" and Arlen's "Over the
Match those if you can, Tony Palmer.