The Great American Songbook and the Standards

Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr…these are just some of the vocalists whose repertoires were heavenly laden with the songs from the Great American Songbook—songs that transcend time and are so easily identified with our national music heritage.

After many years as one of this country’s most memorable voices, Tony Bennett put it in his own words when he said, “In a hundred to a hundred fifty years from now, I believe that people will recognize the music of Gershwin and Ellington as the Classical Music of our time."

For those of you unfamiliar with the Great American Songbook, this is your formal introduction to a genre that is timeless.

The Great American Songbook is a universal term that applies to the songs of Broadway musical theater, Hollywood musicals, and Tin Pan Alley. The era encompasses the period from the 1920s through the 1950s—prior to the dominant emergence of rock and roll. Besides the lasting impact and popularity of this music as originally composed, it also evolved to become the central repertoire of jazz musicians. The standards, as these songs became know as, are just as popular today as they were decades ago.

Some of the contributors to the Great American Songbook are composers and lyricists such as Irving Berlin (“Blue Skies”), Harold Arlen (“Over the Rainbow”), Hoagy Carmichael (Stardust”), Duke Ellington (“Satin Doll”), George and Ira Gershwin (Summertime”), Jerome Kern (“Smoke gets in Your Eyes”), Johnny Mercer (“That Old Black magic”), Cole Porter (“Night and day”), Rodgers and Hart (“My Funny Valentine”), Rodgers and Hammerstein (“Some Enchanted Evening”), and Jimmy Van Heusen (“All the Way”).

These are but a few of the icons that have made the Great American Songbook what it is today.

Perhaps the most authoritative documentation and study of the Great American Songbook is found in the 1972 book entitled, “American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, 1900-1950,” written by songwriter and critic Alec Wilder. Wilder’s book provides a list of artists who belong in this writing along with what he perceives to be a ranking based on their relative worth.

Although Wilder’s list is largely subjective, with more emphasis on composers than lyricists, his work was certainly influential and is generally considered to correspond with the majority of people’s idea of the Great American Songbook.

Offically, Wilder ends his study of the Great American Songbook with the 1950s, but for many, composers such as Henry Mancini and Burt Bacharach in the last half of the 20th century are deserving of recognition and should be included as contributors to this “canon” too.

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