In my next life I hope I can be a songwriter. I can think of few achievements more satisfying than to compose the lyrics of a beautiful song that captures love, courage, heartbreak, sweet memories, struggle, regret, revenge, faith or other emotions.
I can’t recite more than a few lines of the Gettysburg Address or Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. But I can give you every word of “This Land Is Your Land,” “Don’t Fence Me In” and dozens – maybe hundreds – of other popular songs. I bet that you can, too.
How do song lyrics get so deeply embedded in our brains? Repetition, probably. In the cradle we are treated to lullabies. By age 3 we’re exposed to nursery rhymes. Unless we’re hearing-impaired or living in a mine shaft, at every stage of our lives the songs keep coming at us – from radios, TV, iPods, computers, movies, our own children. The best songs, and some of the worst ones, will be repeated so often in an average lifetime that the words and melodies become pinned to the corkboards of our minds.
The first songs I can recall were “The Way You Look Tonight” and “The Music Goes Round and Round.” Our nation’s entry into WWII brought “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition” and “Der Fuehrer’s Face.” I entered my teens in the company of Sinatra, Como and Nat Cole. I must confess that after the advent of rock music in the 1950s I memorized many fewer lyrics. Today I’m an illiterate when the conversation turns to rap, hip hop and other noise-ridden varieties of music.
For an intriguing exercise, try listing 20 or so events of your own personal life, and then name the pop hits that were current at that time. It shouldn’t be hard to do. I go into nostalgic shock each time I hear Jo Stafford sing “You Belong to Me,” at the top of the charts in September 1952, when I entered college and life was greener than it’s ever been for me, before or since. Can you name the tune that’s triggered in your mind when you remember the first time you kissed your true love? Or the love that got away?
I’m a sucker for love songs with happy endings. Maybe some day the Pew Research Center will launch a study to determine how many love songs have a happy theme vs. those that deal with romances that ended badly. Among the upbeat titles might be “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To,” “When Your Hair Has Turned to Silver,” “Till There Was You,” “Our Love Is Here to Stay,” “Just in Time,” and “Long Ago and Far Away.”
The sad songs might include “Are You Lonesome Tonight?”, “I Cried for You,” “Autumn Leaves,” “Don’t Get Around Much Any More,” and one of the most poignant tunes in all of song-writing history, “Yesterday.” Legend has it that Paul McCartney produced that song in about 10 minutes. Examples like that pretty well demolish the notion that great works of art must, or should, be the product of years of suffering.
Other countries and cultures have rich histories of songwriting and memorable ballads, but offhand I can’t name any other nation that has churned out the volume of popular music that the USA has. A history of America could be written based on the songs that reflected the struggles, triumphs, madnesses and enthusiasms of our country and its people.
Although the USA has steadily become more citified, I recently heard that country-western songs are the music category most requested and played on American radio stations.
Despite my lifelong admiration for many music performers, I’ve had personal contact with only two people in the music business. One was the late Helen O’Connell, who sang with the Jimmy Dorsey band and alongside Bob Eberle during the 1940s. My wife had known Helen in Los Angeles, and when Helen performed in the Tampa-Orlando region in the ’70s and ’80s we would sometimes hook up with her for a visit.
My other musical acquaintance was my Bucknell University fraternity brother Bruce Lundvall, whose skill at discovering and developing talent led him to become the head of the prestigious Blue Note label. In recent years Bruce has lamented the radical changes in the music industry. People used to pay cash for song records and take them home to play. In today’s digital era, you can just switch on a radio or computer and download songs, free of charge.
Pop music has changed in other ways. Too often, dignified performance has given way to tawdry exhibitionism. Can you picture Ella Fitzgerald or Rosemary Clooney displaying their pudenda the way Miley Cyrus did a week or two ago at the video music awards? I can’t, and I don’t want to.