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What I’m Reading: American Popular Song

Not too many people know the name Alec Wilder today. Even in his own time, the eccentric, itinerant, self-educated scholar of American song (among other subjects) never quite caught on in the popular imagination. Perhaps he was too difficult to classify: simultaneously too unschooled and too refined. In 1975, he published Letters I Never Mailed, an excerpt from which gives an idea of his unique voice:

Dear Mr. Copland: You were very kind to take the time to look at my string quartet. I’m not surprised or hurt that you said I was more interesting than my music except that I do believe you could have said the same thing slightly more politely…

and another:

Dear John: …Songwriters, generally, and publishers, totally, are a frightening, agate-eyed lot. I might as well be dressed like Little Lord Fauntleroy, golden locks and all, as be myself in this stevedore society. As hard as I try to introduce the word “f — in’” into every other sentence, as hard as I try to avoid any word of more than two syllables or admit I’ve ever read a book, it’s impossible to convince them I belong in their offices, rehearsal halls or night spots. Even the waiters in Lindy’s know I’m suspect.

 Wilder didn’t have many smash hits, but his finely crafted songs were championed by such artists as Frank Sinatra and Eileen Farrell—not too shabby. These days, countertenor David Daniels often includes Wilder’s “Blackberry Winter” as an encore on recital programs, as he did just last summer at Glimmerglass.

I’m thinking about Alec Wilder today because he wrote the book on American popular song—literally. He examined some 17,000 songs, and cited 300 of them, looking for “a fugitive essence and personality” that stamped a song as American. As a fellow composer and avid fan, he also sought to identify the tics and turns of phrase unique to some of the great innovators of song: Kern, Berlin, Gershwin, Rogers, Porter, Arlen.

I pulled American Popular Song: The Great Innovators off the shelf, of course, because we’re doing Irving Annie Get Your Gun next summer, and I wanted to review what Wilder had to say about the composer. Irving Berlin, though, confounds Wilder: “Berlin has always had an uncanny ability to adjust to the demands or needs of the moment, the singer, or the shift in popular mood,” he writes. “And so phenomenal has been this ability that he is as difficult to define as the color of a chameleon.”

Berlin was reportedly no fan of the project, and refused to have any of his songs quoted in the book. It’s a shame because, baffled though Wilder was, he was also clearly smitten by the great tunesmith of Tin Pan Alley. “Let it be said,” he concludes, “that [Berlin] is the best all-around, over-all song writer America has ever had. In this area or that, I will say, and have said, that I believe so-and-so to be the master. But I can speak of only one composer as the master of the entire range of popular song—Irving Berlin.”

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