Against the Great American Songbook

greatamericansongbook

I’ve been listening to Ella in Rome (1958), a fortieth birthday concert that captures Ella’s artistic peak. Ella and her musicians fly through the music with dizzying virtuosity, but I am constantly impatient with her reliance—with jazz’s general reliance—on the “great American songbook” throughout the 40s and 50s. As I see things, Jewish writers and black musicians ignored their own depths in order to imitate the WASP veneer of sophistication, abandoning the existential desert and cotton field for the chimera of champagne bubbles. The motives were commercial, but I think also psychological: the WASP cultural preeminence cowed them into submission and imitation. Cole Porter is the chief—or at least symbolic—nemesis of my argument. Ella sings his tune “Just One of those Things”:

As Dorothy Parker once said to her boy friend,“Fare thee well,”
As Columbus announced when he knew he was bounced, “It was swell, Isabelle, swell,”
As Abelard said to Heloise, “Don’t forget to drop a line to me, please,”
As Juliet cried in her Romeo’s ear, “Romeo, why not face the fact, my dear?”

It was just one of those things,
Just one of those crazy flings,
One of those bells that now and then rings,
Just one of those things.

Why should Ella deprecate her great art with this smarmy Yalie nonsense? What does Cole Porter know about jungle tom toms? For that matter, what does he know about Abelard and Heloise? Nothing whatsoever. I submit that a song like Sam Cooke’s “Having a Party,” with its paradoxical and mysterious sadness, is far better than anything Cole Porter wrote. The song couldn’t be simpler. And yet it’s not simple. The party is a consolation, a distraction, an attempt at escape…but a hopeless one. Its chorus—“I’m having such a good time dancing with my baby”—is at best a partial truth. The song tries to swell into full affirmation toward the end, but to only partial avail. The song is a deeper and presumably truer civil rights anthem than Cooke’s rightly revered “A Change is Gonna Come.” When he mentions Cokes and popcorn, Cooke describes the resonance of a lived moment. The tom toms are literary contrivance—a Hollywood prop—but the popcorn isn’t: the popcorn is real. Cole Porter could have learned every needful lesson from this:

We’re having a party
dancing to the music
played by the DJ
on the radio
the cokes are in the icebox
the popcorn’s on the table
me and my baby, we’re out here on the floor

It’s true that jazz musicians brilliantly reinvented the American songbook and wrung great music from it—Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things” being a visionary case in point— but it seems to me that things really clicked in the late fifties and early sixties when Miles, Coltrane, Mingus, and Monk largely abandoned the American songbook and singer-songwriters like Sam Cooke severed the ties to the tipsy sophistication that Porter represented.

This is not to single out Porter for opprobrium. I enjoy him as I enjoy the Peter Arno cartoons and John O’Hara novels of the same period. My regret is that his sort of music became the medium through which, for whatever reason, the black musical genius expressed itself for thirty-odd years, in the process becoming blander than it might have been. Of course nobody pointed a gun at Ella’s head and forced her to sing Cole Porter songs. And yet culture—especially in its conjugal relation with commerce—is subtly coercive.

I admit, too, that the picture is more complicated than I’ve suggested. What about Ellington, a black creative Titan who worked within the great American songbook tradition…or did he merely seem to? Does Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood” as performed with Coltrane—one of my very favorite jazz performances—belong to the “great American Songbook”? Formally, perhaps “yes”; spiritually, perhaps “no.”


I suppose I merely want to say that American music would have been better off if mercurially talented black artists had been less beholden to a tradition of essentially commercial songcraft. Ella’s scatting suggests a melodic and rhythmic creativity that dwarfs Cole Porter’s. I would have liked to hear the songs she never wrote.

Discussing “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” Mark Steyn offers a compelling defense—or at least the synecdoche of a defense—of the American Songbook:

The song dates from …well, a lost world. Frank Loesser wrote it in 1944 not for a show or a film but for a housewarming party. So that night in their new flat in the Navarro Hotel in New York he and his wife Lynn wowed a showbiz crowd with the first performance:

SHE: I really can’t stay…
HE: But Baby, It’s Cold Outside!
SHE: I’ve got to go ’way…
HE: But Baby, It’s Cold Outside!

Richard Rodgers, never the most generous man, pronounced it “brilliant.” Back then, everyone got it. You want the girl to stay, just another hour . . . okay, half . . . okay, 20 minutes: “Give me Five Minutes More, only Five Minutes More,” as Frank Sinatra pleaded around the same time. And if Sinatra needs to plead, who doesn’t? But nice girls go — or at least insist on being talked into staying:

SHE: I ought to say, ‘No no no, sir!’
HE: Mind if I move in closer?

But seduction is superfluous in the hook-up era. I chanced to be in a Vermont bookstore the other day and overheard two teenagers’ plans for the evening gang agley because (if I understood correctly) she had texted him an insufficiently gynecological pic for him to warrant investing an hour or two in a first “date.” I’m sure it’s all much better to get this stuff up front without a lot of coy byplay, but it’s harder to get a song out of it.

I too feel the lure of this “lost world” of house parties, of songs written for house parties, of the sophisticated ironic repartee out of which such songs emerge, of a culture with a feel for such repartee. But even more I feel the lure of what Sam Cooke crystallizes in “Having a Party”—what Ellington and Coltrane crystallize: the moment of beautiful and terrible singularity, the moment that functions as the timeless epitaph.

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David Ross

Dr. David A. Ross is a graduate of Yale and Oxford. He is senior lecturer in English and Comparative Literature at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is the author of A Critical Companion to William Butler Yeats (2009) and the co-editor/co-translator of The Search for the Avant-Garde, 1946­–1969 (2012), the descriptive catalogue of the Taipei Fine Arts Museum. He edits the Southeast Review of Asian Studies and has served as president of the Southeast Conference of the Association for Asian Studies. His enthusiasms include high modernism, modal jazz, Chinese ink-brush painting, and really well-made pizza.