Standards to Love
I don’t know about you all out there, but for me, music is very important to my writing process. It can either complement what I am writing or distract me completely. (You know, like when you need to turn the volume down on the radio so you can see the street signs better?) For example, for the current novel that I’m drafting, I have been keeping opera and classical music on heavy rotation, hence the plethora of posts about opera- Turandot, Tosca, Rigoletto, et. al.
For the first novel I wrote, tentatively titled I’m Glad There is You (see post here), I had a lot of American Popular Standards playing. During the process, I created an iTunes playlist of some of my favorites, and as it happens, those songs composed by such greats a Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, and Johnny Mercer (to name a few) ended up being influential in the writing itself. Fingers crossed that I’ll be able to keep it this way, as there are mountains of legalities when it comes to copyrighted lyrics, but each chapter of I’m Glad There is You begins with a pertinent lyric from one of these Standards.
American Popular Standards, or the Great American Songbook, refers to the canon of songs produced in the early-mid 20th century in America. Often these were jazz standards. I love that the term standards is applied to the songs composed during this period of music. Standards, by definition, imply an exemplar prototype. By referring to these songs as standards, it’s like saying they are archetypal examples of what music from the Great American Songbook should be. They are most often songs of romance, and as Annie said in Sleepless in Seattle, referencing this time period, “Now those were the days when people KNEW how to be in love.”
When you’re writing a love story, it’s a good thing to keep some romantic music playing, and, in my opinion, the American Popular Songbook affords some of the best examples of love songs out there. Today I’m highlighting a few.
I’m Glad There is You (see lyrics here)
The ballad I’m Glad There is You was composed by the big band leader Tommy Dorsey and Paul Madeira in 1941. (Just a little side note here; Jimmy Dorsey is the elder brother to Tommy Dorsey, another big band leader, who gave such notables as Jo Stafford and Frank Sinatra their starts.)
I appreciate the simplicity of these lyrics because I think that the grandest of human emotions should be able to be distilled to a very simple essence (that’s one of the reasons I love poetry so much; an economy of words brimming with the profundity of emotions). I’m Glad There is You chronicles all the things you can find in the world: the ordinary, the extraordinary, the overrated, the underrated, etc. Yet, in the midst of all of it, he’s glad that she’s in the world. He promises to love her and live for her because she makes anything he could ever encounter, no matter how horrid or wonderful, worthwhile. My favorite rendition of this song is the 1955 recording by Johnny Hartman (who also happens to be one of my all time favorite singers).
In the Still of the Night (see lyrics here)
I adore Cole Porter. He is the epitome of style and sophistication. (See You’re the Top for more about him.) However, because he was so adept at crafting well-worded and witty lyrics, his ballads can get lost in the cosmopolitan shuffle. In the Still of the Night is one such song that should not be overlooked. It’s exquisite. If Jay Cocks’ De-Lovely screenplay is to be believed (and why shouldn’t it?), In the Still of the Night was Cole Porter’s wife’s, Linda Lee Porter, favorite song. Given the tremulousness of their marriage, I’m sure Linda identified with the lyrics’ pathos.
While it is a love song, the lyrics are somewhat sad in the uncertainty they convey. Here is a woman who is awake in the wee hours of the morning, when all the rest of the world is asleep. She’s alone. She’s looking, longingly, out of her window, and she’s thinking of the one she loves. However, it’s not with the jubilation one would expect. No. She’s certain of her love for him, but she’s entertaining questions regarding him. Does he love me as I love him? Will this love I feel outlast time? Is this thing between us forever? The honesty of this song, as anyone who’s ever been in love can attest to, plumbs deeply into the human experience and touches a resounding cord within us all. Haven’t we all asked such questions at least once in our lives?
How Deep is the Ocean? (see lyrics here)
In the course of googling information for this song, I can answer the question: approximately 36,200 ft (called the Challenger Deep). However, the actual depth of the ocean is not what this song is about (although when I typed in ‘How Deep is the Ocean’ and got that answer, I have to say I did laugh out loud). The standard How Deep is the Ocean was composed by the inimitable Irving Berlin in 1932. There is a reason that Cole Porter cited Berlin in his song You’re the Top- You’re the Top… You’re a Berlin ballad. I offer this song as case and point.
What makes How Deep is the Ocean? so fantastic is that it is a song of questions. Every question asked is answered with another question that actually, as illogical as it sounds, answers the first question. How much do I love you? … How high is the sky? (Apparently, Cole Porter found this idea so novel, he paid homage to this song with Do I Love You? written several years later in 1939, employing the same technique to an equally stellar composition.) This sort of juxtaposition is not an easy thing to accomplish, but Berlin does and he does it so adroitly that most people miss the nuances of it. It’s one of the ballads from the American Popular Songbook that deserves notice and praise.
All My Tomorrows (see lyrics here)
This song has been a rather new discovery for me. Throughout my childhood, I listened to the American Popular Songbook because it was my father’s favorite genre of music. When he passed away several years ago, I started listening to it more often because I felt closer to him. One of the musicians/vocalists that we both appreciate is Michael Feinstein. (If you are unfamiliar with this man, I urge you to take the time to check him out. What he’s done to purvey the grandness of the American Songbook to the next generation of Americans is exemplary.)
In the interest of keeping the flow of music new and interesting, I purchased several albums I had yet to listen to by Feinstein. On one of these albums, I came across a medley- All My Tomorrows (by Ivor Arthur Davies)/All the Way (a collaborative effort by Gilbert, Hook, Morris, and Sumner). I was familiar with All the Way, but had never heard All My Tomorrows before. The lyrics of this song are incredibly tender. It’s a lover who doesn’t have many worldly possessions. Yet he’s feeling all the grandness of loving someone, wanting to promise her the world, but incapable of doing so. What’s a boy to do? Well, he promises her the only thing he can- all his tomorrows, filled with his rainbow-full dreams and his great plans. Every potentiality of everything he could possibly be in this life, he gives to her because without her, none of his dreams or plans matter.
Perhaps I’m a bit of a romantic. I’ll allow for that, but I cannot believe that anyone could listen to these songs without having their hearts touched, even if it’s only a little tapping. The melodies are delicate; the lyrics are sweet, romantic, and sophisticatedly constructed. These songs speak to a bygone era of music, but also to the timeless of the human experience. They may have been composed nearly a century ago, but they still are as valid today as the day they were written because, as the song says, the world will always welcome lovers as time goes by.
What song(s) do you think capture the timelessness of romance and love? Please share. F.Y.I. They do not need to be from the American Popular Songbook. I’m just interested to see what song(s) touch your heart and why.