Wednesday, May 6, 2015

"Sometimes I Wonder Why - "

Here's a short quiz for you music lovers. One of the most recorded songs of all time is "Stardust." The question is, Who wrote it? I'll give you two clues. One, he also wrote "Georgia on My Mind," and Two, Nat "King" Cole recorded the quintessential version of it. No, the answer is not at the end of this post. I'll tell you right now. It's Hoagy Carmichael. That's right, the guy from indiana with the strange voice.

Hoagy wrote a lot of other distinctive songs that made the pop charts, like "Skylark" and "Two Sleepy People," but "Stardust" remains one of the greatest American songs ever written. 

At least I thought it was, until I attended a seminar recently. Several of us were discussing popular music and immortal songs, when someone mentioned "Stardust." Five people, all under the age of forty, asked "What's that?". I sang a few bars - not a great rendition, but adequate. They had never heard it before!

I realize then that great American songs, the ones you and I grew up with, are in danger of joining TWA, Burger Chef and De Soto cars in the lost and found of our memories. Let's face it, where can young people hear songs by Hoagy, and Rodgers and Hart and the Gershwin's and Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, Irving Berlin? Not on the radio stations they listen to, not on TV, not in clubs. They can search for it online, like old YouTube videos or iTunes, but they have to be motivated to slip into a search mode. Maybe their parents or grandparents have given them access to their LP's or CD's. Come to think of it, they probably don't know what an LP is, right? If it was written B.E. (Before Elvis) and it's not in a digital format, how relevant can it be? I'd love to find just one person under the age of twenty with one of Hoagy's tunes on his or her iPod or iPhone. I might as well search for the Holy Grail.

Just think of all the incredible music they'll never be familiar with. I don't understand how a person can go through life without knowing the rhyme Lorenz Hart came up with for "We'll take Manhattan...", or the repetitious note that signals Cole Porter's "drip, drip, drip" at the start of "Night and Day." I still believe those songs will live forever, but the audience keeps shrinking. There are rays of hope, however. Artists such as Rod Stewart, Boz Skaggs, Linda Ronstadt, Carly Simon, Michael Buble and Judy Collins have recorded many of those songs. You may know of some others. What we need is more of them. Perhaps Lady Gaga Sings Irving Berlin (although she did make an album with the ageless Tony Bennett). How about Pit Bull: A Tribute to Johnny Mercer. Or Kanye West Does Harold Arlen? Maybe forget that one. Immortality has its limits.

This populist approach just might be the solution: the start of a musical movement to Save the Great American Songs. I'd start off with "Stardust" performed by a popular singer. Who? I Googled "Most Popular Male Singers of 2014." Here are the top four: Drake, Jason Derulo, Chris Brown and Bruno Mars.   I have no idea what they would do to one of those great songs, or even if they could. You ever hear of them? Maybe there's someone out there, a Super Hero for Great Songs. Suggestions welcome.

And now, all together, join me: "Sometimes I wonder why I spend the lonely night...."


  1. I love this music--it's a great American treasure. In some ways it's as important as any other American musical genre. Interestingly or ironically, much of this American music was written by immigrants or their children.

    1. Yes, DeLancey. Interesting comment about the composers being immigrants or their children. Amazing how they captured the spirit and imagination of America.

  2. Thoughtful essay Gerry. Song writers want their songs sung. Artists want their version preserved.

  3. Proud to say my 26 year old granddaughter loves the old music and buys albums.

  4. The Great American Songbook remains great. Like many good things, my guess is that it will circle around and become cool again. I love to hear you play these songs, Gerry. Musically, "Stardust" is challenging to play because of the chord structures and incidentals. That element of surprise is a key to its greatness.