"The Poets of Tin Pan Alley," a lively study of popular song lyrics, begins with a show-biz anecdote. Mrs. Oscar Hammerstein, hearing someone praise "Ol' Man River" as "a great Kern song," commented that Kern didn't write "Ol' Man River."
She explained, "Mr. Kern wrote dum dum dum da; my husband wrote Ol' Man River." The point, of course, is that composers nearly always get top billing, while lyricists, as Rodney Dangerfield would put it, "get no respect."University of Minnesota English professor Philip Furia's intent is to show that, for a number of years, popular song lyricists did in fact write verses that deserve to be called poetry.
The best of these lyrics appeared in songs written between 1920 and 1940. They were strongly influenced by the vers de societe that had been part of the American and British literary scene since the previous century. Such lyrics were characterized by wit and sophistication, deft poetic techniques, and a mingling of elegant and idiomatic language.
The book's first two chapters trace the history of Tin Pan Alley in terms of how song formulas developed from the sentimental story-ballad of the previous century, through the popularity of the "coon" song of minstrel shows and vaudeville, to the rise of ragtime.
By the 1920s a standard pop-song formula had been set: 32 bars of music, with an A-A-B-A structure. The "A" segments had identical musical patterns, while the "B" was a bridge, or release. Moreover, the great majority of these songs had a prescribed subject matter. As a character in a Hollywood musical put it, nearly all said, "blah, blah, blah, blah love."
Furia is far from suggesting that all, or even most, popular-song lyrics in "the golden age" were original, vivid and clever. Most, in fact, were trite and forgettable. They obediently played second fiddle to the tune. But as early popular music began to develop into a recognizably "modern" genre, certain talented lyricists found ways to bring added sparkle and charm to formula songs.
The major figures in this study are Irving Berlin, Lorenz Hart, Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, Oscar Hammerstein, Howard Dietz, Yip Harburg, Dorothy Fields, Leo Robin and Johnny Mercer. Furia also touches on the lyrics of Irving Caesar, Gus Kahn, Walter Hirsch, Roy Turk, Mort Dixon, Billy Rose and Buddy DeSylva.
In a chapter on Hollywood songs, Furia demonstrates that while movies opened a big new market for popular songs, conservative musical values allowed little chance for originality. A chapter on jazz lyricists introduces the reader to a number of gifted but obscure writers.
Though many of the major figures in this book continued to write well into contemporary times, Furia's book ends with a fond look at Johnny Mercer's elegantly slangy 1958 lyrics to Duke Ellington's "Satin Doll." The rest, Furia implies, is rock 'n' roll.
Furia loves popular music, and he loves poetry. The result is an intelligent, perceptive, sometimes witty book that will neither scare off the poetophobic nor disappoint the literati.
It's a book that deserves to take its place with such classic studies of popular music as those by David Ewen, Rudi Blesh, Sigmund Spaeth, Alec Wilder and - in country music - Bill Malone.