Great American Songbook

The Great American Songbook, also known as "American Standards", is the canon of the most important and influential American popular songs and jazz standards from the early 20th century. Although several collections of music have been published under the title, it does not refer to any actual book or specific list of songs, but to a loosely defined set including the most popular and enduring songs from the 1920s to the 1950s that were created for Broadway theatre, musical theatre, and Hollywood musical film. They have been recorded and performed by a large number and wide range of singers, instrumental bands, and jazz musicians. The Great American Songbook comprises standards by George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Harold Arlen, Johnny Mercer, and Richard Rodgers, among others.[1][2][3][4][5] Although the songs have never gone out of style among traditional and jazz singers and musicians, a renewed popular interest in the Great American Songbook beginning in the 1970s has led a growing number of rock and pop singers to take an interest and issue recordings of them.


There is no consensus on which songs are in the "Great American Songbook." Several music publishing companies, including Hal Leonard,[6] J. W. Pepper & Son,[7] and Alfred Music,[8] sell music under the name "Great American Songbook." Alfred Music lists the Songbook as its own genre.

Music critics have attempted to develop a "canon." For example, in Alec Wilder's 1972 study, American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, 1900–1950, the songwriter and critic lists and ranks the artists he believes belong to the Great American Songbook canon. A composer, Wilder emphasized analysis of composers and their creative efforts in this work.[9]

Wilder devotes whole chapters to only six composers: Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Richard Rodgers, Cole Porter and Harold Arlen. Vincent Youmans and Arthur Schwartz share a chapter; Burton Lane, Hugh Martin and Vernon Duke are covered together in another. Wilder uses a chapter to explore songwriters and composers he deemed "The Great Craftsmen": Hoagy Carmichael, Walter Donaldson, Harry Warren, Isham Jones, Jimmy McHugh, Duke Ellington, Fred Ahlert, Richard A. Whiting, Ray Noble, John Green, Rube Bloom and Jimmy Van Heusen. He concludes with a catch-all 67-page chapter entitled "Outstanding Individual Songs: 1920 to 1950," which includes additional individual songs which he considers memorable.

From some perspectives, the Great American Songbook era ended with the advent of rock and roll; Wilder ends with 1950.

Radio personality and Songbook devotee Jonathan Schwartz has described this genre as "America's classical music".[10]

Style and structure


Despite the relatively narrow range of topics and moods dealt with in many of the songs, the best Great American Songbook lyricists specialized in witty, urbane lyrics with teasingly unexpected rhymes. The songwriters combined memorable melodies – which could be anything from pentatonic, as in a Gershwin tune like "I Got Rhythm", to sinuously chromatic, as in many of Cole Porter's tunes – and great harmonic subtlety, a good example being Kern's "All the Things You Are", with its winding modulations.


Many of the songs in the Great American Songbook were composed for musicals, and some originally included an introductory sectional verse: a musical introduction that typically has a free musical structure, speech-like rhythms, and rubato delivery. The sectional verse served as a way of leading from the surrounding realistic context of the play into the more artificial world of the song, and often has lyrics that are in character and make reference to the plot of the musical for which the song was originally written.

A song's sectional verse, if it exists, is often dropped in performances outside the song's original stage or movie context. Whether or not it is sung often depends on what the song is and who is singing it for example, Frank Sinatra never recorded "Fly Me to the Moon" with the introductory sectional verse, but Nat King Cole did and a few of the songs written with such an introduction are nearly always performed in full with the introduction.

The song itself is usually a 32-bar AABA or ABAC form, and the lyrics usually refer to more universal and timeless situations and themes – typically, for instance, the vicissitudes of love. This universality made it easier for songs to be added to or subtracted from a show, or revived in a different show.

Songwriters and songs

The following writers and songs are often included in the Great American Songbook:


The early years

Since the 1930s, many singers have recorded or performed large parts of the Great American Songbook. Lee Wiley was among the first to record collections of one specific songwriter or songwriting team, beginning with George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin (1939), followed by Cole Porter (1940), Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart (1940), Harold Arlen (1943), Irving Berlin (1951) and Vincent Youmans (1951).

Ella Fitzgerald's popular and influential Songbook series on Verve in the 1950s and 1960s collated 252 songs from the Songbook. These eight collections paid tribute to Cole Porter (1956), Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart (1956), Duke Ellington (1957), Irving Berlin (1958), George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin (1959), Harold Arlen (1961), Jerome Kern (1963) and Johnny Mercer (1964).

Other influential early interpreters of the Great American Songbook include Louis Armstrong, Fred Astaire, Mildred Bailey, Chet Baker, Tony Bennett, June Christy, Rosemary Clooney, Nat "King" Cole, Perry Como, Barbara Cook, Jane Froman, Chris Connor, Bing Crosby, Vic Damone, Bobby Darin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Doris Day, Blossom Dearie, Billy Eckstine, Alice Faye, Helen Forrest, the Four Freshmen, Connie Francis, Judy Garland, Eydie Gorme, Johnny Hartman, Dick Haymes, Billie Holiday, Lena Horne, Joni James, Jack Jones, Al Jolson, Bill Kenny, Cleo Laine, Frankie Laine, Steve Lawrence, Peggy Lee, Julie London, Dean Martin, Tony Martin, Johnny Mathis, Carmen McRae, Mabel Mercer, Helen Merrill, Anita O'Day, Patti Page, Dinah Shore, Bobby Short, Nina Simone, Frank Sinatra, Keely Smith, Kay Starr, Jo Stafford, Barbra Streisand (particularly in her earlier work), Maxine Sullivan, Mel Tormé, Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington, Ethel Waters, Margaret Whiting, Andy Williams, Joe Williams and Nancy Wilson.

Contemporary singers

Since the late 20th century, there has been a revival of the Great American Songbook by contemporary singers.

In 1970, Ringo Starr, independently of the Beatles, released Sentimental Journey, an album of 12 standards arranged by various musicians. In 1973, Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Harry Nilsson released a critically well-received album of 12 classic standards, A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night, arranged by Gordon Jenkins. The album was re-issued on CD in 1988 with a total of 18 standards sung by Nilsson. Also in 1973, Bryan Ferry, of Roxy Music fame, released These Foolish Things, and he has subsequently recorded several such albums. In 1978, country singer Willie Nelson released a collection of popular standards titled Stardust. This was considered risky at the time but the album has become the best-selling and perhaps the most enduring of Nelson's career, leading to several other Great American Songbook albums over the years.

In 1983, popular rock vocalist Linda Ronstadt released What's New, her first in a trilogy of standards albums recorded with arranger/conductor Nelson Riddle. Stephen Holden of the New York Times wrote:

What's New isn't the first album by a rock singer to pay tribute to the golden age of the pop, but is ... the best and most serious attempt to rehabilitate an idea of pop that Beatlemania and the mass marketing of rock LPs for teen-agers undid in the mid-'60s. During the decade prior to Beatlemania, most of the great band singers and crooners of the '40s and '50s codified a half-century of American pop standards on dozens of albums, many of them now long out-of-print.[21]

By the mid-1980s, Michael Feinstein was a nationally known cabaret singer-pianist famed for being a dedicated proponent of the Great American Songbook. In 2007 he founded the Great American Songbook Foundation, to preserve and promote the songs and their legacy.

In 1991, Natalie Cole released a highly successful album Unforgettable... with Love, which spawned a Top 40 hit "Unforgettable", a virtual "duet" with her father, Nat "King" Cole. Follow-up albums such as Take a Look were also successful.

Since the mid-1980s, additional vocalists such as Harry Connick, Jr., Michael Bublé, Diana Krall, Karrin Allyson, and Susannah McCorkle have been notable interpreters of the Songbook throughout their careers. Michael Feinstein in particular has been a dedicated proponent, archivist, revivalist and preservationist of the material since the late 1970s.

Other singers

Since 1980, singers in other genres have recorded songs from the Great American Songbook. Beginning in 2002, Rod Stewart has devoted a series of studio albums to Songbook covers: It Had to Be You: The Great American Songbook (2002), As Time Goes By: The Great American Songbook 2 (2003), Stardust: The Great American Songbook 3 (2004), Thanks for the Memory: The Great American Songbook, Volume IV (2005), and Fly Me to the Moon... The Great American Songbook Volume V (2009).

Other rock and pop artists who have used the work include Cher, Keith Richards, Carly Simon, Bette Midler, Gloria Estefan, Barry Manilow, Caetano Veloso, Pia Zadora, Queen Latifah, Joni Mitchell, Boz Scaggs, Robbie Williams, Sting, Tom Waits, Ray Reach, Pat Benatar, Morrissey, Norah Jones, Nicole Henry and Rufus Wainwright.

In 2010, Brian Wilson released his own take on Gershwin classics with Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin.[22] In 2012, Sir Paul McCartney joined this list with the album Kisses on the Bottom. John Stevens, a 2004 American Idol contestant, also recorded these songs. Steve Tyrell has forged a successful solo career with his interpretations of songs from the Great American Songbook. His version of "The Way You Look Tonight" for Father of the Bride (1991) was noticed and kept in the film at the insistence of its star, Steve Martin; this led to Tyrell recording several Songbook albums, including A New Standard, Standard Time and Bach to Bacharach. In 2014, Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett released a collaborative album, Cheek to Cheek, made up of songs from the Great American Songbook. Bob Dylan released the albums Shadows in the Night (2015)[23][24], Fallen Angels (2016),[25] and Triplicate (2017), all albums of Great American Songbook selections.[26] Kristin Chenoweth recorded a selection of songs from the Great American Songbook for her sixth album, The Art of Elegance, in 2016.


British broadcaster Michael Parkinson devoted a considerable part of his BBC Radio 2 programme Parkinson's Sunday Supplement, which aired from 1996 to 2007, to this genre of music.

See also


  1. Miller, Michael (2008). The Complete Idiot's Guide to Music History. Penguin. p. 175.
  2. "The Center for the Performing Arts – Home of the Palladium – Carmel, Indiana".
  3. "After An Education In American Jazz, A Musician Tackles The Turkish Songbook".
  4. Feinstein, Michael (February 11, 2015). "'The B Side,' by Ben Yagoda". The New York Times. Retrieved December 13, 2018.
  5. Friedwald, Will. "Jazz Vocalists". New York. June 14, 1993. p. 6A.
  6. "The Great American Songbook – The Composers". Retrieved July 20, 2015.
  7. "The Great American Songbook – Jazz". Retrieved July 20, 2015.
  8. "Great American Songbook". Retrieved July 20, 2015.
  9. Wilder, Alec (1990). American Popular Song: The Great Innovators 1900–1950. New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-501445-6.
  10. Deborah Grace Winer (September 1, 2003). "Girl Singers: From nightclubs and concert halls to recordings, today's best vocalists put a new spin on old favorites". Town & Country. Archived from the original on November 5, 2013. Retrieved September 9, 2012.(subscription required)
  11. Great Performances. "The Great American Songbook: Introduction". PBS. March 11, 2003.
  12. "The Great American Songbook". The Johnny Mercer Foundation. Retrieved December 20, 2018.
  13. Purdy, Stephen. Musical Theatre Song: A Comprehensive Course in Selection, Preparation, and Presentation for the Modern Performer. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2016. pt. 115.
  14. Cole, Clay (2009). Sh-Boom!: The Explosion of Rock 'n' Roll, 1953–1968. Morgan James Publishing.
  15. Purdy, Stephen. Musical Theatre Song: A Comprehensive Course in Selection, Preparation, and Presentation for the Modern Performer. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2016. pt. 32.
  16. Polit, Katherine. "The Great American Songbook In The Classical Voice Studio". Indiana University Jacobs School of Music. May 2014. p. 73.
  17. Murray, Steve. "Michael Feinstein: Crooners". May 23, 2017.
  18. Dicker, Shira. "Gotta Dance? Swing on Over". New York Times. December 22, 2011.
  19. Venutolo, Anthony. "Boardwalk Empire recap: 'Make a promise to you, break another to myself'". November 4, 2013.
  20. "The Great American Songbook – The Composers". Retrieved December 20, 2018.
  21. Stephen Holden; Dargis, Manohla (September 4, 1983). "Linda Ronstadt Celebrates The Golden Age of Pop". The New York Times. Retrieved May 10, 2007.(subscription required)
  23. Turner, Gustavo (January 24, 2015). "The secret Sinatra past of Bob Dylan's new album". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved February 20, 2017.
  24. Petridis, Alexis (January 29, 2015). "Shadows in the Night review – an unalloyed pleasure". The Guardian. Retrieved February 20, 2017.
  25. Brown, Helen (May 13, 2016). "Bob Dylan, Fallen Angels, review -'inhabiting classics with weathered ease'". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved February 20, 2017.
  26. "Bob Dylan's First Three-Disc Album — Triplicate — Set For March 31 Release". January 31, 2017. Retrieved February 20, 2017.

Further reading

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