Cover image for Reading lyrics
Reading lyrics
Gottlieb, Robert, 1931-
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Pantheon Books, [2000]

Physical Description:
xxvi, 706 ; 25 cm
General Note:
Includes index.
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
ML54.6 .R39 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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A comprehensive anthology bringing together more than one thousand of the best American and English song lyrics of the twentieth century; an extraordinary celebration of a unique art form and an indispensable reference work and history that celebrates one of the twentieth century's most enduring and cherished legacies.

Reading Lyrics begins with the first masters of the colloquial phrase, including George M. Cohan ("Give My Regards to Broadway"), P. G. Wodehouse ("Till the Clouds Roll By"), and Irving Berlin, whose versatility and career span the period from "Alexander's Ragtime Band" to "Annie Get Your Gun" and beyond. The Broadway musical emerges as a distinct dramatic form in the 1920s and 1930s, its evolution propelled by a trio of lyricists--Cole Porter, Ira Gershwin, and Lorenz Hart--whose explorations of the psychological and emotional nuances of falling in and out of love have lost none of their wit and sophistication. Their songs, including "Night and Day," "The Man I Love," and "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered," have become standards performed and recorded by generation after generation of singers. The lure of Broadway and Hollywood and the performing genius of such artists as Al Jolson, Fred Astaire, Ethel Waters, Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, and Ethel Merman inspired a remarkable array of talented writers, including Dorothy Fields ("A Fine Romance," "I Can't Give You Anything but Love"), Frank Loesser ("Guys and Dolls"), Oscar Hammerstein II (from the groundbreaking "Show Boat" of 1927 through his extraordinary collaboration with Richard Rodgers), Johnny Mercer, Yip Harburg, Andy Razaf, Noël Coward, and Stephen Sondheim.

Reading Lyrics also celebrates the work of dozens of superb craftsmen whose songs remain known, but who today are themselves less known--writers like Haven Gillespie (whose "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" may be the most widely recorded song of its era); Herman Hupfeld (not only the composer/lyricist of "As Time Goes By" but also of "Are You Makin' Any Money?" and "When Yuba Plays the Rumba on the Tuba"); the great light versifier Ogden Nash ("Speak Low," "I'm a Stranger Here Myself," and, yes, "The Sea-Gull and the Ea-Gull"); Don Raye ("Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy," "Mister Five by Five," and, of course, "Milkman, Keep Those Bottles Quiet"); Bobby Troup ("Route 66"); Billy Strayhorn (not only for the omnipresent "Lush Life" but for "Something to Live For" and "A Lonely Coed"); Peggy Lee (not only a superb singer but also an original and appealing lyricist); and the unique Dave Frishberg ("I'm Hip," "Peel Me a Grape," "Van Lingo Mungo").

The lyricists are presented chronologically, each introduced by a succinct biography and the incisive commentary of Robert Gottlieb and Robert Kimball.

Author Notes

Robert Gottlieb is the editor of Reading Jazz , The Collected Stories of Rudyard Kipling , and The Journals of John Cheever .
Robert Kimball is the editor of The Complete Lyrics of Cole Porter, The Complete Lyrics of Ira Gershwin, and The Complete Lyrics of Lorenz Hart and is the co-editor of The Complete Lyrics of Irving Berlin .

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Most people remember a song better than they remember a poem. During the 1900^-75 scope of this sterling anthology, remembering a song was remembering a poem. That span was the heyday of the classic American popular song, which re-expressed all the old emotions in language invigorated by the dialects of all the external and internal immigrants drawn to America's burgeoning industrial centers. The typical classic American popular song--any of the 1,000-plus examples editors Gottlieb and Kimball have chosen--is rife with those pnemonic aids par excellence, rhyme and wordplay. Accordingly, you could use the book for a party game, the object of which would be seeing who recalls the most songs and, beyond that, can sing them. With lyricists including all the superstars, from Cohan to Sondheim, and plenty whose songs' fame have outlived that of their names, such as Haven Gillespie ("Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town") and Edward Eliscu ("Without a Song"), the party could take all of a grand night for singing. Oh!--get a copy for the reference desk, too. --Ray Olson

Library Journal Review

Gottlieb (editor, Reading Jazz) and Kimball (editor, The Complete Lyrics of Ira Gershwin) have assembled 1000 popular American and English song texts dating from 1900 to 1975 and arranged them chronologically by lyricist's birth date. Focusing solely on theater and film songs, the editors profile more than 100 songwriters, including Cole Porter, Oscar Hammerstein, Yip Harburg, and Stephen Sondheim. Each entry details their musical contributions and three or more lyrics with verse(s) and refrain. Country, rock, folk, and blues numbers go unmentioned, as they would not have fit in this single volume. "One-hit wonders" are also listed at the back along with an index of song titles. The inclusion of lesser-known songs by major figures such as Irving Berlin or by little-remembered writers such as Mann Holiner or Sam Coslow seems to pad the volume rather than enhance its usefulness. Unfortunately, the title, too, is misleading: Reading Lyrics is more of a compilation than an interpretative work. This book is recommended, however, as a sanctioned print alternative to various lyric web sites for libraries serving a clientele seeking popular song texts and information.DBarry Zaslow, Miami Univ. Libs., Oxford, OH (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

While a good tune can lift pedestrian lyrics, the converse can also be true; but when both text and music are superior, we witness the creation of the art form known as the popular song. Reading Lyrics is a collection of about 1,000 of the most memorable and enduring lyrics of the first three-fourths of the 20th century. Both compilers are well known and respected (particularly Kimball for his work on giants of American musical theater); it would be difficult to find anyone better positioned to assemble such a work. They acknowledge that some forms of popular music--rock, country, blues—lie outside their specializations and hence are not represented. The book emphasizes the lyricist as much as the words themselves. It is arranged by lyricist in roughly chronological order, each given a brief biographical essay and commentary. For no lyricist are fewer than three lyrics reprinted, but some--Porter, Gershwin, Hammerstein--are given much more, as befits their importance. One is str uck by how remarkable some lyrics are, divorced (on paper, if not in one's mind) from their music. The wit of Ira Gershwin, the carefree whimsy of Johnny Burke, the absurdity of Ogden Nash, come together to remind us that one reacts to lyrics differently than to poetry. The book reinforces that besides the giants, there are many lyricists of the second rank who together have created a magnificent body of work. J. Farrington Eastman School of Music



Introduction It has been a daunting challenge to choose a thousand or so of the "best" American and English lyrics of their time. As with all anthologies, the actual process of accumulating and assessing material has changed the original idea of the anthology itself. For instance, this book was originally going to span the years 1910 to 1970. In the abstract, it seemed that "Alexander's Ragtime Band," from 1911, would be an appropriate introduction to the mainstream of twentieth-century popular song--that it marked a real break from everything that preceded it. But eventually it became clear to us that it was George M. Cohan, so active in the first decade of the century, who made the effective break from the operetta conventions of, say, Victor Herbert, and the overwhelmingly sentimental nature of earlier American song. And so our beginning date got pushed back to 1900--at which point we were charmed by other clever and natural-seeming lyrics from this early decade. Again, the date 1970, somewhat arbitrarily chosen, excluded a number of Broadway musicals--Follies, Chicago, etc.,--that were still in the tradition of the golden age, producing songs that have lasted. By 1975, though, it really was over, except for some isolated instances. In a few cases--Stephen Sondheim is the obvious example--this has meant excluding the interesting later work of contemporary writers, but only in a few cases. And the last two and one-half decades--the era of Andrew Lloyd Webber's sung-through pastiches--haven't produced many talented lyric writers; only recently are new voices emerging that may well come to have lasting value. In Hollywood, the musical was more or less gone by the late seventies, and pop music has increasingly become more about arrangement and performance than about words and music. A more painful decision was to limit the field to the song as we know it from shows, movies, and pre-rock pop. Partly this was a matter of logistics: No single volume could stretch to include folk, country, blues, and rock. And though a collection of lyrics that excludes, say, Bob Dylan or Hank Williams is obviously one that is far from complete, their stories are not the stories we can tell here (or are equipped to tell). Perhaps more important, as we listened to, or read the sheet music for, thousands of songs, our focus began to shift somewhat from individual lyrics to individual writers. That is, one of our chief goals became the desire to reveal the lyricists themselves, who they have been and what they accomplished--not just the obvious titans but those who had honorable and successful careers on Broadway or in Hollywood or in vaudeville or in cabaret or in pop, and are now more or less forgotten even if we haven't forgotten a few of their songs. In a modest way, the organization of the book--presenting the lyricists chronologically, with a short bio for each--is meant to reflect the history of songwriting in America and England during the twentieth century. One can follow the progress from the first masters of the colloquial--Cohan, Berlin, Wodehouse--to the more worldly sophistications of Porter and Hart and Coward, to the robust American vein of Hammerstein and Mercer, to the semi-art song of Alec Wilder. Or, looked at another way, the progress from providing personal material for vaudeville stars to writing for Broadway and then--with the coming of sound to movies--for Hollywood, and finally back to providing material for specific stars, as Sammy Cahn did for Frank Sinatra. There are historical moments that trigger new ideas--the Depression, with both its serious laments ("Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?") and its brave upbeat defiances of poverty ("I Can't Give You Anything but Love"); World War II, with its romantic ballads ("Saturday Night Is the Loneliest Night of the Week") and the cheerful swing of songs like "Milkman, Keep Those Bottles Quiet!"--a good writer like Don Raye has to be considered in that latter context, which may be why he is not remembered enough today. There were surprises along the way. Of course, the great masters remain unchallenged: No dark horse emerged as superior to Irving Berlin or Ira Gershwin. Nor had we overestimated Dorothy Fields, say, or Frank Loesser, or Andy Razaf, or Leo Robin, or Comden and Green. But it was both surprising and gratifying to realize just how good Johnny Burke was, and Ted Koehler, and Harold Rome; and how well giants of the twenties and thirties, such as GusKahn and DeSylva, Brown, and Henderson, hold up today. And it was exciting to rediscover--or just discover--a Bobby Troup, a Peggy Lee, a Tom Adair. To emphasize our interest in the careers of lyricists, we decided to focus on those who had written at least three songs we really liked. On the other hand, so as not to exclude a number of one-hit wonders, we added a coda of individual songs: Don't expect consistency from anthologists in love with their subject! As everyone understands, reading song lyrics is very different from reading poems. A lyric is one-half of a work, and its success or failure depends not only on its own merits as verse but on its relationship to its music. Possibly some of the lyrics we have included will not seem worthy to readers who don't know the music that is essential to them--indeed, the brilliance of certain lyrics lies in their perfect, natural marriage to their tunes rather than in their verbal ingenuity; Gus Kahn's "It Had to Be You" is an example. And there's almost no way to read certain lyrics without evoking their music: That's both the difficulty and the joy of reading lyrics. Again, some lyrics, not of the highest quality, are so deeply embedded in our minds that to have excluded them would have been perverse. But on the whole, whereas all hits certainly don't turn out to be first-rate (or even second-rate), the songs that have really lasted generally seem to deserve their place in our memories and affections. Depending on his or her taste, every reader is going to find certain lyrics questionable: too overblown, too sardonic, too simple, too fussy, too politically incorrect. Tastes change, and it has been a complicated effort to adjust ourselves to the different periods we cover and approach them in the appropriate spirit. Since we were both born in the thirties, our memories cover most of the century, going back to the songs our parents cared for and forward from our childhoods. The only genre that seems really alien is the race song of the first decades of the century--the "wop" song, the "coon" song, the Irish and Jewish "comic" song. Luckily, none of these that we encountered had any merit, so there were no hard choices to make. Later songs that might make one slightly uncomfortable today--Peggy Lee's "Mañana," say--are so clearly good-natured, so little mean-spirited, that their merits seemed to outweigh one's mild embarrassment about them. On the other hand, one is struck by (and impressed by) the outspoken and angry stance of the lyrics by African-American writers of songs such as "That's Why They Call Me 'Shine' " and "Black and Blue"--songs from the twenties that laid it on the line, yet achieved commercial success. And by the loyalty to their political principals of such writers as Yip Harburg and Harold Rome. When we were kids, the only songs forty or more years old that were still current were those of Stephen Foster and Gilbert and Sullivan (and the influence of Gilbert can be felt through the first half of the twentieth century). Today, the vast majority of the thousand songs in this book, which stretch back through an entire century, are still viable: that is, they are still singable--and are still sung, on records and in cabaret. The best American and English popular songs of the twentieth century have turned out to have tremendous staying power; they can now be seen as an intense flowering of a specialized yet widely appealing art form. It's no surprise that "serious" singers--of opera and lieder--increasingly include them in their repertoires (with varying degrees of success): these songs have achieved the longevity of classics. It is this quality of singableness that was our final test for every song considered for inclusion. The oldest songs may seem old-fashioned, but they don't (to us) seem dated; they're alive. Our hope is that this book will serve readers in several ways--as a work of reference, as a chronicle of tastes and talents, as pure pleasure. We regret the absence of somebody else's favorites, and hope for a happy response to our own. Robert Gottlieb and Robert Kimball New York, August 2000 Copyright © 2000 Robert Gottlieb and Robert Kimball. All rights reserved.