There were plenty of great songwriters before rock came along
Many times in this column I have expressed my opinion that Bob Dylan is the world’s greatest singer/songwriter.
There also have been several times when I have expressed my opinion about receiving e-mails telling me how wrong I was.
When I wrote about the movie “Cadillac Records,” I received the longest and most scathing rebuttal since I began writing this column.
I also received an e-mail after I wrote about five favorite Beatles songs and mentioned that some fans think of the Beatles’ “Yesterday” as the greatest song ever. The writer of that particular e-mail stated that brothers Ira and George Gershwin’s “Summertime” was without a doubt the greatest song ever written.
I e-mailed him back and told him that it would be hard to argue with his assessment of “Summertime,” and I surely wasn’t going to.
It got me to thinking about the greatest songwriters and, like baseball and its earlier “dead ball” era, you could say that American music can be divided into two eras.
For the sake of this argument, let’s say rock ’n’ roll is the dividing line and then draw the line in 1960.
To me, the pre-rock era starts with Stephen Foster, who is in my opinion the first true American songwriter and the father of Americana music.
Foster’s songs include “Oh! Susanna,” “Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair,” “My Old Kentucky Home,” “Old Folks at Home” (better known as “Swanee River”), “Camptown Races” and “Beautiful Dreamer.”
These songs remain among the best-known standards in American music, 150 years after they were written.
Foster still casts an imposing shadow over American popular music and popular culture. How else can you explain the fact that people are still talking about his music and that there was a Foster tribute CD released in 2004 featuring artists like John Prine, Randy Newman, Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss and Mavis Staples?
Other great American songwriters would have to include George and Ira Gershwin, who composed too many great songs to mention until George’s untimely death at the age of 38 in 1937.
Irving Berlin wrote songs for Broadway musicals that became standards. Songs such as “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” “God Bless America,” “Always,” “Blue Skies,” “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” “How Deep Is the Ocean” and “White Christmas,” to name a few. The songs made Berlin the most successful songwriter of the 20th century.
Cole Porter may be one of only two men who could compete with Berlin for the designation as the greatest songwriter of the 20th century. Porter’s amazing output includes these classic songs: “All of You,” “I Get a Kick Out of You,” “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” and “Night and Day.”
Possibly the most popular composer of the pre-rock era, and my personal favorite, is Henry Mancini.
Mancini won 20 Grammy Awards and four Oscars and has a résumé of songs that includes “Moon River,” “The Days of Wine and Roses,” “Dear Heart,” “Baby Elephant Walk” “Peter Gunn Theme” and theme to “The Pink Panther” film series.
As a testament to his popularity, Mancini is the only artist of his genre who was successful well into the 1970s. Everybody has listened to and enjoyed the music of the songwriters that I mentioned today, and that includes most of the forefathers and purveyors of rock ’n’ roll music.
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