The Other Great American Songbook: an introduction
The death of the era of the professional songwriters of Tin Pan Alley and the Brill Building also meant the death of something else: the standard. Particularly in the pre-rock period, songwriters explicitly wrote songs so that they would become ubiquitous, performed by everybody. Before the phonograph, the primary distribution method for pop music was sheet music, so that a home consumer in Middle-of-Nowhere, Ohio could pick up a song in the local store and perform it with their family and party guests in their parlor room. Even when the bulk of pop standards were written for specific characters to sing in musical theatre pieces, songwriters intentionally wrote them so that they would make sense out of context, hoping that as many singers as possible would pick them up and perform their own renditions.
The songs, then, did not "belong" to anyone. Though some artists may have arguably given definitive performances of certain songs, a song like "I Could Write a Book" or "Needles and Pins" was free to be interpreted by any number of performers. For example, within the span of three years, renditions of "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" were released by major artists like Gladys Knight & the Pips, Marvin Gaye, the Temptations, the Miracles, Creedence Clearwater Revival, etc. Time may have been kindest to Marvin Gaye's interpretation, but all of those performances were considered separate and equally valid.
The idea of standards is still widely known in the jazz world, codified by things like the Real Book and Ella Fitzgerald's series of 'Songbook' records. But in the rock and pop world, the notion of "standards" has been entirely replaced by that of "covers." In the contemporary listener's mind, songs are linked intrinsically to their original studio recordings by their original performers, which, for rock music today, almost invariably means the song's composer. If released today, the blogs and the YouTube descriptions would all be referring to Marvin Gaye's hit not as one of many renditions of Barrett Strong and Norman Whitfield's pop standard, but as his "Gladys Knight cover."
This has benefits, of course, for the songwriter. Because the best songwriters are now writing for themselves and not for others, they're allowed to create more personal expressions through their music. It makes sense, for example, for us to consider "Lithium" in the context of Kurt Cobain's life, the Nevermind album, and Nirvana's overall artistic output.
But that doesn't mean there's anything wrong with still listening to these songs as songs either. Jon Brion often talks about how useful it is to strip "Lithium" down to its bare essentials: melody, chords, and lyrics; revealing that above all, it's simply a gorgeous, tuneful piece of songcraft, even if someone else were to perform it without Cobain's specific anxieties.
I'm starting this series of posts, then, to examine songs like "Lithium" that ought to belong in the Great American Songbook, if the book were still accepting submissions for new standards. Some of these will be songs released within the past thirty-odd years, too late to become canonical. Others will be songs from the standards era that for some reason or other failed to become one, or else has dropped out of today's public conscious.
Soon, I'll begin with a song from the tail end of the standards era that is, appropriately, about a musician reminiscing about a song he had recorded back in the good ol' days: Randy Newman's early composition "Vine Street."