There is peace in these old songs. There is joy. If there is one overarching reason to own a turntable, it is this: songs from the days before rock ‘n roll was king sound so, so good.
American Popular Song: Six Decades of Songwriters and Singers is such a huge compilation that it’s difficult to figure out where to start talking about it. While rock ‘n roll is nowhere to be found, we do have everyone from Bing Crosby to Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald to Billie Holliday, Judy Garland to Peggy Lee. There are seven LPs worth of music here, almost all of which sit at eight songs on each side, and if you have ever tapped your foot to a song from the “standards” era, you’ll find something to love here.
For me, in addition to the peace and joy, there is education. The compilation is presented chronologically, and the very first song is Sophie Tucker’s “Some of These Days”, a little ditty with swagger and confidence years ahead of its time (1926!). Tucker’s distinctive vibrato and the familiar, catchy melodies — it’s very close to a ragtime shuffle in its construction — offer a very good idea of what the collection will offer: supremely talented artists, singing supremely talented songs. Other highlights from the earlier years of the compilation are Marion Harris’ rendition of “I Ain’t Got Nobody” — the most widely known version of which may well be David Lee Roth’s — and a collection of Bing Crosby highlights topped by a sublime performance of “Out of Nowhere”.
From there, we start to see how jazz made its way into the standards of the ’40s and ’50s. Judy Garland is at her most graceful on “Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart”, a song that can come off as overly silly in the wrong hands, and Nat King Cole’s “Embraceable You” finds utterly hummable melodies amongst its surprisingly complex chord structure. My own favorites from this era, however, show up in the hands of Lena Horne, whose impeccable and effortless delivery give “Stormy Weather” and “As Long As I Live” the sort of lilt that warms on a winter’s day.
A young Frank Sinatra kicks off the more orchestrally-inclined segment of the proceedings with “I Only Have Eyes for You”, at which point we enter into the slowly-delivered romance that was so popular for the entirety of Sinatra’s heyday. This stuff is honestly a little schmaltzy for my taste; there was a swagger to the jazzy standards that came before, whereas here it’s all longing and pining and big orchestral swells and puddles of liquid vibrato. A few of these singers — Sinatra, Garland, Peggy Lee, and oh god, Ella Fitzgerald — have real style to their performances, but many of the others are painting by numbers here with no small amount of success. Unfortunately, this style is what carries the rest of the compilation.
This is not so bad, though, because many of these artists took the style and crafted unique identities out of it. I could listen to Tony Bennett sing “My Funny Valentine” all day, Johnny Mathis (here represented with “What’ll I do”) has a stylized delivery that offers appeal beyond the usual velvet voices and cotton backdrops, and hey, Ella Fitzgerald stuck around for a while, her evolving voice a perfect match for an evolving musical scene. The nice thing about listening to Fitzgerald in particular is that she never really lost the jazzy style that lent a bit of melodic unpredictability to her performances. Some of the songs on the last couple records are better than others, but through it all, Sinatra keeps sticking around. By the time his voice — to this point a more gravelly, drink-ravaged, but no less skillful instrument — wraps itself around “September Song”, it becomes clear just how well he understood not just how to craft a tune, but how to make it work in the context of his own life and the world around him. The book that accompanies this set, an excellent little companion designed to be read as you listen, mentions that this is the third recording Sinatra did of “September Song”, which makes sense; its lyrics essentially guarantee that it becomes more personal with age.
Trying to be objective about a collection like this is silly, particularly for someone like myself who, admittedly, knows very little about these eras of music. I know what I like, I know many of these songs have become enough an integral part of the musical vocabulary to be unavoidable, but that’s about it.
That said, having seven records of this kind of music, the kind I heard a lot of when I was growing up (particularly around Christmastime), the kind that originated on vinyl and will always sound like it belongs there, is great. At risk of seeming trite, it feels downright “nice”. It’s nice to hear these songs floating through my house, it’s nice to listen to songs I don’t know and artists I might want to know more about, it’s nice to watch my kids dance through the living room as they’re playing on the stereo. Life is better when you’re listening to this kind of music.
One more note: my kids found this in a pile of records on someone’s curb.
There’s a good chance I never would have bought this compilation; it’s a lot of money to pay for a genre of music that I continually insist I “have to be in the mood for”. I can’t explain how lucky I feel, however, that my kids found that pile of records, and how glad I am to have picked this up, water damage and all. The records still play; the songs are still the same. Peace and joy.