Ira Gershwin, Robert Kimball, ed.
Perhaps you’ve heard the same things I have.
That verse is the purest form of writing. Language distilled to its essence. The form that requires the most effort not just of the poet, but of the reader.
Maybe all that leaves you less terrified than it does me.
Yet, really, I’m up to my ears in poetry. Lyric poetry. Music isn’t just background for me. It plays constantly. I can’t imagine a day without it and I can quote lyrics until listeners flee the scene hands clasped tightly to the sides of their heads.
There’s a good chance some of those lyrics were penned by Ira Gershwin, half of the greatest American songwriting partnership of the 20th century. If we can give global prizes to plagiarizing pop stars we ought to be able to find a place in the firmament for an earlier incarnation of a commercially-minded lyricist.
One of the claims made for songwriters who emerged after World War II is that they were serious people dealing with serious subjects rather than the twaddle of earlier, perhaps less serious times. Racism, nuclear annihilation, neo-colonial wars, expanding consciousness, this was meaty, and remunerative, stuff. By contrast, Mr. Gershwin made his money the old-fashioned way–on Broadway.
Well, I’m not buying it. Love songs–even treacly ones with overly-obvious rhymes–are just a staple. Even the Bard of Hibbing has written a few.
That brings me back to the elder Gershwin. Born near the close of the 19th century into an immigrant family in New York, by 1924 Ira and his brother George had their first Broadway hit, Of Thee I Sing. Over the next nearly decade and a half, they wrote some of the greatest songs ever contributed to the great American songbook.
The melodies of those songs stuck in your head, and so did the lyrics. Long before the rock critics fetishized the idea of lyrics written in an authentic voice Ira Gershwin strived to make his lyrics sound the way people actually talk.
That last statement is not without its caveats. Perhaps I should have added the phrase, “in Broadway musicals.” Gershwin wrote primarily for the theatre and more specifically for musical theatre. There wasn’t then, and may not be now, a lot of latitude for walking too far away from the boy-meets-girl formula.
Whether the source material springs from Shakespeare or Michener there’s almost always some couple that ought to be together, can’t seem to get together, approaches getting together, fails to get together and , then, almost always winds up together. Scoff at it if you will, entertainment is a business and the proof is in the box office receipts. And, in the best cases, the songs.
That brings me back to the Gershwins because, honestly, the songs are glorious, doing what every great song does: packing an emotional wallop at exactly the right moment. Consider the start of one Gershwin-penned refrain: “They’re writing songs of love, but not for me.” You don’t even need to know the plot to figure out where this one fits in. I’d even suggest this walks right up to the line between empathy and bathos.
But that refrain rolls on and I find myself retreating from muttering “Oh, brother” to myself. The singer laments the dead ends of her love life in words only Ira Gershwin could pen: “With Love to lead the way,/I’ve found more clouds of grey/than any Russian play/could guarantee.” Really? A Russian play?
Wait, there’s more. “I was a fool to fall/And get that way/Hi-jo alas/And also lack-a-day” For all its corniness, is there any better retort to getting ditched than “Hi-ho, alas and also lack-a-day?” I wished I’d known it during my dating days.
Okay, okay, I get it. Cry in your beer songs are a dime a dozen; at any given moment half the songwriters in Nashville are probably working on one. At least in song, though, love is binary, so if the guy’s going to get the girl (or the girl the guy, or the guy the guy, or the girl the girl, or, well, you get the picture) you’ve got to do triumphant, too.
Gershwin, again: “They all laughed at Christopher Columbus, when he said the world was round/they all laughed when Edison recorded sound.” There’s an opener, for you. The naysaying continues, rhyming all the while and listing an all-American crew who wouldn’t take no for an answer in their particular endeavors: the Wright Brothers, Marconi, Eli Whitney, Robert Fulton, Henry Ford, Milton Hershey. It’s a veritable Who’s Who of American commercial and inventive heros .
And it’s all in the service of having hung the moon. Here’s the payoff:
They laughed at me wanting you
Said it would be, “Hello, Goodbye.”
And oh, you came through
Now they’re eating humble pie
They all said we’d never get together
Darling, let’s take a bow
For ho, ho, ho!
Who’s got the last laugh?
Hee, hee, hee!
Let’s at the past laugh
Ha, ha, ha!
Who’s got the last laugh now?”
I may be alone in thinking this, but wordplay is a craft. You don’t just get up and do it, at least not without a lot of practice. You could rightly complain about spoon/moon/June triplets. Ira Gershwin operates on a distinctly different level where anything from real estate to Russian philosophers might be put in the service of the song.
The rap is that before Sondheim and Dylan a bunch of hacks sat around the Brill Building with the thesaurus open on the piano. I think that’s wrong, or at least short-sighted. Those hacks include Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller, Gerry Goffin and Carole King, Doc Pomus, Neil Diamond and even Chip Taylor, the man who gave us “Wild Thing.”
Maybe treating them and Ira Gershwin more like poets isn’t such a bad idea.