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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
December 10, 2001

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.

Still Singing the Same Old Songs.

Supposedly my generation -- the baby boomers -- grew up on Elvis, switched to the Beatles, then discovered Simon & Garfunkle and Carole King and then watched the "me" generation throw it all in the disco dumpster with the BeeGees and "Saturday Night Fever."

Well, sure, that's the way it happened. Between me and my brothers and sisters, we covered all the bases, as long as you toss in the whole folk movement and "Light My Fire" and "Stairway to Heaven," "Muskrat Love" and "Horse with No Name" -- and don't forget Ricky Nelson, Bobby Rydell, Chubby Checker, and the girl groups.

But I had parents. And my parents had a deep love for music of another kind. Songs that used more than three chords. Songs with lyrics that were actually clever or moving. Songs that ended instead of fading out.

Songs that required a singer.

George and Ira Gershwin. Rodgers and Hart. Cole Porter. Burton Lane. Jerry Herman. Jerome Kern. Sammy Fain. In case you don't know, those are the names of the songwriters. Yes, songwriters who never sang a note in public used to be famous.

That's because songs used to be sold as sheet music. Oh, you could hear a song on the radio or a friend would have a record, but in the thirties and forties -- those ancient days before transistors made radios portable, when records were all those huge expensive 78s -- the main way for you to hear a song was at a party or dance when somebody who was actually there in the room with you sang it.

Heck, you'd join in and sing it yourself, you and a few others gathered around the piano, providing the music for the rest of the party.

So instead of looking for the latest record by your favorite singer, you'd look for the latest sheet music by your favorite songwriter.

You don't have to be old or terminally nostalgic to love these songs. The best of them stand the test of time as art, composed to please a large and eager audience in a certain era, but with aptness, ingenuity, and honesty that make them timeless.

Best of all, we still have singers who know how to do them right. And, even though not one soul asked me to do it, as a public service I'm going to point out a few CDs, some new, some not, that will remind you -- or show you for the first time -- what great songs and great singers once were and still are.

Let's start with two singers who were among the best of the pre-Elvis singers and who still know how to sing a song so it means something. In fact, I think Rosemary Clooney and Tony Bennett are actually better now than they were as youngsters in the 1950s, even though they can't hit the high notes anymore.

They both have retrospective albums -- "Tony Bennett's All-Time Greatest Hits" and Clooney's "Songs from the Girl Singer," but don't start there. Pick up their newer albums. Rosemary Clooney's "Brazil" gives you the light jazz sound of Bossa Nova with her rich, playful alto voice.

"With My Friends: Bennett Sings the Blues" is an album of duets so sweet and fine you have to smile just hearing them. Bennett with Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, k.d. lang, Bonnie Raitt, Sheryl Crow -- the only bad thing is that you find yourself wishing some of the newer singers understood how to sing as well as Bennett does.

There are some young singers who tap into the old songs, too. Michael Feinstein's "Isn't It Romantic" sparked the whole songwriter revival when it came out back in '88. It's still available and it's still one of the great albums of all time -- especially the newer songs, like "Where Do You Start" and "My Favorite Year." Rebecca Luker's "Anything Goes" from '96 samples the whole range of Cole Porter's dazzling songwriting. Both these albums have been played hundreds of times at our house. (It may be why my older kids moved out.)

Of course there are Streisand's two Broadway albums, reminding you of why she got famous in the first place. And Burt Bacharach's music was never better than when it was sung by Dionne Warwick.

Diana Krall and Harry Connick, Jr., have made very nice careers out of singing light jazz, and on recent albums they tap into that great old music. Listen to Krall's "The Look of Love" (with "I Remember You" and "Cry Me a River" and the brilliant "Maybe You'll Be There") and the almost-as-good album "When I Look in Your Eyes."

Then check out Connick's new "Songs I Heard" cd, with his own trip down memory lane. Yes, he really does sing "Ding-Dong! The Witch Is Dead" and "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious," but he finds new life in songs that were pretty silly when they first came out. (When will he do "Mairzy Doats" and "Three Little Fishies"?)

Nowadays, though, songwriters almost have to sing their own material. But in the tradition of Joni Mitchell, Janis Ian, Carole King, and Paul Simon, we have some songwriters working today who compose with great originality, write lyrics that are flatout poetry, and sing as well as any of the old masters.

Let me steer you to three of the great albums of all time. The first is hardest to find: Shirley Eikhard's "Going Home." You feel the energy of noir films in "Crazy from the Heat," then cry with the beautiful sweetness of "Emily Remembers." "About Last Night" is a short story in itself, and "Desperately" and "I Live for Then" show you what perfect singing is.

Then pick up Beth Nielsen Chapman's third album, "Sand and Water." All her work is good, but this cd is a classic. The title song is a heartbreaker about the love of a widow for the husband who lives on in their child; "Happy Girl" has become an anthem for a generation of women.

And Bruce Cockburn (pronounced Coe-burn), with his album "Charity of Night," shows what folk-rock always wanted to be when it finally grew up. Gritty, gravelly, and yet hauntingly beautiful, this is an unforgettable album. Eikhard, Chapman, and Cockburn have a permanent place in my musical life.

It's worth remembering, though, that American music began with the sounds and themes of country music, with its Scotch-Irish roots and hill country blossoming. One of the best traditional country albums of all time is "Songcatcher," inspired by a movie I never saw. It has powerful renditions (by singers like Rosanne Cash, Emmylou Harriss, Patty Loveless, and Deana Carter) of classic folk songs written by long-forgotten bards.

In our post-Alternative musical world, it's reassuring to find some singers who are taking the Alternative sound and writing good new songs. Give Rufus Wainwright's "Poses" a try (especially "Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk"), which he sings in a wonderful voice that sounds at once passionate and sleepy. Then look up John Mayer's "Room for Squares" which, weirdly enough, was released twice this year with different covers. I love his strange and moving music, especially "My Stupid Mouth" and the nostalgic "83."

Finally, here's an album that has nothing to do with the theme of this column -- but I've been listening to it constantly for days. The "Lord of the Rings" soundtrack album is a concert of haunting, powerful music. Whether you care a fig for Tolkien or not, this is music to set you dreaming.


Just in case you missed the notice last week: My free production of "The Importance of Being Earnest" has been postponed to 18-19 January. Please mark it on your calendars, even though I'm absolutely sure there's going to be a big snowstorm that weekend so we'll have to postpone the play again. (A new feature of this column: The Cynical Weather Report.)

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