Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Dr. Bob Prescribes: In Praise of Song

I’ve always believed there are basically two kinds of music: the music you grow up listening to as a child and as an adolescent and everything else.

Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington at the Downbeat Club, New York City, in 1949
Ella Fitzgerald (1917-1996) and Duke Ellington (center, 1899-1974) at the Downbeat Club, New York City, in 1949 (Benny Goodman [1909-1986] is seated behind Ellington’s left shoulder); FYI, this post will conclude with the performance of a Duke Ellington song by Maestra Fitzgerald

An overly simple statement?

No, I don’t believe it is.

It’s been my experience that nothing impresses itself more powerfully (or permanently) on the relatively blank slates that are our young brains than the smells we smell and the music we hear as kids and adolescents.  

As olfactory phenomena are beyond the scope of my knowledge, we’ll stick here with music.

The music we listen to growing up impresses itself on us like no other music heard at any other time of our lives, or so I believe.  Our childhood innocence, our sexual coming-of-age, the magic that ensues when almost every experience is new, all of this (and more) is wrapped up in and forever identified with the music of our childhoods and adolescence.  That music becomes our music; we own it.  Good or bad, we love it like a we love our delinquent children, just because they’re ours. 

December, 1954: my father singing to my eight month old self (I will admit that I have a confused look on my face; perhaps he was singing American Pie?
December, 1954: my father singing to my eight month old self (I will admit that I have a confused look on my face; perhaps he was singing American Pie?

(I know that when I was an infant, my father used to sing Waltzing Mathilde and When You Wish Upon a Star to me.  I “know” he sang those songs not because I actually remember him singing them, but because to this very day, whenever I hear either, a very primal, very special part of me just melts.)

For my parents (my father was born in 1925 and my mother in 1926; they both grew up in New York City), “their music” was predominantly the popular songs and big band music they heard on the radio and on records during the 1930s and 1940s.  For most Americans of my generation, “our music” was primarily the rock ‘n’ roll, soul, and folk songs we heard on the radio, listened to on records, and were exposed to on TV (on such shows as The Ed Sullivan Show, American Bandstand, Soul Train, The Monkees, and so forth). 

Stepping back, we’d observe that the vast majority of the music I’ve just mentioned are songs.  Properly defined, a song is a (typically) short poem or text set to music, intended to be sung, and accompanied by an instrument or instruments.  

In terms of the totality of the music I personally was exposed while growing up, I was super lucky.  Between my piano lessons, my father’s piano playing (primarily songs from the Great American Songbook), my parents’ record collection – which I had full access to – and my grandmothers (both of whom were part of the performing arts scene in New York), I was exposed to pretty much every sort of Western music while I was growing up: the concert repertoire, opera, jazz (in particular, the pianists Erroll Garner and Dave Brubeck), Broadway musicals, folk (in particular my maternal grandmother’s great friend, Theo [Theodore] Bikel, who spoke 9 languages and could sing in 21!), and the songs of Tin Pan Alley (also-known-as The Great American Songbook).  

But in the end, as a pianist, as a composer, and even as a person, when it comes to music, it is songs that have most shaped and inspired me.  And in this I know that I am not alone.  A great song – and OMG, there are so, so many great songs out there – crystallizes and communicates emotion and experience with an immediacy and memorability that nothing else can.  This is as true for the songs of Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Wolff, Mahler, and Richard Strauss as it is for the songs of Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Richard Rodgers, Burt Bachrach, Stephen Sondheim, Woody Guthrie, and Pete Seeger as it is for the songs of Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Joni Mitchell, Elton John, Carol King, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder, Brian Wilson, Patti Smith, Smokey Robinson, Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen, Leonard Cohen, Prince, Neil Young, David Bowie, Pete Townshend, Dolly Parton, Randy Newman, Al Green, and Tom Waits. I’m only stopping there so you can insert your own 5, 10, 20, or even 50 favorite songwriters.

Yesterday’s Music History Monday

Don McLean (born 1945) circa 1975
Don McLean (born 1945) circa 1975 (given all the money dude made on American Pie, one wonders why he couldn’t have his lower teeth fixed; then again, I continue to wonder why, given all the money she’s made, Ina Garten – the “Barefoot Contessa” –– can’t afford at least a pair of flip-flops.

As a reminder, I spent yesterday’s Music History Monday sort of trashing (okay, trashing) what many people consider one of the greatest songs of the second half of the twentieth century, Don McLean’s American Pie (1972).  During the course of that post, I did not spare two other presumably “iconic” songs, Freddie Mercury’s Bohemian Rhapsody (1975) andJimmy Webb’s MacArthur Park (1968).

What can I say?  If necessary, you may abuse me for my irreverence and (very possibly) poor taste.  

However, before engaging in that abuse, I beseech you to consider how very many wonderful recordings of fabulous popular songs I’ve recommended over the years here in Dr. Bob Prescribes.  As a service to you, my beloved patrons, I will list and link those posts below, before moving on to a pledge at the conclusion of this post.…

See the list (and pledge) on Patreon!

Become a Patron!

The Robert Greenberg Store