By William Zinsser
As Time Goes By
Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?
Baby, It’s Cold Outside
The Lady Is a Tramp
Everything’s Coming Up Roses
Those are only five of the dozens of phrases and idioms that have been added to America’s vernacular speech by its popular songwriters. Traditionally, that’s what a nation’s poets are supposed to do. America had many great poets in the 20th century, and only Robert Frost, I think, left us any familiar quotations (“miles to go before I sleep”; “something there is that doesn’t love a wall”). As the poet Randall Jarrell once said, “Tomorrow morning some poet may, like Byron, wake up to find himself famous–for having written a novel, for having killed his wife; it will not be for having written a poem.”
But all of you can think of many phrases that originated as song lyrics and that brighten your everyday life with their freshness and color. Most of them date from the golden age (1926-1966) of Broadway theater songs, movie songs, and popular standards, collectively known as the Great American Songbook. A later breed of troubadours (Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, the Beatles) would further enrich that heritage with vivid images and metaphors (Blowin’ in the Wind, Bridge Over Troubled Water).
Here, to warm up your memory muscles, are another dozen specimens from the earlier age: Accentuate the Positive; Thanks for the Memory; You’re the Top; Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered; Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend; Someone to Watch Over Me; She’s Funny That Way; I Only Have Eyes for You; The Man That Got Away; One for My Baby and One More for the Road; High Hopes; Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off.
Unlike Johnny Mercer (Blues in the Night), a gent from Georgia, or Cole Porter (I Get a Kick Out of You), a WASP from Yale, most of the major songwriters were immigrant Jews from Europe, like Irving Berlin (There’s No Business Like Show Business), or children of immigrant Jews, like Dorothy Fields (I Can’t Give You Anything But Love), Ira Gershwin (Long Ago and Far Away), and E. Y. (Yip) Harburg (Over the Rainbow). They embraced the American language with fierce love. Irving Berlin is a miracle of linguistic assimilation. Born Israel Baline in Siberia and raised there until the age of five, he would write lyrics in his adopted language as intricate and urbane (Puttin’ on the Ritz; Top Hat, White Tie and Tails) as any written by Cole Porter. (He also wrote the music.)
Ira Gershwin, George’s older brother and lyricist, found his lyceum at New York’s Townsend Harris High School, which had a required course in classical poetics. He also experimented with French verse forms such as the rondeau, the triolet, and the villanelle. His alphabetically adjacent classmate, Yip Harburg, was similarly addicted, and the two friends wrote a column of topical verse for the school newspaper, signed “Gersh and Yip,” which they continued when they went on to City College in 1914.
But Ira’s best advice came from a British playwright who said, “First learn your American slang.” The vivacious musicals that Ira and George Gershwin wrote throughout the 1920s took much of their energy from Ira’s Jazz Age coinages (’S Wonderful). “Oh, lady be good to me,” he said, and “I’ve got a crush on you,” and “Little wow, tell me now, how long has this been going on?” He said “I got rhythm,” not “I’ve got rhythm.”
One of the busiest of those immigrant scribes was Mitchell Parish, who wrote the lyrics for more than 600 songs, including Stars Fell on Alabama and, most famously, Stardust, the most recorded popular song, with more than 1,300 versions in 40 languages. The words that Parish fitted to Hoagy Carmichael’s sinuous melody convey no information except that the song is about “stardust.” He just threw in a carload of “poetic” words: night, dreaming, reverie, love, kiss, garden wall, nightingale, fairy tale, paradise, roses, heart, memory. But they don’t add up to anything.
It’s safe to guess that Mitchell Parish never saw a nightingale on the crowded blocks of New York’s Lower East Side, where he was brought as a child from Lithuania, or a garden wall, or a rose climbing up that wall. He admitted that he never saw any stars–or, presumably, any of their “dust.” Once, commenting on the paradox of so many astral bodies in his songs, Parish said, “Sometimes I think that those lyrics about the moon and the stars represented an escape. They expressed a longing for what I couldn’t see.”
I thought of Parish the other day when the great pop singer Margaret Whiting died. The daughter of the composer Richard Whiting (My Ideal), she was left without a mentor by his early death. Her father’s occasional lyricist Johnny Mercer (Hooray for Hollywood!) assumed that role and guided Margaret’s career. When she was 19 he urged her to record Moonlight in Vermont, which, he thought, was perfectly suited to her voice.
“I’ve never been to Vermont,” she said. “How can I sing a song about a place I’ve never been to? What is the significance of pebbles in a stream? What are ski tows?”
“I don’t know, I’m from Savannah,” Mercer said. “We’ll use our imagination.”
Moonlight in Vermont would be one of Margaret Whiting’s biggest hits.
[Also see Easy to Remember: The Great American Songwriters and Their Songs, by William Zinsser, David R. Godine Publisher]
William Zinsser is the author of 18 books, including On Writing Well.