October 2002 | Volume 53, Issue 5
Overrated The job of a professional songwriter is to create songs for the rest of us to sing. Around 1960 the old-school pros were giving way to songwriter-performers, among them a young fellow from Minnesota named Bob Dylan. For him and many others, popular song became personal statement. Dylan’s songs belonged to him , by both their linkage to his performance and the nature of his poetry. Despite his immense popularity and influence, his songs have rarely gained lives of their own. A few songwriter-performers of an earlier generation —Hoagy Carmichael and Fats Waller come to mind—saw many of their compositions become standards. Why not Dylan?
Singers and musicians, especially in jazz, seek compositions that challenge their own creativity, material that invites invention rather than reiteration. Thus the standards of Gershwin and Berlin, Rodgers and Porter, not to mention Carmichael and Waller, have gained an enduring base in jazz. But performers rooted in styles other than Dylan’s own have paid little attention to his songs. The rousing “Mr. Tambourine Man” and the haunting “Lay Lady Lay” have been largely ignored except by rock groups (the Byrds, Duran Duran) and folk singers (John Denver and Joan Baez). An additional obstacle to reinterpretation of a Dylan song is that each new crop of youngsters, following the path blazed by Dylan himself, are eager to perform their compositions in their personal styles.
Bob Dylan needn’t worry about his place in American popular culture. But he will probably be remembered more as a celebrity who influenced American politics and ideology than as a songwriter. His “Blowin’ in the Wind” may survive in that context, but it is generally rendered only in folk/rock style, seldom crossing over as a standard must to jazz, country, or cabaret. With one telling exception. Lena Home sings it on the 1995 album Stormy Weather .
Underrated Ted Koehler wrote the words to that powerful song and created dozens of other popular standards. “Stormy Weather” (with Harold Arien) was introduced by Ethel Waters in Harlem’s Cotton Club Parade (1933). The song was an instant hit, but to survive, a song must continue to appeal to other performers on its merits, not its past glories. Most performers have one thing in mind: Can I make this song mine ? Those who have done so with “Stormy Weather” include practically every star of the twentieth century: jazz icons like Sarah Vaughan, Frank Sinatra, and Peggy Lee, country stars like Willie Nelson and Ferlin Huskie, and current luminaries like Ann Hampton Callaway and Wynton Marsalis.
One standard, however majestic, would not justify a Ted Koehler revisit, but in a long career, working not only with Arlen but other professional heavyweights such as Burton Lane, Rube Bloom, and Jimmy McHugh, Koehler co-created plenty of them: “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea,” “I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues,” “Let’s Fall in Love,” and “I’ve Got the World on a String.” With the pianist-composer Rube Bloom, he wrote the touching ballads “Don’t Worry ‘Bout Me” and “Out in the Cold Again.” “Spreadin’ Rhythm Around” (with McHugh) didn’t reach Broadway until five years after his death, when it was incorporated into the hit revue Ain’t Misbehavin’ (1978). Koehler’s songs have inspired arrangements by young performers like Julie Kelly, Lou Lanza, and Diana Krall. Donny Osmond recorded “Let’s Fall in Love,” and Stevie Wonder, at the age of thirteen, “Get Happy.”
Ted Koehler wrote “Animal Crackers in My Soup” for Shirley Temple’s 1935 film Curly Top , and it was recorded by both Miss Temple and Barbra Streisand. Now that’s a professional songwriter!