Writer Ben Yagoda has set out to explain a shift in American popular culture. Before the early 1950s, songwriters like Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin and Jerome Kern wrote popular songs that achieved a notable artistry, both in lyrics and music. That body of work, at least the best of it, came to be known as the American Songbook.
But by the early 1950s the popular hit song had evolved into a work of less artistic ambition. Novelty and simplicity ruled — and sold. What happened? That’s the question that Yagoda addresses in his new book, The B-Side: The Death of Tin Pan Alley and the Rebirth of the Great American Song. He tells NPR’s Robert Siegel that there was a change in popular taste after World War II:
“The soldiers who had come back from World War II didn’t seem to be as interested in the more complex, challenging kind of popular song, the more jazz-based song. Sentimental ballads and, yes, novelty numbers, suddenly was much more appealing.”
Image: Frank Sinatra captured by photographer William “PoPsie” Randolph during a 1943 concert. Author Ben Yagoda points to Sinatra as one of the interpreters who helped revive the Great American Songbook. (William “PoPsie” Randolph/Courtesy of Riverhead)