As Good as Cole Porter

Willie Dixon, 1915 - 1992

I'm reading The Poets of Tin Pan Alley by Philip Furia, a study of the lyricists of the Great American Songbook, and it got me thinking about how we judge the bodies of work of our great composers of popular song. There's no better way of encountering the songs of Cole Porter, the Gershwins, Rogers and Hart, Jerome Kern, and others than through the Songbook series that Ella Fitzgerald recorded for Verve in the late 50s and early 60s. What you're getting there is the best twenty, thirty, or forty songs from each of these masterly writers. The level of craft is unsurpassed. The music and words fit together with precision, and they sparkle with urbanity. It is through these songs and performances that people of our baby boomer generation and later know these composers, conveying the impression that they could do no wrong.

The truth is that these composers were cranking out songs for musicals nonstop. People alive at the time know that there was plenty of filler in those shows. Sometimes only a song or two would ascend to timelessness. If we judge the great songwriters of the post-WWII era by the same measure, it gets clear pretty fast that our modern songwriters practice a pretty high level of craft themselves, approaching perfection in their own way, according to their own aesthetics.

Consider the top twenty or thirty songs of the Beatles, Stones, and Kinks and you won't find much fat to trim there. Or consider the monumental American singer-songwriters Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Paul Simon, and John Prine. Same thing. Nothing to trim there. Then there were the songwriters who wrote for others, like Holland-Dozier-Holland in Motown, Goffin-King and Weil-Mann in the Tin Pan Alley of the 60s. And how about Willie Dixon propagating blues wisdom for Chess Records in Chicago? There's more. How about Hank Williams? His poetry is equal to Ira Gershwin's, is it not?

Those of us who have grown up knowing the complete bodies of work of many of these modern artists know that their records include a few clunkers or less-than-stellar songs. But it was ever thus. So, yes, Willie Dixon is as good as Cole Porter!


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