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Interviewing Alec Wilder discussing his music and his book: American Popular Songs ; part 1

BROADCAST: 1980 | DURATION: 00:32:41


Part 1. Alec Wilder and Harry Bouras discuss Wilder's book "American popular songs", published in 1972.


Tap within the transcript to jump to that part of the audio.


Studs Terkel We fade out on that Wilder octet, two examples of the work of one of the most talented and wittiest and imaginative of American composers, Alec Wilder, "Sneden's Landing," one of his lesser-known songs. You know him for "Peaceful in the Country" that Mildred Bailey made so celebrated. And Alec Wilder and his new book, and it's quite a book, it's really a story of America, you might say, through popular music, it's called "American Popular Song," and subtitled "The Great Innovators, 1900 - 1950," Oxford University Press are the publishers, and this is going to be the first of a three-hour program, three installments, in a way a sort of a history of American popular music as seen with his biases and with his insights, Alec Wilder. Listening to Mabel Mercer singing one of your songs and that octet, the humorous octet, too, somehow they hold up, although written some 30 years ago.

Alec Wilder Yeah, I was quite surprised to hear, well, I just -- I haven't heard these octets for years. To see that they don't sound rinky-dink. They sound kind of -- they don't sound like today, but they sound valid.

Studs Terkel Yeah. I was about to say this, Alec Wilder did not unfortunately include himself in in this particular book. I think he should be; innovators in American popular music, although Alec has written cantatas, there's an endless whole series. The third program with his 13-minute cantata for peace, the lyrics written by children, but of that later. The book itself. We come to beginnings. Your friend James T. Maher did the introduction.

Alec Wilder Right, and beautiful it was, too.

Studs Terkel And he's saying about songs, you're talking about American popular

Alec Wilder songs. Songs, yes.

Studs Terkel Now, we come to the question of words and music, don't we? One is incomplete

Alec Wilder Well, there -- one is -- yeah, incomplete without the other, except that in this book it seems as if I had ignored lyrics. It's not that, it's the publishers made it so difficult to get the lyrics, that I just gave up on it. I was going to do a comparative chapter between John Mercer and Lorenz Hart, because they have marvelous opposing techniques and ideologies, but it was impossible. It was hard enough to get the music. In fact, it was -- many of the pieces I wanted to excerpt I couldn't, because publishers refused to give me permission to use

Studs Terkel Nonetheless, during one of our forthcoming programs, number two I believe, there'll be a contrast of lyrics of Larry Hart, Lorenz Hart, who worked with Richard Rodgers before he worked with Hammerstein, Rodgers

Alec Wilder Right.

Studs Terkel And Johnny Mercer. But you yourself, what you did, you went through sheet -- you had 17,000

Alec Wilder That's right. That's right. Endless. To try to find those songs, not which were the most popular, ever. That was never the, the, the decisive point, that was the quality of the song, and obviously the -- or if it's, I think it's fairly transparent that the object of the book is to evaluate the songs which I feel have as much distinction as any of songs by -- of classical composers, and that they're not simply because they're in the popular vein of limi-- of limited to the limbo that the academic academicians put them in, because they say if they're popular, how can they be valid music?

Studs Terkel Well, I'm thinkin' your first question, as we begin your first chapter of the book deals with the transition 1885 to World [lighter strike] War One. What is it? There's an American quality to

Alec Wilder That's what I was looking for.

Studs Terkel There's

Alec Wilder That's right.

Studs Terkel What does it, distinguished it? And we come now to the transition

Alec Wilder Well, I'm certain from -- well, I'm not the greatest research man in the world, but from all the evidence I can, was able to assimilate, I would assume that the, that the American Negro is the clue to the, to the American-sounding song. It became -- you might, I don't know if it's a valid term to use or reputable, but -- they were, they were whitened, one might say, by means of sophistication and writers who learned more and more, but the feeling of the American song stems from, it comes out of ragtime, then it comes out of Ben Harney, then it comes out of

Studs Terkel He was a Black man.

Alec Wilder Yes, but it was never -- he was so light that he passed-

Studs Terkel Yeah.

Alec Wilder -for white, and I believe, it's just a hunch on my part, that he was able to get into the white publishing offices where the Black man couldn't, because he was assumed to be white.

Studs Terkel So popular music and post-Civil War, post-Steven Foster, though he had his own role to play, you

Alec Wilder Well, he did because I think he was, had access to the spilled-over music from the plantations, which, when they were, you know, were -- I mean, when the dis- diaspora occurred, when they all went out on their own to get jobs, that the availability of their songs ceased for a while.

Studs Terkel You know, a good example, before we go into the very first of the white and most celebrated at the very early days of American popular songwriters, the first one you describe is Jerome Kern. But before that

Alec Wilder Well, before that.

Studs Terkel Before that, suppose we hear an example of what you just said. McKinney's Cotton Pickers recorded this in 1930, but it goes back to 19--

Alec Wilder Nineteen

Studs Terkel Nineteen-nineteen. That's "Baby, Won't You Please Come Home"

Alec Wilder -- How

Studs Terkel Now, I'll ask you why this one in a moment.

Alec Wilder Well, in the first -- all right. Okay.

Studs Terkel All right. After we hear "Baby, Won't You Please Come Home," it's George Thomas singing with McKinney's Cotton Pickers. [Music fading out] And so 1919, we're listening to this song and why did you choose, this is one of, one of the archetypal cases

Alec Wilder Well, it it has the American sound, and it also, of course, this is one of tun-- as far as I know one of the rare cases in which a singer was allowed two choruses, and you'll notice the second chorus is almost in a kind of like a jazz solo almost, because he somewhat deserts the melody, and of course his singing is so ingratiating and, it it has total American quality to it! That's why.

Studs Terkel You call it a very sweet late-at-night song.

Alec Wilder That's, yeah.

Studs Terkel I was thinking of this in contrast to you also put down a lot of songs, at that time a contemporary song was, say, "Ja-Da." "Ja-Da."

Alec Wilder That's right.

Studs Terkel And this you say has no meaning. You see

Alec Wilder Well, "Ja-Da" was just a little -- tiny little germ which -- it worked. And I remember it. You remember it. We all remember it, but it had no particular character. It was a cute little germ.

Studs Terkel Then in a sense what you're looking for is, if I follow you, this is pre-Kern -- well, Kern was writing at the time

Alec Wilder Well, remember, that's theater music, too. Kern is theater.

Studs Terkel Kern is theater, we'll come to that too, in a moment.

Alec Wilder More sophisticated.

Studs Terkel Yeah. But this, this song: another one, an exam-- similar of this, 21, and Mildred Bailey, one of your favorite and my favorite

Alec Wilder Right.

Studs Terkel Vocalists, sings "There'll Be Some Changes Made." Why, about this 1920, '21. Why "There'll Be Some Changes Made"?

Alec Wilder Well, I think it's a very good song, of course, I -- remember, I'm concentrating more on the the music than the words, because this is primarily a music book, but if you'll examine the lyric, if you're going to play a few, I mean, "There'll Be Some Changes Made," it has a marvelous street kind of raunchiness and, and, that's -- the -- a kind of, the the slang works, the, the, the exhortation seems to work to tell, you know, to let somebody know what's going to happen in their life, it's done quite extraordinarily in the course of a very few measures. This, the story of course, that I must admit is the words. I happen also to like the song. It may be influenced by Mable -- Mildred, and I had to fight all the way through this book to keep forgetting, forcing myself to forget specific performances, because they can make you believe a song is great when it

Studs Terkel Now, this is the case of the performer herself, Mildred Bailey

Alec Wilder That's right!

Studs Terkel Later on we'll hear Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday doing-

Alec Wilder That's

Studs Terkel -this sort of thing of making the song seem even better than

Alec Wilder That's right. So I had to work from piano music and try to forget performances.

Studs Terkel Ahh. So you worked in the sheet music

Alec Wilder Yes, I did. Because I - that's the only source we have. I mean, real source of of the song.

Studs Terkel There's something else. You you choose certain songs that are not traditional Tin Pan Alley which two guys, two hacks,

Alec Wilder Right, right.

Studs Terkel Would do a hit song from the moment.

Alec Wilder I'm not interested in hits. Only interested in what seemed to me to advance this -- you notice I left out Friml, and Victor Herbert and the other

Studs Terkel fella Harburg. Not Harburg, I'm sorry, I don't mean Harburg

Alec Wilder You don't mean Harbach, either. I don't

Studs Terkel No, no, not Otto Harbach. Romberg!

Alec Wilder Romberg, right. Because they were Viennese writers.

Studs Terkel We should point out, Yip Harburg is the brilliant

Alec Wilder lyricist Oh,

Studs Terkel And more of him and on during the prog-- but the others were European-oriented.

Alec Wilder European-oriented, right. In fact, early Kern, which I didn't -- I don't know if I mentioned in the book, his early music, which I had not heard before I started this book, there were about a hundred songs that I hadn't heard and early shows. He had songs all over the place until his first-

Studs Terkel Yeah.

Alec Wilder -big American-sounding song. They were all European songs!

Studs Terkel So,

Alec Wilder So I left them out.

Studs Terkel Viennese-sounding.

Alec Wilder And English music hall.

Studs Terkel English music. Before that, "There'll Be Some Changes Made"

Alec Wilder Yeah, right.

Studs Terkel You also implied, the very nature of the song, there'll be some musical changes made,

Alec Wilder Right! That's right. That's right.

Studs Terkel Mildred Bailey. [pause] Of course, in listening to Mildred Bailey, Alec Wilder is my guest, and the, this first hour of a three-hour series deals with his book, "American Popular Song: The Innovators of 1900 - 1950," and this is -- before we begin the chapter on Kern, if ever there were an American sound, it's that.

Alec Wilder It sure is. Oh, my Lord. Everything about it. All the players, Mildred, the lyrics, the music.

Studs Terkel Also, is it true that someone -- I'm just curious, this is a thought of mine, Alec, from having being a?] jazz disc jockey years ago, that the good popular songs lend themselves so easily to jazz

Alec Wilder They do.

Studs Terkel Interpretations, too, don't they?

Alec Wilder Well, the the the-- that's a long, that's the story about jazz I won't get into it, but this is one of those songs that lends itself.

Studs Terkel Yeah.

Alec Wilder The the chords don't occur too rapidly for the, for the player to fool around with the changes, with the, with the harmony.

Studs Terkel Yeah.

Alec Wilder I mean, they -- they happen every half measure. They don't happen every beat. When the harmony changes too fast, the jazz doesn't come out easy.

Studs Terkel Yeah. Should point out about this book that Alec has written, it's an excellent one for laymen to read as well as musicians, he analyzed the songs but it's written in so salubrious a manner that it's just reading right through, and among those who liked it, Milton Babbitt, the contemporary American composer, non-jazz or non-pop, he says, "This is a singular book. Nothing like it has even been attempted before, and nothing like it is likely to be attempted in the future. For those of us who have already known many of the songs illuminated in the book, Mr. Wilder directs our memory to memorable details and subtleties." And so the other comments about this book. So now we come to the first, you call the first of American theater -- music composers in Jerome Kern.

Alec Wilder Well, he may not have been the first, and he wasn't, but he was the first one who hit this American stride. There had been Victor Herbert and Friml, might maybe even preceded him, I believe they did. But it doesn't matter because they'd never achieved, except one song of Victor Herbert's which had words put to it many years later of [sings]. Well, that, that hit it, and why I don't know, it was an instrumental.

Studs Terkel But that one did. But Kern, though caught again the

Alec Wilder "Indian Summer."

Studs Terkel "Indian Summer," but Kern, we'll go to 1914, one of those musicals, "Girl from Utah"

Alec Wilder Right.

Studs Terkel And this is just about the end -- two years after the Titanic sank, innocence, we hadn't entered the World War One yet, World War One was beginning. Not quite. And innocence was almost going away, but here's Frank Crumit and Julia Sanderson, popular, a bit shortly after that time sang it. Why -- and a song, "They Didn't Believe Me," one of the earliest you choose, and a key example of this.

Alec Wilder Well, it was the first song, almost the first song that had this flavor. There were a couple of early ones, maybe -- I think I may have mentioned a couple that had fragments of this, but no complete song had this indigenous sound. And that's why I, I think that this is a perfect song to start him off with.

Studs Terkel You point out here in the Kern chapter early in the book, Alec Wilder does, "Outside of its un-Viennese freshness, there are certain interesting oddities about this song, [unintelligible] a trace of musical character, yet it seems to be written at another time than the chorus. So much of the chorus comes a total surprise, and it's hard to consider them part of the same musical experience in spite of the adroitness in which the verse leads into the chorus. And then it was as natural" -- the melodic line you point is as natural as walking.

Alec Wilder [laughter] Did I say that? That's not bad.

Studs Terkel But this had that flavor.

Alec Wilder That

Studs Terkel That distinguished it from the Old World.

Alec Wilder And more sophisticated, let's say, than the average pop song.

Studs Terkel Oh, this becomes a theme, now we come to later on the matter of many theater songs, many show tunes

Alec Wilder Right.

Studs Terkel There's a difference because it concerns itself with plot and character.

Alec Wilder Well, not only that, but it was -- well, that's a, Mr. Maher has -- by the way, that's pronounced "Mar."

Studs Terkel Ma-her, James T. Ma-her

Alec Wilder No, it's pronounced "Mar," for

Studs Terkel Mar.

Alec Wilder I don't know why, it's pronounced "M-A-H-R," but it's M-A-H-E-R.

Studs Terkel He did a very beautiful introduction

Alec Wilder Well, there is a curious distinction between these levels: movie, pop and theater, and actually it goes up in scale from pop to movie to theater music. But I did not consider what value the song had in the show. Again, what was its outside life? That was very important. Not -- some songs probably work marvelously in the theater, and I will be probably ridden out of town on a rail for saying that this -- I don't believe the song is valid because I'm considering it in its outside independent life outside the

Studs Terkel Outside the musical. In this case, "They Didn't Believe Me," outside the musical of 1914, "Girl from Utah."

Alec Wilder It

Studs Terkel But we also have to think of the song, don't we, at the time it was written, too

Alec Wilder That's right.

Studs Terkel And

Alec Wilder That's right. That's right.

Studs Terkel So Sanderson and Crumit. [pause in recording] Just an idea in listening to this remarkable -- done probably recorded in 19-- or very early '20s and you spoke of the remarkable similarity of Sanderson's interpretation of Gertrude Lawrence.

Alec Wilder It sounds, sounds like it, just suddenly occurred to me.

Studs Terkel In a Moss Hart and doing "My Ship" or something.

Alec Wilder Yeah I know, it's very curious.

Studs Terkel So we come to the matter now of Kern. You say he -- this was interpolated.

Alec Wilder This was interpolated. This was one of I don't know whether it was just one song maybe three songs in this show and he had been, I don't know if he'd written full scores before or not. I can't even remember my own book, but I I think that he had -- shows were brought over perhaps and he was asked to put songs in them that would have more of an American quality, well, this one did. I don't feel that the early ones-

Studs Terkel Yeah.

Alec Wilder -did earlier.

Studs Terkel This is one of the good examples of it. We'll take a slight pause in the moment from this first of a three-hour conversation. We'll be joined during some of the latter programs with Harry Bouras. Harry you know is our art critic, but Harry is a marvelous observer, too of the American pop scene as well. And Alec Wilder's book is the theme, the basis of this conversation, "American Popular Song and the Great Innovators of 1900 - 1950." So it's from Kern all the way to the to the '50s. Johnny Mercer doing the lyrics and Walter Donaldson, Jimmy McHugh, and a variety of others were going on. Of course we'll have Rodgers and Gershwin and Berlin

Alec Wilder Arlen.

Studs Terkel And Burton Lane and Harold Arlen, of course, too. In a moment we'll return to the conversation with Alec Wilder and his book and music. [pause in recording] Resuming the conversation with Alec Wilder, our hero at the moment in this early chapter of your book is Jerome Kern, 1885 to 1945. These are the years of his composing, pretty much. [throat clearing] So for 60 years or so.

Alec Wilder Well, I picked 1914 as the beginning simply because that was the first song of his-

Studs Terkel Yeah.

Alec Wilder -that reached me-

Studs Terkel Yeah.

Alec Wilder -as having this strange-

Studs Terkel Yeah.

Alec Wilder -American quality. It sounds chauvinistic, but it's not intended to be.

Studs Terkel Well, if you think of, say, look, take another example of Kern that's still now and then sung by balladeers or a girl about women ballad singers, "Look for the Silver Lining."

Alec Wilder Well, now that's not probably done as often. I happen to feel that it's a great instance of the perfect melody which needs nothing but itself. It needs no harmony. It needs no fancy arrangement. It literally for me doesn't even need words, it's a case of a perfectly, incredibly simple distilled melodic line.

Studs Terkel Now, this is Kern. Kern worked with some interesting lyricists, too.

Alec Wilder Yes, he did. He worked with all kinds, he worked with, with

Studs Terkel Otto Harbach

Alec Wilder Otto Harbach, with

Studs Terkel Dorothy Fields

Alec Wilder Dorothy Fields, John Mercer, oh, I don't know who else.

Studs Terkel But we come to, to "Silver Linings," see. This is a case of, again, song.

Alec Wilder It's song.

Studs Terkel It

Alec Wilder Pure song.

Studs Terkel So a song would involve lyric as well

Alec Wilder It does, but in this case it's so, the melody is so strong it seems to have an independent life.

Studs Terkel Suppose we hear Connie Boswell.

Alec Wilder I hope that -- that's a long ways back.

Studs Terkel "Look for the Silver Lining." [music fading] Again, you spoke of the, of the flow of it.

Alec Wilder The flow, yeah. Just -- just pure melody. And she, she treats it with great respect.

Studs Terkel Was this Connie Bos-- yeah, by

Studs Terkel I didn't -- I never heard her sing that way.

Studs Terkel There's an old -- we're using, by the way, for Alec and for audience, old a lot of old 78s.

Alec Wilder That's fine with me.

Studs Terkel Rather than some of the re-- re-orchestrated

Alec Wilder Yes, because they cloud the issue a little bit.

Studs Terkel And the song seeming the essence of simplicity is Kern again, and well, of course we can't speak of Kern without speaking of "Showboat," can

Alec Wilder That's right, can't, no, impossible. The, the, of course the most -- probably -- there were a great many big songs from that show, and of course I suppose "Ol' Man River" was the great one. I, I'm not nutty about the song. I know it's a great piece and it's a great performer's piece. It's a -- it's a perform-- it's a performance to me more than a song. It works and it probably worked incredibly. I admit I never saw it, but again I had to judge it outside.

Studs Terkel But of the others, we, we'll hear Robeson do "Ol' Man River," so it's, while Jules Bledsoe created the role and Robeson became celebrated for that, too. But also there were other songs in it that you like very much.

Alec Wilder Well, I like -- of course, one of the great songs was one that he added in the last production, which is alleged to be the I think more than an allegation, the last song he wrote, of -- it's probably listed somewhere in there. It's the last. It's at the end of the Kern chapter, and I don't think there is a--

Studs Terkel You know, I was thinking also of some of the Helen Morgan songs,

Alec Wilder Oh, well, that "Can't Help Loving That Man" was one, wasn't it?

Studs Terkel And "Bill."

Alec Wilder And "Bill," which was a song from an earlier show with a Wodehouse lyric.

Studs Terkel Wodehouse, there was one of his unexpected --[unintelligible]

Alec Wilder They did those Princess Theatre shows together.

Studs Terkel But it's interesting, though, how we think of a song, we'll come to this matter of the performer, too, this is then Robeson, and "Ol' Man River" and some of the lyrics of course, that have become part of the American language.

Alec Wilder Oh,

Studs Terkel "Tote that barge"

Alec Wilder Yes, of course.

Studs Terkel "Tote that bale." [sic] So -- this is, but why -- you didn't think, you were not too crazy about the song

Alec Wilder Never was. [throat clearing] Never was. I [page turning]-- it's beautifully put together, but it it -- it's a slight contrivance to me.

Studs Terkel So we hear

Alec Wilder All right. [music fading]

Studs Terkel Of course, this is a case I suppose of performance overwhelming song.

Alec Wilder Yes. And the lyric I must say is certainly not a contrivance, it's a

Studs Terkel That was Oscar Hammerstein.

Alec Wilder That's right. And I'm I'm a very sincere lamentation actually.

Studs Terkel But you say the, the music was contrived. Well, I [unintelligible]

Alec Wilder I, I, I I'd, well, I'm sure that it -- by the way, it was very theatrical. And so I must-

Alec Wilder Yeah.

Alec Wilder - but there again I have to think of the outside.

Studs Terkel Again

Alec Wilder In the, in the show I'm sure it worked perfectly theatrically, because it obviously had a very valid reason for being there, and it has a theatrical flavor, but as a song, an independent song, I lyrically like it better than music.

Studs Terkel You know, something -- we'll skip "Roberta," another of the Kern musicals, but here was said of "Roberta," I remember you point out here there's some humorous connotations, too, of stretch runners, the people who are not quite sure but, what they'll take whatever opinion experts say, that "This isn't very good. No, no, no tunes here." And out of "Roberta" of course came "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,"

Alec Wilder Well, of which there is a story, which Otto Harbach told me when he was staying at the Algonquin

Studs Terkel He did the

Alec Wilder Some years ago, he did the lyric, and he told me for what it's worth that he was going over some unused or discarded manuscripts of Kern, and he came across a song which had been put into "Showboat" as a tap dance to to make it possible to make a scene change. So they closed the curtain, and the object was to have somebody do this dance in order to -- and they found out later that they didn't need the scene change, so they eliminated it, and he had it, and Harbach said that he looked at it and, it was very abruptly written as a tapdance would, in order to let the taps come through. And he asked Mr. Kern if he'd allow him to extend the values of the notes he thought it could be a ballad. Well, originally it was [sings] well, it was "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes" later. But it was a tap dance originally, that's what he told me.

Studs Terkel And it became a torch song.

Alec Wilder Yes!

Studs Terkel It's an amazing -- but "Yesterday," see we come to another song

Alec Wilder -- Oh, that's

Studs Terkel If we hear Billie Holiday sing, and "Yesterday" seems so contemporary.

Alec Wilder It does, well harmonically it's highly sophisticated. It is a, I think a superb piece of writing and a very, as I say, a very -- a song that was a big jump for I can't remember -- chronologically how it fits, but it certainly was a, it is a standard today, and it is some times Marian McPartland I know plays it, and the Beatle "Yesterday," she puts them together, but I can do without the more recent one, frankly, I like

Studs Terkel You can do without the Beatles [unintelligible]

Alec Wilder We don't let's get into that.

Studs Terkel [laughter] This is interesting, was "Yesterdays," now we come to something, was that part of a, of a comedy

Alec Wilder -- It was in a musical. It was in a musical, yes, but I can't remember the name of it. I can't remember which one

Studs Terkel But also in many of these cases songs are discarded, too, they don't fit the plot or

Alec Wilder That's right. But one of the famous ones was was a Rodgers' song which I'll get to if you don't want me to

Studs Terkel Well, we'll come to Rodgers.

Alec Wilder All right.

Studs Terkel We'll come, well here, well here is my favorite singer, Billie Holiday, in "Yesterdays." [music fading] "I think of yesterday's sequestered days."

Alec Wilder Yes, oh very

Studs Terkel But you're disturbed a little by Billie Holiday's interpretation as a composer.

Alec Wilder Yeah. Well, simply because I've had this discussion with jazz players. I feel that the first time around, as out of a mark of respect to the writer who sometimes has great difficulty in achieving a good melody, they should sing the exact melody. The next time they can do what they please with it. I'm not minimizing the fact that Miss Holiday has some very good melodic notions, but here, first crack out of the box, you don't hear the exact melody of "Yesterdays," and it was a very fine tune. Now, why couldn't she do it the second time, that is, her, her variations? I want the original tune first only out of respect to the writer. That's all.

Studs Terkel Originally. So we come to the second man. We come to Irving Berlin, and my memory as a small boy, there were a lot of Irving Berlin songs. Of course, we have to begin with "Alexander's Ragtime Band."

Alec Wilder But there were earlier songs than that-

Studs Terkel Yeah.

Alec Wilder -but you have to start somewhere with him.

Studs Terkel Yeah.

Alec Wilder The "Pullman Porters on Parade," "That Mesmerizing Mendelssohn Tune," these-

Studs Terkel Yeah.

Alec Wilder - he never, he never quit. He had five and six hits a year back then.

Studs Terkel Yeah. But "Ragtime Band," 1911.

Alec Wilder Which is to me not anything to do with ragtime at all, but anyway that's what it was, it was the, it was the number one song in Vienna, in Berlin, in all the, in all the European capitals. Hans [Bialik? Bialyk?], who is a very famous arranger, told me that when he was in Europe in 1911 that's only song you heard in every European capital.

Studs Terkel Well, what was it about "Alexander's Ragtime Band" that caught you, you know?

Alec Wilder I, I think I mentioned, maybe I didn't, that in the verse I find it even more interesting than -- the the music of the verse more interesting than the chorus. Well, it's a landmark. I had to mention it. I'm not crazy about it. I'd, I'd love to hear Ray Charles sing it. Did you ever hear him sing

Studs Terkel it? No.

Alec Wilder Break you up, it's so beautiful, he sings "Alexander Ragtime," and he leaves the "S" off

Studs Terkel Suppose we hear Bessie Smith sing it.

Alec Wilder Oh, that's fine. [music fading]

Studs Terkel There's a perfect example, I suppose, if ever there was an American song. The minstrel effect, the minstrel show influence is here, too.

Alec Wilder That's right, right. More so than the than the ragtime to me.

Studs Terkel Yeah, there's something you point out about Irving Berlin and Jerome Kern, the difference. Jerome Kern came from a middle-class background

Alec Wilder Right.

Studs Terkel Parents sort of a middle-European-oriented and musically trained

Alec Wilder -- Mother a pianist.

Studs Terkel And Berlin from a poor East Side New York-

Alec Wilder Very poor.

Studs Terkel -background.

Alec Wilder Right.

Studs Terkel And so it was easier in a sense for Berlin to

Alec Wilder To to hear what every, everything that was going on, he was influenced by -- he knew what was going on, and I, my feeling is that Kern wasn't, Kern wasn't the kind of man who'd hear about a new band and get down there and hear it. Berlin would have been there. He would have known everything that was going on. You felt that he knew every latest dance trend, every, every shift in style, and that's why I had such trouble in the chapter trying to find out what his stylistic idiosyncrasies were, because he changed, changed, changed, he wrote in about 15 different styles, because he was up, au courant, he was with it all the time.

Studs Terkel We can talk about the different styles of Berlin, although we'll skip a Ziegfeld Follies tune that's become a standby in burlesque shows, you know, "A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody," the stripper, you know.

Alec Wilder That's right.

Studs Terkel But "A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody," in contrast to "Ragtime," but even a better one I suppose the ballad "How Deep is the Ocean?"

Alec Wilder That's a good song. That's a good song. It's a -- there's another earlier song which is, "Tell Me, Pretty Gypsy," which is another one which I feel is in the same category with "Si-" "Look for the Silver Lining," the perfect -- the perfect melodic line that needs nothing to go with it. However, "How Deep is the Ocean?" is a later one-

Studs Terkel Yeah.

Alec Wilder -and certainly one of his biggest songs.

Studs Terkel You point that out, too, I notice on -- talkin' to Alec Wilder the composer and this book of his, this marvelous book, "American Popular Song," from 1900 to 1950, the innovators, and this is the Berlin chapter. In 1932 a verseless song, "How Deep Is the Ocean?" It certainly needs none, written lyrically and musically within the confines of an octave, and then you go on to the, explaining it musically, too. So suppose we hear, this is young Sinatra. Sinatra I think he, I think he was singing with Jimmy Dorsey at the time.

Alec Wilder Oh, you mean Tommy.

Studs Terkel Tommy Dorsey.

Alec Wilder That's

Studs Terkel With Tommy Dorsey. I think I think so. Oh, just, just shortly after. This is an old 78. [music fading] And thus Sinatra, who I know is one of your favorite

Alec Wilder Yes

Studs Terkel Ballad singers.

Alec Wilder Certainly is.

Studs Terkel But again, this song. Do you feel this song itself could also go even without the lyrics?

Alec Wilder No, I I think this is a, a marriage that's necessary. I think it's a good song and a good melody, but I -- that, that lyric is very strong, very powerful lyric, and I think it's essential to the

Studs Terkel So we have to come to Berlin and musicals or revues and hear, aside from "Call Me Madam" and others, I'm thinking of Ethel Waters' "Suppertime," that was from what? That

Alec Wilder That was from "As Thousands Cheer."

Studs Terkel "As Thousands Cheer." That was a revue, but there was a

Alec Wilder There was a

Studs Terkel But there was a dramatic

Alec Wilder Device. Headlines. Headlines was the hook. I mean, the, the linking device.

Studs Terkel Here, then, in "Sup-" "Suppertime," is, is an actual dramatic song. This is a woman-

Alec Wilder Yes.

Studs Terkel -a Black woman waiting for her husband to come home, he's been lynched.

Alec Wilder And you see, and I stupidly, when I wrote about this song, which I think is a great song, although I had seen the show completely forgot that this was the premise, and probably said things that make it a little awkward, because it's valid under any circumstances that she knows he's not coming home, but I'd forgotten that this was this

Studs Terkel But the thing you point out, though, it's interesting aside -- it's interesting, not in a -- you point out the musical aspects of the song. This Berlin -- this, the Berlin proceeds to wallop us with a verseless marvel called "Suppertime," and you speak of the release that goes out farther melodically than anything up to this time.

Alec Wilder Yes, right. Right. It was a remarkable song, and I think one of the high points of his writing.

Studs Terkel And no pretense

Alec Wilder No, none.

Studs Terkel In fact, it is a slow swinger.

Alec Wilder [laughter] Maybe it is, yeah.

Studs Terkel Ethel Waters and a certain moment in American theatrical history, too. "Suppertime." [music fading] Here then, of course, is a case of drama. The actress.

Alec Wilder The actress, right.

Studs Terkel And singer. Although she does it less part of the sketch itself and other performances, too.

Alec Wilder Well, she did the -- she recorded later as a direct song. This is very -- I don't think I've ever heard her do this, and it's remarkable. She's a great actress.

Studs Terkel I'm thinking, talking to Alec Wilder, we come to the end of our first of three hours concerning his book, "American Popular Song," this is Berlin and Kern so far, as well as early beginnings, "The Great Innovators, 1900 - 1950." I thought we, we'd end with a cliffhanger. The next sequence will be Gershwin and a number of thoughts, a very unconventional thoughts that Alec Wilder has about Gershwin's role in music. Gershwin did perhaps the most prolific and the most American of all the composers,

Alec Wilder Well, I'm not so sure about that.

Studs Terkel But suppose we hear "Swanee" and Jolson. Now this, just as we speak of performers, "Swanee," which he wrote, was written for a performer, wasn't

Alec Wilder Well, I'm given to believe that it was written quite deliberately and rather in the manner of a hack song to please -- to hook Jolson. The devices in it were not necessarily "Let's have some fun and write a good song," but "Let's, how can we write a song and get Jolson to pick up on it?" is the story I got, and I won't bother with any names.

Studs Terkel But this was sometime 19--

Alec Wilder Yes?

Studs Terkel Twenty or so, and it was "Sinbad."

Alec Wilder That's right.

Studs Terkel It was the musical "Sinbad."

Alec Wilder I think it was brought to Mr. -- as I recall the story I got, to Mr. Jolson's attention at some kind of party, and it's a work song, but to me it's a hack song. I don't think it has any character at all.

Studs Terkel [Unintelligible]?

Alec Wilder I was told that somebody in reviewing the book said that if I'd heard the performance of it in the, in that Judy Garland "A Star is Born," that I would not say that it was a bad song, but

Studs Terkel It's a case

Alec Wilder I'm not interested in performance.

Studs Terkel No, it's -- here it is, performances in the cases of vitality. A certain vitality.

Alec Wilder That's right.

Studs Terkel And so we'll end this part one of the conversation with Alec Wilder with the, and we'll continue with Gershwin and Wilder's comments and interpretation for part two, but here's "Swanee" and Jolson, and the book is Alec Wilder's "American Popular Song: Great Innovators, 1900 - 1950," and after we hear part of Jolson, we'll speak of some of the composers he'll be talking about. The second program. [pause in recording] Of course the corniness of this is overwhelming. Alec here, the whistling did

Alec Wilder That did it.

Studs Terkel Well, I suppose talking about certain taste buds, too, of a certain time, too, aren't we, the vitality of it, and then [how it goes?] to schmaltzy aspect is what

Alec Wilder Well, you'd never know that Gershwin wrote this song. I'm quite sure. This had none of his his characteristics, his, his drive, his sophistication, his rhythmic -- his -- no character. It was -- to me, it was a Tin Pan Alley song.

Studs Terkel So we'll continue our conversation.

Alec Wilder All right.

Studs Terkel With Alec Wilder, and it'll be Gershwin and [Alice?] of "Man I Love," as Billie Holiday sings it, and "Embraceable You," and "Nice Work if You Can Get It." And then of course the interpretation of Richard Rodgers and Cole Porter and one of your favorites, Arlen, the two Rodgers, Rodgers with Lorenz Hart, as well assistant with Hammerstein, and Harold Arlen, one of your favorite, and that'll be part two, and part three of our program, part three will include Vernon Duke and Schwartz and Burton Lane and Jimmy McHugh and a wide variety, maybe ending I trust with Alec's own cantata, which I like very much of a piece that children have written the verse to, to Wilder's music, so until tomorrow then with part two of this program. We'll hold it, and the book is "American Popular Song: the Great Innovators, 1900 - 1950," Alec Wilder the composer is the writer, the annotator, the chronicler, and Oxford University Press are the publishers.