February 13, 2015
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.
In his book Love Songs: The Hidden History, music historian Ted Gioia examines the history of love songs, the musicians who made them, and their impact on the world over the years.
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
"Embraceable You" by Billie Holiday
My favorite singers immerse themselves totally into the mood of the song—almost like a method actor reaching into personal memories to internalize the emotional tenor of a role. No one has ever done this better than Billie Holiday. When she sings of romantic longing, she is fearless and absolutely convincing—it's the lament of someone who has suffered from the deepest heartache. Even toward the end of her career, when her voice started losing its suppleness and strength, Holiday still triumphed through the sheer plausibility of her performances.
"I Get a Kick Out of You" by Frank Sinatra
Frank Sinatra was the first singer to deliver love songs on two different levels simultaneously. He both inhabits the emotions of the song, but also offers an arch, ironic commentary on the romantic proceedings. This wry sensibility made Sinatra the perfect singer for the second half of the twentieth century, when the public still craved love songs, but was wary of sentimentality. Sinatra showed that you could have it both away: you could enjoy the pleasures of emotional surrender, but still maintain a fiercely independent spirit that operates above the fray of the romantic battlefield. He is the master of the coy, double-edged love song.
"Love Me Tender" by Elvis Presley
Elvis Presley set off a revolution in the music industry, but so much of his best work is deeply rooted in the time-honored traditions of American singing. His debt to the blues heritage is well known, but with "Love Me Tender" he digs back even deeper. This song adds new lyrics to the Civil War song "Aura Lee," published in 1861. But fans didn't mind the borrowings. The day after Presley performed this song on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1956, his record label RCA received advance orders for one million units—making "Love Me Tender" a gold record even before it was released!
"Nobody" by Cécile McLorin Salvant
In the early 20th century, torch songs were especially popular with the public. These were confessional songs about passionate, unrequited love. They were more intense than the typical glib pop song of the period, and the vocalists who specialized in these tunes were measured by their ability to channel depths of emotion into a three-minute performance. By my measure, Bert Williams's "Nobody" was the first torch song, and enjoyed enormous success in its time. This version marries the best of the old and new—the song itself dates back to 1905, but the vocalist on this track is Cécile McLorin Salvant, one of the most persuasive young singers on the scene today.
"All You Need is Love" by The Beatles
Over 400 million people watched the satellite broadcast of this song on June 25, 1967. If you didn't know that the Summer of Love had just started, you would soon find out. This song perfectly captures a whole generation's yearning after a higher type of love than the kind celebrated in romantic music of an earlier day. Did we really believe that "all you need is love"? For a few months back in 1967, it was more than an idle dream but an actual movement.
"Frankie and Johnny" by Sam Cooke
In 1904, when this song was published, the music industry still had a very bizarre relationship with black music—a carryover of the minstrel tradition. When music publishers printed a song with sexual overtones, such as "Frankie and Johnny" or "Won't You Come Home, Bill Bailey," they would feature blackface performers or drawings of African-Americans on the cover of the sheet music. This song about sexual jealousy was written by a white composer for a mainstream audience, but the eroticism was more acceptable if attributed to the black underclass. In a few years, African-American performers would introduce their own sexualized music with the rise of the blues. But long before this white America looked to black culture whenever they wanted to move beyond the shallow sentimentality of their traditional love songs and taste something a little saucier. The song is based on a real-life incident in St. Louis involving a jealous woman who shot her unfaithful lover.
"I'll Be Seeing You" by Bing Crosby
Bing Crosby was the first singer to understand the full potential of modern microphone technology. The microphone didn't just make the music louder; it also allowed for a new whispery intimacy in delivering love songs. The public liked this new approach to singing, and they favored Crosby for the affable, nonchalant way in which he demonstrated his mastery of a lyric. For the first time in the history of commercial music, the vocalist could speak directly to individual members of the audience. Singing became more conversation, low-key and true-to-life. Crosby was rewarded with a staggering 41 number one hits during his career.
"Death Letter Blues" by Son House
"I got a letter this morning, how do you reckon it read?" blues legend Son House asks at the start of his "Death Letter Blues." Then he tells us: "It said, ‘Hurry, the gal you love is dead.'" The blues introduced a new rawness and honesty into American popular music, and few were more frank and unapologetic than Son House, who would inspire Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters and a host of later innovators with his powerful music. We are familiar with how blues singers introduced eroticism into commercial music, but here Son House takes an equally taboo subject—death itself!—and makes it part of his romantic music. I still get chills when I hear him singing about finding the body of his beloved on the ‘cooling board'.
"Lush Life" by Johnny Hartman (with John Coltrane)
Jazz introduced a new sassiness and sophistication into the love song, and you can't find a better example than Billy Strayhorn's composition "Lush Life." The lyrics evoke a jaded, world weariness, and build up to one of the most vehement denunciations of love in the history of popular music: "Romance is mush," Strayhorn tells us, "stifling those who strive." And he decides to rub out its memory with a week in Paris and a "lush life"—I'll leave it to you to determine which definition of the term ‘lush' applies here. Yet, strange to say, Strayhorn was only a teenager when he wrote this song—which he used to secure a job as collaborator with the great Duke Ellington. This is my favorite love song, and perhaps the most precocious tune in the great American songbook. No one ever sang it better than Johnny Hartman, joined here by sax icon John Coltrane.
Ted Gioia and Love Songs: The Hidden History links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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