POETS OF POP (1885-1930)

by Ian Whitcomb


Ian Whitcomb is a highly respected performer, composer, and music historian. You can find all of his CD's, DVD's, Books, and Songbooks by clicking here,
or by going to

Which comes first—the words or the music? The age-old question by laymen, never satisfyingly answered. An apocryphal but telling tale has Mrs. Jerome Kern and Mrs. Oscar Hammerstein II at separate bridge tables. Mrs. Hammerstein overhears Mrs. Kern tell her partner that her Jerome wrote “Old Man River”. Without laying down her cards the lyricist’s wife states forcibly: “Let’s be correct. My husband wrote ‘Old Man River’. Your husband wrote ‘ Dah dah da-da’”.

       Of course, words (or “lyrics” if you want to sound more elevated) without music generally don’t hold up. We need music to add magic, to let our hearts soar or sting, our feet to want to dance. There have been coffee table heavy books consisting of just the words of our most esteemed Great American songwriters, notably Cole Porter, Lorenz Hart and Irving Berlin. I’m not sure they work as a solo act—they’re like Laurel without Hardy. Or a ship without a sail, to use a popular songwriting image.

       The originators of the perfect marriage of words and music were those immaculate British Victorian gentlemen W. Gilbert & Arthur Sullivan. (To answer the question posed above: Gilbert sent his words to Sullivan for setting).

        For the first time light verse and suitable musical accompaniment in English (as opposed to opera and such in foreign languages) was served to a theatre audience and was lapped up adoringly to escape across to America where it was equally adored (and pirated) in the new republic by high society hostesses and low-slung cowboys alike.

       The new “comic opera” developed by Gilbert & Sullivan was a reaction to what they saw as the bad puns, red noses of men in drag, and general rough horseplay that was characteristic of the popular theatre of the period. The new form would be comic but also respectable, a perfect entertainment for the burgeoning and powerful middle class. It was assumed that audiences were educated and up with current affairs. Here’s a sample of Gilbertian wordplay set to a rumpetty-tumpetty Sullivan tune (

 the latter was anxious to soon leave such lightweight stuff and climb the sublime heights of serious music):

       ‘Though hare-brained my chatter the hours I can patter

       You’ll reckon by no horloge.

       Verbosely sophistic and all egotistic

       I am such a deuce of a Doge!

(A parody of British Prime Minster Gladstone)

       “Doge” with “horloge”—there was nothing as clever in American song of the 1880s. Too many hymns and tear-jerker ballads. But then, in the 1890s came a song revolution: ragtime, cooked up in the decades-old minstrel show and now appearing as  “coon songs”. At last the American vernacular that had always been around—slangy native lingo as heard in street, saloon and low variety theatre—became the rage. Everybody was doing it--even the Vanderbilts danced to ragtime and demure young women played the songs on de rigueur pianos at home. Black humor written by a new crew of African American songwriters based in New York’s Tin Pan Alley was being welcomed into polite society. Who could doubt the spiritual veracity of this turn-of-the-century hit: “I Wants to Live While I’se Living ‘Cos I’se Gwine to Be a Long Time Dead”? Or this restricted invitation to spend the day visiting folks: “Come after Breakfast Bring on Your Lunch and Leave Before Supper Time”?  These were by songsmiths of the first order but probably not acquainted with Byron or Keats. Still, poetry just the same in that the words “create a specific emotional response through meaning, sound and rhythm” (the dictionary definition). So: we laugh, we relish the rhymes, and we dance to the beat.

       By this time vaudeville was the choice entertainment of the new masses. And the new masses consisted mostly of immigrants—just off the boat and not speaking good English.  Vaudeville presented visual acts—animals, magic and slapstick—but there were plenty of “coon shouters”, pretty chanteuses, and barbershop quartets who needed muscular songs that would knock ‘em out even as far as the back top balcony. Tin Pan Alley, created by immigrants too, provided instant material for every act and every emotion creator, but pure and simple. No nuances or poetic effects.  Songs about old apple trees and harvest moons for spooning and wishing for your honey babe. Songs that longed for a vanished golden past in the clean countryside far from the city’s evil racket.

       Rising fast in the Alley was a kid Russian-Jewish immigrant with an ear firmly fixed to the street: Izzy Baline (soon smoothed into Irving Berlin) was writing songs for vaudeville about the unassimilated and thus comic races surrounding him in New York, always a good topic for vaudeville acts. Italians had been poked at in fun so how about Jews? He and his partner Edgar Leslie were very taken of late by certain songs imported from the British Music Hall, especially “Waiting At The Church” in which the bride receives a note from the groom stating that he can’t get away to marry her today because “My wife won’t let me”. Great punch line! Gilbert & Sullivan couldn’t (or wouldn’t) have come up with that sort of thing. You had to have your nose in the dust or the beer.

       The British songs were nice and gentle, full of English understatement--but Irving and Edgar wrote their first hit as a slam-bang ethnic number in the tougher American style. “Sadie Salome Go Home” has the irate kosher Mose standing up in the theatre to admonish his girl Sadie when she goes into her sexy dance:”Oy! Such a sad disgrace—no-one looks you in the face!”

       But where’s the poetry, where’s the romance, the sentiment? Even Berlin’s smash 1911 “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” is no more than a militant minstrel order to get up and get with it, with a contradictory line about “ better hurry and let’s meander”. Still, this was a case of infectious ragtime rhythms beating verbal sense.

       However next year a tragedy (the death of his wife just after their honeymoon) led to Berlin’s creation of his first sentimental ballad hit: “When I Lost You” is a beautiful song, relying much on nature images— the loss of sunshine and roses and morning dew. Conjoined with a winning tune and juicy harmonies it’s a gem. And it encouraged Berlin, as an erstwhile comic songwriter into more great lyric ideas—“A Pretty Girl Is Like A Melody” and, in the raucous 1920s, “All Alone” by the telephone “waiting for a ring a ting-a-ling”.

Unobtrusive, everyday, seemingly without hard labor, or rhyming dictionaries and encyclopedias. Poetry made from transforming only slightly the way people speak—or would like to speak. Irving was an unpretentious Alleyman. He once told a “Billboard” reporter:” I don’t write church lyrics, have no passion for daffodils and never read Shakespeare in the original Greek”. His old partner Edgar Leslie put it even more succinctly: “Shakespeare? The guy doesn’t bother me”. One in the eye for English high-class culture.

       Berlin’s songs were inserted or rearranged for (or removed from) revues, never real book shows. That was the way of Broadway--fickle, concerned with hot songs, big sets, fact gags and gorgeous gals. Plot and character were insignificant.

       However, composer Jerome Kern, who had been employed for years as a hired gun loosening up European operetta and British musical comedy imports with graceful tunes like ”They Didn’t Believe Me” was determined to mold the American musical show into more than a mélange. And he said so. Now don’t get him wrong: he greatly admired Irving Berlin. In fact he went on to declaim: “He IS American music”.

        Given the chance at the tiny Princess Theatre to write the score for a series of situation comedies about modern American life—honeymoon couples and hotel clerks instead of Ruritanian royalty disguised as peasantry—Kern told his British-born librettist Guy Bolton, a whiz at plots and jokes, that the story would mesh with the songs, that the show must be “integrated”.

       Thus was the concept of the American musical born—back in 1915. 

       Now all that was needed was a suitable wordsmith. This they found in Bolton’s boon companion P.G. Wodehouse, already approved of by the stern and demanding Kern, a lover of good writing and well aware of the upper-class Englishman’s novels and clever comic articles in “Vanity Fair”. The composer warned his collaborators to be aware that a lyric that lies nicely on the printed page doesn’t always play well on the stage. Melody can be mesmerizing and smother a clever bit of word play.    Wodehouse took note and produced the right stuff--feather light and full of charm and innocence—to fit his master’s tunes  (which were always written before the words). How about this slither of concerned insouciance and delightful rhyming from a song that, alas, was never used?

       I’ll put your slippers on for you and light your cigar, pet

       And let you drop the ashes on the parlor carpet.


 And, of course, “Bill” the sweet little rolling hymn to an ordinary bloke who’s no handsome hero and can’t play polo. Written in 1917 for “Oh, Lady! Lady!!” but rejected and rejected throughout the 1920s till Kern finally made it work in 1927’s serious-minded epic “Show Boat”.

Here’s the original which to my mind is better in its touching simplicity than Oscar Hammerstein’s rhyme-encrusted “improvement ” for “Show Boat”:

He’s just my Bill

He has no gifts at all:

 A motor car

He cannot steer;

 And it seems clear

Whenever he dances,

His partner take chances.


And the moving line at end—for its realistic inarticulateness:

I love him

Because he’s—I don’t know—

Because he’s just my Bill.


 Now that’s poetic eloquence in song form!


       Waiting in the wings, chomping at the bit, versifying since he was five, college-educated and displaying it, well-read in both English, French, and German, and related to the poet Heine (and later daring to rhyme it with China) was the mighty midget kid Lorenz Hart. Oh, and he couldn’t abide operetta king Victor Herbert but he really he adored Gilbert& Sullivan and saw Bolton & Wodehouse & Kern as his models and rivals.

        He blurted out all this to his future partner (and fellow Columbia student) Richard Rodgers when first they met. This and technical stuff about interior rhymes, feminine endings and sprung rhythms. OK—Wodehouse was real smart with his recent rhyming of “man jealous” with “Los Angeles” but he and the music whiz kid boy here would outsmart them. And so he did—this was the start of the invasion of Broadway by college boys via little shows and revues that eventually led them to the big-time of Ziegfeld.

        1925’s “Garrick Gaieties”, a trifling benefit revue, saw Rodgers & Hart’s first hit—and a smash at that: “Manhattan”, in a reverse of George Gershwin’s earlier mammy hit “Swanee” and others of that ilk, rhapsodizes about the everyday joys of New York: ”We’ll go to Greenwich/ Where modern men itch/ To be free”. Aha!—recognized culture-loving audiences—Hart must be referring to the latest experimental writing and art. But in an easy manner such as the delightful word salads in magazines like “The Smart Set” and “Vanity Fair”. We all know the hot names of Gertrude Stein and James Joyce from parties. Reading them is another matter. But society verse, light and tripping, was enjoying a Jazz Age run, carrying on in the Gilbertian tradition.

       Now there was no stopping the hopping Hart. Rodgers could scarce keep up with the cigar-and-spirit-soaked rhymes that came pouring out: “Bump a knee” in “company”, beans that could “get no keener reception in a beanery”, a taxi dance hall hostess who thinks she’s found her “hero” but “it’s a queer romance”. Hart boasted there was nothing he couldn’t rhyme: “Unfortunately he’s true to his word too often”, quipped a fellow songwriter. Was there any halting for romance? In “My Heart Stood Still”, and “With A Song In My Heart” the little imp reveals a tenderness, almost a sappiness. But he could write a heartfelt love song, something the loftier, operetta-experienced Oscar Hammerstein found hard to do at this stage.

       But the surprise success of “Show Boat” in 1927, a battleship of musical legitimate drama (including—God help us!—miscegenation!), the opposite of the carefree 1920s musical comedy, might seem to have set the scene for a future of fully-integrated musical plays, Jerome’s Kern’s dream come true.

        Luckily this was not to be—we need the seesaw balance of escapism/realism—and shows of social significance or with political axes to grind had to be pretty special to survive.

       “Strike Up The Band” with songs by the red-hot Gershwin brothers and dealing with war profiteering, militarism and man’s general inhumanity to man never made it big despite two Broadway tries. At least a darn good ballad came out of it, “The Man I Love”.

       In 1930, with the Depression closing in, the jazz-a-rhythmic Gershwins were persuaded to lend their talents to a throw-back concept show: “Girl Crazy”, as its title suggested, was a soufflé-light romp set in the Wild West where a New York playboy disturbs the lazy cowboys by bringing in the girls in a plot that could only have been whipped up by the in-demand Guy Bolton. Meant to be a star vehicle for comedian Bert Lahr, the role was eventually filled by vaudevillian Willie Howard whose contract demanded he have a spot where he did his famous imitations of Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor and Maurice Chevalier. Ginger Rogers lent her teenage attractions, Ethel Merman her bullhorn voice and unstoppable dynamism awhile Red Nichols and his jazz boys blew up a storm from the orchestra pit. . Who could ask for anything more as the ingredients of sure-fire pop dessert for the relief of tired businessmen as the storm clouds descended?

       The Gershwins were up to the job. George never had any problems knocking out tunes, but Ira, always trying to keep up with his genius younger brother, was known to slave over his lyrics, rhyming dictionary ever at his side. A technician obsessed with rhyme, who treated words as if pieces in a puzzle, he’d published society verse in the 1920s for such magazines as H.L Mencken’s  “The Smart Set” and Don Marquis’ column in the “New York Sun”. The earnest anxious Ira, not really college-educated, viewed  “Fascinating Rhythm” (which his working-class father called “Fashion On The River”) as a study in verbal Cubism. Fellow perfectionist Lorenz Hart wrote him a fan letter: “It is a pleasure to live at a time when light amusement is at last losing its brutally cretin aspect, and such delicacies as your jingles prove that songs can be both popular and intelligent”.

Under such weight it’s surprising that poor Ira was able to emerge with such jolly lyrics—but he did it.

       “I Got Rhythm” is daring because it hardly rhymes at all. Ira wisely decided that to try to rhyme would clog up the beat stream and sound too tricksy. Leave that to Larry Hart.  And anyway Ethel Merman rode over the whole first section of the chorus so effectively on one note, like she did with those unwieldy words “hooch and “kootch” in “Sam and Delilah”. However there were tender moments in “Embraceable You” and a real torch song in “But Not For Me” where even a reference to gloomy Russian plays doesn’t spoil the emotion.  The audience is still literate, still reading. The steamroller of Swing is not yet here.

       All in all, “Girl Crazy”, crammed with solid songs and future standards was a triumph of light entertainment. An art that concealed art. Maybe even Great American Art, bidin’ its time till full recognition.


Ian Whitcomb is a highly respected performer, composer, and music historian. You can find all of his CD's, DVD's, Books, and Songbooks by clicking here,
or by going to