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The Poets of Tin Pan Alley: A History of America's Great Lyricists [Paperback]

Philip Furia
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Jan. 1 1991 Oxford Paperbacks
From the turn of the century to the 1960s, the songwriters of Tin Pan Alley dominated American music. Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, George and Ira Gershwin, Rodgers and Hart--even today these giants remain household names, their musicals regularly revived, their methods and styles analyzed and imitated, and their songs the bedrock of jazz and cabaret. In The Poets of Tin Pan Alley Philip Furia offers a unique new perspective on these great songwriters, showing how their poetic lyrics were as important as their brilliant music in shaping a golden age of American popular song. Furia writes with great perception and understanding as he explores the deft rhymes, inventive imagery, and witty solutions these songwriters used to breathe new life into rigidly established genres. He devotes full chapters to all the greats, including Irving Berlin, Lorenz Hart, Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, Oscar Hammerstain II, Howard Dietz, E.Y. Harburg, Dorothy Fields, Leo Robin, and Johnny Mercer. Furia also offers a comprehensive survey of other lyricists who wrote for the sheet-music industry, Broadway, Hollywood, and Harlem nightclub revues. This was the era that produced The New Yorker, Don Marquis, Dorothy Parker, and E.B. White--and Furia places the lyrics firmly in this fascinating historical context. In these pages, the lyrics emerge as an important element of American modernism, as the lyricists, like the great modernist poets, took the American vernacular and made it sing.


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From Publishers Weekly

America's greatest tunes were composed by George Gershwin, Jerome Kern and Richard Rodgers, among others, but, as this popular/critical survey demonstrates, those who wrote the words for these songs were equally important figures. Furia, a Univeristy of Minnesota professor of English, perceptively assesses the styles and careers of such masters of light verse as Ira Gershwin, Oscar Hammerstein, Lorenz Hart, Howard Dietz, Yip Harburg and Al Dubin, and of two--Irving Berlin and Cole Porter--who were proficient in both words and music. He concludes with an anomaly, the country boy of Savannah, Johnny Mercer, whose blend of earthiness and elegant urbanity made him one of the few lyricists who could skillfully set to words the jazz melodies of Harold Arlen, Hoagy Carmichael and Duke Ellington.
Copyright 1990 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Library Journal

Readers who can hum "Puttin' on the Ritz" or "Anything Goes" and who know the musicals Show Boat or Oklahoma will appreciate Furia's study of the lyrics of the "great standards." These lyrics, he argues, contributed almost as much as the melodies to a "golden age" of popular song, spanning the 1920s to the 1950s. Irving Berlin, Ira Gershwin, and Cole Porter are among those whose work is examined, but because Furia tries to survey so many writers, we get only hasty glances at each, and the prose tends to bog down in laborious analyses of rhyme scheme, alliteration, and assonance, making this read like a Ph.D. dissertation.
- Paul Baker, CUNA, Inc., Madison, Wis.
Copyright 1990 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Most helpful customer reviews
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars O.K. for dipping. June 4 2002
Format:Paperback
I have to wonder if the impressive endorsements on the back cover (by Sammy Cahn, Steve Allen, Michael Feinstein) are from musical celebrities who actually read the book. The author deserves praise for bringing concentrated focus to and careful analysis of the lyrics of America's best wordsmiths, but this is not a book that seduces the reader into staying with it for extended stretches. There's historical context, learned analysis of prosody with lots of concise examples, and pithy scholarly prose. But when all is said and done, the chapters devoted to individual lyricists, as well as the book as a whole, are quite bloodless. I don't sense any clear thesis, any driving passion, even any strong personal preferences from the author.
The author's justification for such a book--that composers of melody are given credit at the expense of the lyricist--strikes me as a bit of a straw man. How many listeners can immediately associate a familiar popular standard with either its composer or lyricist? Also, the analysis of prosody and technique often overshadows consideration of the thematic integrity, or meaning, of a song. Moreover, the analyses pay too little heed to melody and harmony to make a persuasive case for the poetic power of the lyrics themselves. Finally, with song lyrics how can you separate the dancer from the dance? Were it not for Billie Holiday, Mabel Mercer and, above all, Frank Sinatra, most of these songs would be long forgotten. Certainly some consideration of the actual performance of the lyrics would seem requisite to any demonstration of their continuing vitality and importance.
Most of the above challenges are met by a book to which the author frequently alludes--Gerald Mast's "Can't Help Singin'.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent overview Jan. 1 2004
Format:Paperback
This is an excellent book. Furia provides a fine overview with lyric analyses of all the major lyricists of the first half of the 20th Century. He also touches upon the history of Tin Pan Alley itself and other developments that were happening at the same time in music, like the rise of the film studios, the creation of ASCAP and BMI, and the "race" and "hillbilly" recordings which helped bring about the end of Tin Pan Alley dominance. Furia later wrote full biographies of Ira Gershwin and Johnny Mercer that are more complete. (He would do the world a great service if he would write a decent book on Dorothy Fields.) THE POETS OF TIN PAN ALLEY is highly recommended for all lyricists and anyone who has in interest in American popular song.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Issue a new printing June 30 1999
By A Customer
Format:Paperback
I erroneously entered this as an author's review. I thought I was communicating with the author. Please delete what I erroneously submitted, and accept it as a customer's review.
I would like to have several compies of this book available. I am thinking of putting on an adult education course with this book as the principal text.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Peak pleasure for this reader. March 26 1999
Format:Paperback
Delightful detailed insight into the creativity of the lyric writers of the 20th century [prior to 1960]. Furia's writing style is a pleasure to read, wonderfully free of cliches. If you appreciate genius {I do, but I'm not one} and you have a rudimentary knowledge of music [I do}, you'll love this book.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 4.3 out of 5 stars  10 reviews
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Peak pleasure for this reader. March 26 1999
By James988 - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Delightful detailed insight into the creativity of the lyric writers of the 20th century [prior to 1960]. Furia's writing style is a pleasure to read, wonderfully free of cliches. If you appreciate genius {I do, but I'm not one} and you have a rudimentary knowledge of music [I do}, you'll love this book.
19 of 23 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars O.K. for dipping. June 4 2002
By Samuel Chell - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I have to wonder if the impressive endorsements on the back cover (by Sammy Cahn, Steve Allen, Michael Feinstein) are from musical celebrities who actually read the book. The author deserves praise for bringing concentrated focus to and careful analysis of the lyrics of America's best wordsmiths, but this is not a book that seduces the reader into staying with it for extended stretches. There's historical context, learned analysis of prosody with lots of concise examples, and pithy scholarly prose. But when all is said and done, the chapters devoted to individual lyricists, as well as the book as a whole, are quite bloodless. I don't sense any clear thesis, any driving passion, even any strong personal preferences from the author.
The author's justification for such a book--that composers of melody are given credit at the expense of the lyricist--strikes me as a bit of a straw man. How many listeners can immediately associate a familiar popular standard with either its composer or lyricist? Also, the analysis of prosody and technique often overshadows consideration of the thematic integrity, or meaning, of a song. Moreover, the analyses pay too little heed to melody and harmony to make a persuasive case for the poetic power of the lyrics themselves. Finally, with song lyrics how can you separate the dancer from the dance? Were it not for Billie Holiday, Mabel Mercer and, above all, Frank Sinatra, most of these songs would be long forgotten. Certainly some consideration of the actual performance of the lyrics would seem requisite to any demonstration of their continuing vitality and importance.
Most of the above challenges are met by a book to which the author frequently alludes--Gerald Mast's "Can't Help Singin'." Any reader interested in the art and lives of the composers and the songs, not to mention the lyricists and lyrics, cannot afford to pass by Mast's singular achievement. In the neglected, taken-for-granted field of the American popular song, it remains the one "must read."
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent overview Jan. 1 2004
By krebsman - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
This is an excellent book. Furia provides a fine overview with lyric analyses of all the major lyricists of the first half of the 20th Century. He also touches upon the history of Tin Pan Alley itself and other developments that were happening at the same time in music, like the rise of the film studios, the creation of ASCAP and BMI, and the "race" and "hillbilly" recordings which helped bring about the end of Tin Pan Alley dominance. Furia later wrote full biographies of Ira Gershwin and Johnny Mercer that are more complete. (He would do the world a great service if he would write a decent book on Dorothy Fields.) THE POETS OF TIN PAN ALLEY is highly recommended for all lyricists and anyone who has in interest in American popular song.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Very Enjoyable Book July 4 2012
By natalie mast - Published on Amazon.com
Verified Purchase
I found this a very interesting read. There were great anecdotes, interesting insights and it's not too difficult to read if you aren't musical.

The analysis of songs is also pretty fair. Yes, it talks up great songs, but it also notes that there were quite a number of banal ditties produced over the period.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars SING ALONG WITH THIS ONE, FOR SURE!! Sept. 22 2007
By Anne Salazar - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I loved this book!! I picked it up somewhere, and sang inside my head on almost every single page! It is a terrific overview of the Tin Pan Alley days of GREAT music, and in this book Philip Furia has provided enough lyrics to remind us of all the songs, and it is great fun to read. I marked up my copy, and then had to buy another, clean copy to re-read. I have also bought a couple more copies of the book for friends who also love the old music.

Philip Furia is a lover of this great music, and his bio of Johnny Mercer is very well written and, again, lots of fun to read. Oh for the good ole music of yesterday! I do miss it. But because of these books -- and others like them -- it is not gone forever. Thank you to Philip Furia for sharing your love of this music with all of us! The men and women who wrote this popular music were poets indeed, and one can tell they had a lot of fun while writing the songs.
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