Making references

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You might shudder with something other than delight. Sold to the tuneful and tone-deaf alike, Reading Lyrics is a sort of karaoke machine of classic American (and sometimes British) songs from 1900-1975, a 1,000-song karaoke machine whose music plays only in the singer’s head. Which leaves friends, wives, lovers, co-workers, innocent children and unsuspecting bus riders subjected to a cappella outbursts of “I’ve Got Rhythm” and “All the Things You Are.” The singers, deluded in their private musicals, meanwhile, hear blaring combos, studio orchestras — and themselves in tune.

But that’s only one aspect of a tome envisioned as “a work of reference, as a chronicle of tastes and talents, as pure pleasure” — and which, in reality, is more. For one thing, it’s proof that lyrics aren’t exactly poetry — not always, not on their own. Parsed with melody, though, about 200 words on Page 504 become Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life,” and 150 or so on 70-71 become Haven Gillespie’s “You Go To My Head.” On Page 111, there’s Cole Porter’s spare “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” with its wealth of rhyme and rhythm (“Use your mentality/Wake up to reality”). And nearby there’s his “Anything Goes,” a lyrical lark, yet maddeningly chock-a-block with dated references. (If you can explain Eleanor Roosevelt and the Simmons Mattress, please call.)

Is all this pointlessly dated on our side of the rock ’n’ roll divide? Well, how wide is it? Really? There’s nothing here as frank as ’20s blues queen Bessie Smith ordering up a hot dog for her bun — or Hank Ballard talking about Annie’s baby in the ’50s or the ’60s Stones singing “Let’s Spend the Night Together.” But there are handy men and whoopee-making, and Lorenz Hart in “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” writing: “Couldn’t sleep, wouldn’t sleep/Til I could sleep where I shouldn’t sleep.” Political relevance is painfully rare, but rarely so well put to song as in E.Y. Harbug’s “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” — let alone Lewis Allen’s incomparable “Strange Fruit.”

And while Burt Bacharach’s writing partner, Hal David, missed the cut, his brother Mack lyricizes Duke Ellington’s “I’m Just a Lucky So and So.” And Harry Woods has a 1932 ditty, “Try a Little Tenderness,” which Otis Redding did a few things with. And if you assumed otherwise, the Beatles’ “Till There Was You” is a cover. It was written by Meredith Wilson whose credits included a stint as first flautist for John Philip Sousa. Which suggests another use for this collection — a play board for six degrees of our musical separations.

W. Kim Heron is the managing editor of Metro Times. E-mail wkheron@metrotimes.com.

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