The Sunday Magazine

Listener mail - The Great American Songbook

Listeners respond to Robert Harris's guided tour of The Great American Songbook. They send their own favourites, and review Robert and Michael's karaoke performance of Frank Sinatra's "Learnin' the Blues."
American actor and singer Judy Garland, circa 1950 (Credit: Houlton Achive/GettyImages)

Our music man Robert Harris joined Michael for the second hour of our program last week, to guide us through The Great American Songbook - the vast canon of pop songs written from the 20's to the 50's, by composers like Berlin and George Gershwin and lyricists like Cole Porter and Johnny Mercer. Robert talked about the Songbook's origins in Tin Pan Alley, and how the arrival of rock and roll signaled its end.

This is from Bruce Rogers in Lindsay, Ontario:

"I want to thank Michael Enright and Robert Harris for their entertaining exploration of the Great American Song Book. I was almost hypnotically engrossed by the information and the musical examples. I guess it is a generational thing. Those born in the thirties or even the forties got the benefit of childhood exposure, and some of us have found the music sustains us long into retirement. To hear them now, and to learn that there is still an appreciation, warms the heart."

This is from Robert Minty in Abbotsford, B.C.:

"As Robert Harris so clearly explained, this music is a wonderful combination of sophisticated melodies, harmonies and lyrics. But, most importantly and unlike rock 'n roll, this music swings.  A musician friend of mine, who died ten years, eloquently described this music as 'the best songs ever written'."

Many of you wrote about one segment in particular: Michael and Robert's impromptu karaoke version of Frank Sinatra's "Learning the Blues."

This is from Sandy Graham of Halifax:

"Mr. Harris again distinguishes himself as an interpreter of popular history through music. Bravo! However, while it was a treat to hear you both sing "Learning the Blues", I suspect I speak for other devoted Sunday Edition listeners when I counsel, ever so gently: Don't quit your day jobs."

From Lloyd Allen in Wingham, Ontario:

 "Please, no more Robert Harris on The Sunday Edition. I can't get anything else done. I have to stop what I'm doing and sit down with the cat on my lap to listen to every word and every song. It's too much! I loved your singing this morning by the way. Not that you have to do it every time of course."

From Jamie Philp of Thunder Bay:

"Good on you both for giving it a try. As a vocal teacher for many years, you two are proof that almost anyone can sing. Some just need a little practice."

Many of you wrote to us about your own connection to the Great American Songbook. This came from Karen Gatien of Halifax:

"The music brought back so many memories of growing up with my Father, who loved to sing and harmonize. As soon as I could learn the words of the songs and later play them on the piano, we would play duets. "Alexander's Ragtime Band" is one of the first songs I remember. It was a walk down memory lane. I still miss his harmonizing 'Happy Birthday' at family birthday parties."

Brenda Eckstein of Kamloops, B.C., sent this:

"I grew up with a player piano - my sister still has it, and it is still in working condition. I loved to play, at full speed, 'Pistol  Packing Mama'. But the most important roll was 'Beethoven's 5th Nocturne'. I had the score, but the roll helped me learn to play it.  No formal lessons, I just counted out the notes on the piano, so that is why the roll helped. I can still play parts of it today."

Kathie Housser of St. John's, Newfoundland, sent this:

 "Fave song from the canon: 'The Naughty Lady of Shady Lane'. Good tempered, clever, and full of humour - and it swings, it really swings."

Thanks to everyone who wrote to us. You can listen to that hour with Robert Harris here.

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