The Sunday Edition

Robert Harris - The Great American Songbook

Our resident man about music takes us on a guided tour through the canon of great pop songs written between the 1920s and the 1950s. It's music for grownups with hummable tunes and charming words.
Tony Bennett in performance (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Sixty years ago last month, in March of 1955, a movie opened across the United States that ended up having an enormous impact on the popular culture of North America. Blackboard Jungle was billed as a hard-hitting look at, as it said, the "teenage terror" and "modern savagery" in the nation's schools. With it, juvenile delinquency took its place alongside the Communist menace and fluoridation of the water supply as a source of alarm in the America of the mid-fifties. But Blackboard Jungle would have been long forgotten except for one thing - the movie opened and closed with a song that at the time was completely unknown, even though it was already a year old - "Rock Around the Clock".

Producer Milt Gabler of Decca Records taught a shuffle beat he had learned from black entertainer Louis Jordan to a bunch of country musicians, and the result was one of the most famous records of all time. Blackboard Jungle opened in March - by July "Rock Around the Clock" was number one on the Hit Parade. The era of rock and roll had begun - it's never really stopped. And when the era of rock and roll began as suddenly and unexpectedly as it did, another era ended just as suddenly and unexpectedly - a pop music tradition we now call the Great American Songbook, associated at that time with the Frank Sinatras and Nat King Coles, Tony Bennetts and Rosemary Clooneys of the world.

Ever since those days in 1955, listeners and critics and fans have been lamenting the death of that songbook tradition. The latest lament is a book called The B-Side: the Death of Tin Pan Alley, by Ben Yagoda, published just a few weeks ago. But what exactly is the Great American Songbook - where did it come from, where did it go, and has it really disappeared? To answer these pressing questions, Michael speaks with our man about music, Robert Harris.

You can find a list of the music played in this segment here.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.