Why They Don’t Write ’em Like They Used To
Alec Wilder, who died in 1980, was one of the least classifiable artists who has ever lived. A semi-classical composer who doubled as a sometime writer of popular songs, he was responsible for a handful of standards (“I’ll Be Around,” “While We’re Young”) and a much larger number of lesser known but beautifully crafted ballads (“I See It Now,” “South to a Warmer Place,” “Did You Ever Cross Over to Sneden’s?”) that were performed and recorded by such celebrated singers as Frank Sinatra and Mabel Mercer. Late in his life, he was persuaded to set down his thoughts on the great popular songwriters of the 20th century. Despite his well-deserved reputation as a chronic procrastinator, he finally managed in 1972 to produce a full-length book, written in collaboration with the popular-music scholar James Maher, who served as his amanuensis.
Though published by an academic press, American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, 1900-1950 was deceptively casual in both tone and approach. Holding forth in a conversational, frankly opinionated style, and writing both as a connoisseur and as an accomplished composer in his own right, Wilder offered his readers a guided tour of the collected works of Harold Arlen, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Richard Rodgers, Arthur Schwartz, Vincent Youmans, and a sprinkling of lesser but still important lights.
About the Author
Terry Teachout is COMMENTARY’s critic-at-large and the drama critic of the Wall Street Journal. Satchmo at the Waldorf, his first play, runs through November 4 at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut.