News & Stories

Great American Songs

May 1, 2024 | Katherine Buzard

Composer and pianist George Gershwin

This summer, the Festival offers some of America's most enchanting melodies, tunes that helped define an era, a country, and so much more.

Lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II once said, “A song’s not a song ’til you sing it.” On August 14, 2024, the Festival presents Fascinating Rhythm: Gerswhin and Friends, a sentimental journey into some of the most beloved songs of the early 20th century, from what is known as “The Great American Songbook.” The Great American Songbook is not an actual book or collection of specific songs. Instead, it is a term for the canon of show tunes, jazz standards, and popular songs that have stood the test of time through reinterpretation by countless artists. Unlike classical music, where the notes and rhythms on the page are not generally subject to change from performer to performer, these songs have no “definitive” version but live on through their mutability. As each artist puts their own stamp on these century-old songs, they gain new life. They stand up so well today, not just because they are great tunes, but because they speak to universal human experiences of love and loss and reflect our hopes and dreams.

Scene from the original Tin Pan Alley on 28th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues in New York CityThe Great American Songbook grew out of Tin Pan Alley, Broadway, and Hollywood. Tin Pan Alley refers to a specific street in New York City that was home to the major publishers of popular music between the 1880s and 1920s. It was so called because the cacophony of songwriters and pluggers banging out tunes on cheap upright pianos sounded like the clattering of tin pans. Before the advent of radio and recording technology, the popular music industry’s main source of income was sheet music sales. Publishers hired composers to write the songs as well as song pluggers to entice people to buy the sheet music or convince performers to insert them into their shows. Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, George Gershwin, and Vincent Youmans all cut their teeth as song pluggers on Tin Pan Alley before trying their hand at composing, as it offered an entry into the music industry and a fertile training ground.

It was on Tin Pan Alley that numerous musical influences coalesced to create the sound of American musical theatre. Minstrel shows, vaudeville, and operetta dominated popular music at the turn of the 20th century. Finding a distinctly “American” voice apart from the influence of European operetta became imperative after World War I, as audiences no longer wished to see the misadventures of dukes and princesses play out on stage. When the Great Migration brought African Americans to northern cities, white songwriters were introduced to forms of Black musical expression like ragtime, the blues, and jazz. While none of these composers can claim to have written authentic jazz or ragtime, elements of these homegrown musical idioms soon made their way into the music of Broadway, helping to give it a language and identity apart from European influence. In turn, jazz musicians borrowed songs from Broadway, turning them into jazz standards long after they had disappeared from the stage.

Savor this treasury of music with the Grant Park Orchestra this summer when conductor and trumpeter Byron Stripling and vocalist Sydney McSweeney present Fascinating Rhythm: Gershwin and Friends (August 14). 

Katherine Buzard is program annotator of the Grant Park Music Festival.