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The Great American Songbook

Speaker: Roger Browne

Thursday, 23 February 2023

The guest speaker at u3a Todmorden members February meeting was Roger Browne, pictured right, who presented 'The Great American Songbook'.

Roger is a jazz pianist, and has performed with many well-known singers and musicians, as well as having directed a number of large-scale musicals.

He started by telling us about his childhood in Salford in the 1940s. There were a number of parks in the area around this time, and many of them had a bandstand which was regularly used by musicians after the end of WW2.

Along with radio programmes such as 'Housewife's Choice' and 'Music while you work', he had a feeling of being surrounded by music. He recalled hearing the music, and seeing films, about Al Jolson.

As a four year old boy, Roger began to enter local talent contests – his act being largely based on that singer. He 'retired' from these competitions by the age of eight and recalled being one of a group of children being given prizes at the end of one of them. He was the last winner to be invited to select a prize, the only one left being an envelope – which contained a voucher from a local hairdresser awarding him a free hair perm.

Roger's interest in music from America continued, particularly the songs of African Americans. These had often been passed down through the generations since the times of slavery, but Roger found that a significant number of them had been composed by Stephen Foster, a white man from the north of America, and had actually never been to the 'deep south' or, perhaps never meeting an African American.

In a similar vein, we heard about the very early songs that originated during slavery. The people who first sang and wrote the songs might not have had access to any musical instruments, so they would have to use their voices instead.

The term 'twelve bar blues' might be familiar to our members, but Roger provided what could have been their first explanation about what this actually meant. The first line of each verse, usually a complaint or similar, was repeated, and then the third line was about what the singer was going to do about it, or what would happen next. In one of the many musical interludes, Roger sang examples for us. Twelve bar blues techniques and songs have continued to feature up to today, with exponents such as The Rolling Stones and Fleetwood Mac, as well as being used and repeated in classical music.

Speaking about Broadway, famous for more than a century for its shows and productions, Roger told us that in the earliest years of the twentieth century, these were actually variety shows, featuring acts such as knife throwers, comedians and magicians along with the singers. But these shows had to have some kind of story to them, to link all these various acts together. The stories were invariably very weak, but songwriters from 'Tin Pan Alley' wanted the songs they had produced to be included, even putting a singer in with the audience to lead them. Song sheets to buy were available soon afterwards.

Jerome Kern, an American composer of musical theatre and popular music wanted the opposite of this – for the story to be told in the songs. He wrote the music for a number of these types of shows, including Showboat, about a craft called 'Cotton Blossom', which travelled up and down the Mississippi river for forty years, stopping each evening at towns and staging a show. The real story however was about the cruel and inhumane treatment of Joe, an African American slave throughout the years, and included the song 'Old Man River'. The show, and story, was so powerful that the audiences were said to have walked out in silence, rather than applaud the cruelty that the show portrayed.

Showboat also featured, and introduced, jazz and ragtime music, which had been around for many years to a wider audience. Roger said that this show was a forerunner of future productions from Rogers and Hammerstein, Cole Porter and Irving Berlin.

Roger had another story concerning Jerome Kern. The composer was a gambler, and one morning in 1915 emerged at 5am from a nine-hour session. On this day he was due to travel to Britain on business with some associates but felt too unwell. He arranged to follow them when he felt able to sail. The boat that he would have travelled on was the Lusitania, which was torpedoed by a German U-boat, resulting in the loss over half its passengers and crew. He went on to write or co-write songs and shows for the next thirty years.

Cole Porter was another of Roger's favourite composers and was also a great lyricist. After giving us a rendition of 'Just one of those things', he had an anecdote to follow up. In conversation with an acquaintance, Porter agreed that he could write a lyric or song about any set of words. He accepted a challenge to write lyrics about the next thing that they heard being said in the restaurant where they were. These words were 'Miss Otis regrets she is unable to lunch with you today, madam'; spoken by a waiter to a lady at another table. Roger played and sang the whole song that Cole Porter subsequently wrote, his Miss Otis having been betrayed, taking her revenge and subsequently losing her life.

Several of the most famous composers, and other people in show business around this time were of the Jewish faith, having arrived from eastern Europe, and Russia. Irving Berlin was born in Russia, his parents came from what is now Belarus. Al Jolson was born in Lithuania, Sam and Ira Gershwin arrived in the USA with their parents, as did the four Warner brothers from Poland – all having Jewish families.

These families lived mainly in the east side of New York, where the Jewish population grew from eighty thousand in 1880 to two and half million forty years later. Life was very tough for these families, Roger told us that when Irving Berlin was about six or seven years old, his family could no longer afford to feed or clothe him, and actually sent him to live in an orphanage. But he subsequently became one of the most famous, and richest, composers of the era. His father in law, a Roman Catholic, initially refused to accept or support his daughter's marriage until Berlin's wealth was around fifteen million dollars.

Another important contributor to the 'Great American Songbook' was Robert Russell Bennett, a composer and arranger, best known for his orchestration of many well-known Broadway and Hollywood musicals. He would compose links between songs and dialogue in the films and shows written by other composers, as well as his own work, an example being 'March of the Siamese Children', from 'The King and I'. Bennett would sit in the back row of live productions, listening and making notes. He shunned the after-show parties, going home to make further alterations and improvements to the music he had heard. 'The King and I' was mainly composed by Richard Rogers, who also wrote 'My Funny Valentine'

The last composer mentioned, and described as a genius, was George Gershwin, a prolific composer who died at the age of 38. A final keyboard rendering of a fraction of Gershwin's music concluded Roger's presentation, which was much enjoyed by our members.

The next Todmorden U3A Monthly Members Meeting will be on Thursday 16th March 2023, open to all fully paid-up members at the Central Methodist Hall, Todmorden. The speaker for this meeting is Barrie J Yates, who will present "The Magnificent Seven" - The story of seven great women in history.

Not yet a member? You can attend one talk free by requesting an invitation to this zoom event. We're always delighted to welcome new members. Contact details: website at www.u3atod.org.uk or email at info@u3atod.org.uk.

Many thanks to Colin Sanson for this report


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