Most literate Americans know that Margaret Mitchell wrote Gone With the Wind, Robert Frost wrote “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening,” and Paul Newman starred in “Cool Hand Luke.”

Most can even quote the most famous lines from these works of literary and cinematic art:

  • “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” (No. 1 among the most memorable lines ever spoken in a movie.)
  • “The woods are lovely, dark and deep,/But I have promises to keep,/And miles to go before I sleep,/And miles to go before I sleep.”
  • “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.”
  • Why then do so few of us know who wrote the most famous songs in The Great American Songbook, the canon of the most beloved popular songs of the 20th century? (Sorry, millennials, but it will take a while for songs of your generation to achieve such high ranking.)

Name That Tune screenshotStrange, isn’t it? No matter your age, these canonized “old standards” probably make up the sound track of your life. But who wrote them? Most people don’t know. Worse, they don’t care.

Well, if you truly don’t care, deposit your music credentials in the waste basket by the door on your way out. This music does matter. It matters because art matters. It matters because human emotion matters. And where does human emotion find its most memorable expression? In the words and music of America’s greatest songwriters.

Indeed, I’ve heard many a lyric that Shakespeare himself might envy. Truth is, The American Songbook is a treasure trove of neglected American art — especially when the song has found its perfect expression in the work of talented musicians.

Listen, for instance, to Billie Holiday singing (in 1937) “I Must Have That Man,” words and music by Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields:

“I need that person much worse than just bad.
I’m half alive and it’s driving me mad.
He’s only human; if he’s to be had,
I must have that man.”

This is from one of the greatest torch songs of all time by perhaps the greatest torch singer of all time, and backing her are some of the greatest musicians of all time: Teddy Wilson, Benny Goodman, Lester Young, and Buck Clayton, who on this number demonstrates that a trumpet player knows something about aching hearts, too.

Next, fast forward to 1975 and hear “One of These Nights” by the Eagles, a song written by Don Henley and Glenn Frey. In expressing the bedeviling ambiguity of intense longing, the lyrics are so simple they are brilliant:

“I’ve been searching for the daughter of the devil himself,
I’ve been searchin’ for an angel in white;
I’ve been waitin’ for a woman who’s a little of both,
And I can feel her, but she’s nowhere in sight.”

(Full disclosure: I liked this verse so much that I used it as the epigraph of my first novel, Striking Out, and if you divine from this that Striking Out is NOT about baseball, move to the head of the class.)

But let’s return to the subject: the lyrics, not necessarily their rendition by a particular singer. Some songs sound good even by rank amateurs (like moi) vocalizing in the shower.

My wife, looking over my shoulder as I write, threw this one into the mix. See if you can, ahem, Name That Tune. Then see if you can (drum roll, please) identify who wrote it:

  • “Suddenly I’m not half the man I used to be. There’s a shadow hanging over me. Oh, yesterday came suddenly.”
  • “I’ve laid in a ghetto flat, cold and numb. I heard the rats tell the bedbugs to give the roaches some.”
  • It seems we stood and talked like this before. We looked at each other in the same way then, but I can’t remember where or when.”
  • “You blew in from the Middle West, certainly impressed the population hereabouts. Well, baby, I’ve got news for you: I’m from Missouri, too. So naturally I got my doubts.”
  • “I’d sacrifice anything, come what might, for the sake of having you near, in spite of a warning voice that comes in the night and repeats, repeats in my ear: ‘Don’t you know little fool, you never can win? Use your mentality. Wake up to reality.’ But each time that I do just the thought of you makes me stop before I begin…”
  • “Two drifters off to see the world; there’s such a lot of world to see. We’re after the same rainbow’s end, waitin’ around the bend, my Huckleberry friend…”
  • “Can it be that it was all so simple then? Or has time rewritten every line? If we had the chance to do it all again, tell me, would we? Could we?”

And now the envelope, please.

  • “Yesterday,” John Lennon and Paul McCartney.
  • “Why I Sing the Blues,” B.B. King.
  • “Where Or When,” Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart.
  • “You Came a Long Way From St. Louis,” Bob Russell and John Brooks.
  • “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” Cole Porter.
  • “Moon River,” Johnny Mercer, Georgia’s own, from Savannah.
  • “The Way We Were,” Alan and Marilyn Bergman, and Marvin Hamlisch

Note that these are random examples, not necessarily the creme de la creme, of the wizardry of words set to music in the American Songbook.

OK, that’s enough for one day. Here’s your homework assignment: Find out who wrote “Georgia on My Mind,” “A Rainy Night in Georgia,” and “Midnight Train to Georgia” — and name the three singers who made them immortal. Do that and you’ll be well on your way to, uh, covering Georgia like the dew.

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Image: Name That Tune is a screenshot of a copyrighted television program and qualifies as fair use under the copyright law of the United States (Wikipedia.org/fair use).
Robert Lamb

Robert Lamb

I grew up in Augusta, Ga., where I attended Boys' Catholic High. After service in the Navy, I attended the University of Georgia, majoring in English, and then began a (wholly unexpected) journalism career on the old Augusta Herald, an evening paper, and ended years later in Atlanta at The (great) Atlanta Constitution, which I left in late 1982 to write The Great American Novel. That goal has proved remarkably elusive, but my first attempt (Striking Out, in 1991) was nominated for the PEN/Hemingway Award. My second novel, Atlanta Blues, spent a few minutes on the best-seller list in (at least) Columbia, S.C., and was described in one newspaper’s year-end roundup as “one of the three best novels of 2004 by a Southern writer.” My third novel won no honors but at least didn’t get me hanged; titled A Majority of One, it is about a clash between religion and the Constitution over book-banning in the high school of a Georgia town. For my next novel, And Tell Tchaikovsky the News, I returned to an Atlanta setting for a story about the redemptive powers of, in this case anyhow, “that good rock ’n’ roll.” I've also published a collection of short stories and poems: Six of One, Half Dozen of Another. One of its stories, “R.I.P.,” was a winner in the S.C. Fiction Project in 2009. Before retirement, I taught creative writing and American literature at the University of South Carolina and its Honors College, and feature writing in its School of Journalism. I maintain a now-and-then blog at boblamb.wordpress.comand I walk my dog on the beach a lot at Pawleys Island, S.C.