THE POETS OF TIN PAN ALLEY: A History of America's Great Lyricists by Philip Furia

THE POETS OF TIN PAN ALLEY: A History of America's Great Lyricists

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Critical evaluations of over a dozen American lyricists (ca. 1900-1950)--in a sophisticated, literate, uneven book that tries (with sporadic half-success) to be a companion volume to Alec Wilder's sublime American Popular Song (which focused on music rather than lyrics). Furia (English/Univ. of Minnesota) reveals his academic slant in a close-textual. analysis approach that takes special delight in pointing out, line by line, the lyricist's technical devices. Often this is illuminating and pays deserved tribute to a subtle craft. Sometimes, however, the remit is merely pretentious or pedantic: Furia finds ""If I Had a Talking Picture of You"" to be about ""the joys of voyeurism and onanism""; he declares the ""extended obstetrical metaphor"" in ""The Birth of the Blues"" implicitly ""equates trumpet and fallopian tubes""; and his hunt for ""buried rhymes"" leads him to find some that aren't really rhymes at all. Also, the bias here is dogmatically in favor of witty, clever, ""modernist"" lyrics: Furia tends to be overly dismissive of lyrical, ""sentimental,"" or ""traditional"" songs, underrating such gems as ""All the Things You Are"" (Oscar Hammerstein), ""I'm Old-Fashioned"" (Johnny Mercer), and ""In Love in Vain"" (Leo Robin). Still, Furia offers valuable, detailed appreciations of Irving Berlin's rhythmic genius, of Lorenz Hart's ""wryly sensuous imagery,"" of Mercer's earthy elegance, and of Dorothy Field's slangy insouciance. Best of all is the chapter on Ira Gershwin--who had the ""knack of placing an utterly simple catch-phrase at an emotional climax, giving vernacular luster to both phrase and setting."" And though some of the critiques seem overstated (Cole Porter's ""stylistic schizophrenia"") or off-the-mark (Hammerstein, Yip Harburg), this is a welcome addition to the sparse lyrics, as-literature shelf--if not the definitive study to put alongside the Wilder book.

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1990
ISBN: 0195074734
Publisher: Oxford Univ. Press