Ben Yagoda began his Sept. 15 talk at the University of Delaware Library about his book The B-Side with a description of songwriter Arthur Schwartz in 1953, shaking his head as he listened to the radio and feeling, Yagoda said, that his career was "going to the dogs."
For Yagoda, a professor of English at UD and an authority on the craft of writing well, the use of that phrase was no cliché. What Schwartz was hearing on the radio was Patti Page singing the enormously popular "The Doggie in the Window."
That novelty song, one of many written by Bob Merrill, spent 17 weeks on the top-10 list, eight of them at No. 1, and its popularity can be seen as "somehow emblematic, not only of Merrill's output, but of this particular moment in American popular song," Yagoda said.
The talk, like Yagoda's book, chronicled the change that occurred in the music business and in American popular culture around 1950. From the 1920s through the '40s, songwriters such as Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Duke Ellington and Cole Porter had written melodic and sophisticated popular music that made up what later became known as the Great American Songbook.
These standards once dominated sheet music sales, Broadway and radio, but by the early 1950s, they had been largely replaced on radio — which had itself replaced sheet music as the primary outlet for distributing songs — by much simpler novelty tunes like "Doggie in the Window." The American Songbook writers saw the new works as simplistic jingles.
"The whole thing was mysterious and vexing" to them, Yagoda said, calling the change a "less than transcendent moment in popular music history." Schwartz and his fellow Tin Pan Alley songwriters, seeing their livelihood declining, thought: "It must be somebody's doing," Yagoda said.
However, he told the UD audience, even a lawsuit filed by the songwriters failed to find any conspiracy to keep their work off the radio.
"So what was actually going on in the '50s?" he asked. "The whole book is an attempt to answer that question."
Part of the answer he gave is that popular tastes had changed as postwar America came to prefer more easygoing, less challenging music. Big bands of the earlier era became too expensive to maintain, Yagoda said, while servicemen who had returned from World War II were less interested in going out dancing and more interested in settling in at home with their families, relaxing to the radio and, later, television.
In addition, he said, the older songwriters were members of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), an exclusive group that was largely focused on New York and out of touch with trends and tastes in the rest of the country.
Still, the music of the American Songbook period represented what Yagoda called a golden era — sophisticated, melodic and well-crafted compositions, with lyrics that "rose to the occasion."
"Whatever else these geniuses did, they raised the bar for songwriting," he said.