My Melancholy Baby: The First Ballads of the Great American Songbook, 1902-1913
This book is a detailed biography of ten of the most influential love ballads in American popular music. It was published in July, 2021, by the University Press of Mississippi. It has received a Certificate of Merit Award for Excellence in Historical Recorded Sound Research in Rock and Popular Music from the Association for Recorded Sounds Collection.
Ten songs, from “Bill Bailey, Won’t You Please Come Home” (1902) through to “You Made Me Love You” (1913), were key to the development of the traditional classic pop ballad. Their creators were the famous and the obscure. The songwriters and also the publishers, arrangers, and performers achieved together a kind of collective innovation.
These seminal examples generated from all over the nation – Louisiana, Colorado, Illinois, Michigan – to be promoted by the Tin Pan Alley music publishing industry centered in New York. Fresh styles of music (from ragtime to rock and roll) and modes for its dissemination (from cabaret to television) propelled the invention and constant re-invention of the intimate, personal American love ballad, swinging and tender. Within decades, radio, recordings, and movies would carry these songs across the globe, rendered by Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, and a host of others.
Using previously under-examined sources, I look at how these songs shaped the music industry and the lives of ordinary people. American popular song was permanently influenced by the fates of these ten ballads.
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Reviews of My Melancholy Baby
“Highly recommended. This book provides well-researched, well-written analyses and interpretations. All the printed source material is now in the public domain …. [and] Garber uses that to good effect. The [songs] highlighted here … are the bedrock of … the Great American Songbook.” (Choice, July 2022; James Farrington, Sibley Music Library, Eastman School of Music).
“Deeply analyzes the title song and nine other ballads from the pre-World War I era. … Spotlighting enduring works by songsmiths today forgotten – and even in their day frequently hardly known – he is persuasive that they are an important part of our musical heritage. … a useful contribution to Americans’ shared experience of our past.” (American History, Feb. 2022; Daniel B. Moskovitz, Osher Lifetime Learning Institutes at American University and George Mason University)
“Liberated by Paris,” in Paris and the Musical, edited by Olaf Jubin.
I wrote this chapter for an anthology about how Paris is represented in the musical which was published in March, 2021. I cover three Broadway musicals that were not commercial successes and are usually talked about only in terms of their failure. Nevertheless, all three were created by artists acclaimed during the Golden Age of Broadway. Miss Liberty (1949) was led by the creative team of Irving Berlin, Robert Sherwood, Moss Hart, and Jerome Robbins. Ben Franklin in Paris (1964) starred Robert Preston (famous from The Music Man), was staged by Michael Kidd, and featured a score by Sidney Michaels and Mark Sandrich Jr, with Jerry Herman interpolations. Dear World (1969) was adapted by Robert E. Lee, Jerome Lawrence and Jerry Herman, from the famous Jean Giraudoux Madwoman of Chaillot, for star Angela Lansbury. In all cases, the shows acted as important pivots or stepping stones in the artist’s development. For Miss Liberty, what I write reveals the considerable extent of its success, including of its songs.
My discussion also analyzes the shift, furthered through these neglected works, in the connotations of Paris, from a bazaar of pleasure or bonhomie to a locus associated with the struggle for human liberty. Thereby they foreshadow later, successful works, like Phantom of the Opera and, especially, Les Miserables.
I was happy to help rehabilitate the reputation of these works, emphasizing their strengths instead of their weaknesses. I also hope this chapter will encourage people to learn the wonderful songs from these scores.
The publisher’s devoted page is:
“Re-Evaluating Oscar Hammerstein’s 1930s: His Popular and Critical Success from Viennese Nights to ‘The Last Time I Saw Paris.’” Studies in Musical Theatre 11:3 (Dec. 2017), 247-267.
This article grew out of my tendency to become mesmerized by the popularity charts for old pop songs, calculated by Joel Whitburn and Edward Foote Gardner – and, more recently available in digital form, in historical Billboard and Variety magazines.
I kept noticing very popular songs by Oscar Hammerstein II from the 1930s, a period when most of his biographers claim he was a failure! That led to this article, covering Hammerstein from 1930 through 1942. It is a celebration of a wonderful set of songs (and shows and movies) in which Hammerstein achieved success.
My study tracks twenty-five songs that attained prominence and explores Hammerstein’s neglected contributions to popular musicals such as May Wine, The Great Waltz (surprisingly well-known in China), American Jubilee, and Hellzapoppin.
Some of the lyrics have a beauty and poignancy (or playful fun) that equals Hammerstein’s more famous work later with Richard Rodgers. Plus they have that special 1930s atmosphere that can never be fully imitated: “You Will Remember Vienna”; “The Song Is You”; “I Won’t Dance”; “Just Once Around the Clock”; “Somebody Ought to Be Told”; “Restless”; “When I Grow Too Old to Dream”; “A Kiss to Build a Dream On”; “The Folks Who Live on the Hill”; “A Mist Is Over the Moon”; “One Day When We Were Young”; “All in Fun”; “All the Things You Are”; “Tennessee Fish Fry”; and “The Last Time I Saw Paris.”
“Eeph-Soffa-Dill and Eephing: Found in Ragtime, Jazz, and Country Music, from Broadway to a Texas Plantation.” American Music 35:4 (Fall 2017), 343-374.
In 1906 someone wrote into a script the mysterious phrase “Eefashoph-a-lilly,” and a hundred years later I saw it there. The mystery of what was meant sort of took over my life and career. Some of what I found ended up in this 2017 article.
In the 1890s, the vaudeville team of Ed Stone and Frank “Bud” Williamson used a ragtime-inflected singing (and dancing) routine they called “Epha-Soffa-Dill and Ephing.” Other entertainers picked up “Epha-Soffa-Dill” (and its variants) as a catch phrase to use in songs. And after Ed Stone died, his brother Fred Stone used the technique in the hit Broadway musical comedy The Red Mill (1906). These performers and songwriters thereby joined a long global tradition of singing using nonsense syllables, or non-semantic vocables. When future singing star Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards began to us nonsense syllables in the 1910s, he also called it “eefing.” His style became a symbol of the Jazz Age, and therefore his eefing is now considered, by those in the know, as one of the most important prefigurings of the practice of jazz nonsense-syllable singing popularized by Louis Armstrong under the name of scat. In the 1920s, future country-western musician Jimmy Riddle was learning a nonsense syllable technique called hoodeling. Later in his career, others called this style eefing, and under that label he had a hit with “Little Eefin’ Annie” (1963) and then used his style in the popular TV series Hee Haw. I trace all these strands and more – the Broadway musicals, sheet music, movies, pop music, and folk singers who used the phrase “eepha soffa dill” or did various styles of eephing.
One thing I am particularly happy about in this discussion: people tend to separate one music genre from another, but this phenomenon spans styles that are usually kept separate. The fans and scholars of a specific genre might well scorn or at least ignore other genres, but eephing shows how interrelated they all are. Also, the article is a celebration of the wonderful music made by Cliff Edwards and Jimmy Riddle and many others – wild, eccentric, freewheeling, creative music that I hope will come to the attention of and inspire future generations.
“Tragicomedy, Melodrama, and Genre in Early Sound Films.” CINEJ Cinema Journal 15:2 (Fall 2016).
This article is available for free online at:
This article is a celebration of the quirky elements of two highly flawed but fascinating 1930 Hollywood musicals: Puttin’ on the Ritz (starring Harry Richman, and with some of the songs being by Irving Berlin); and Free and Easy (starring Buster Keaton). It is an interdisciplinary study that applies theatrical theories to movies. In it, I focus on the phenomenon of the sad clown as a symbol of tragicomedy. Springing from Rick Altman’s delineation of the “sad clown” sub-subgenre of the show musical subgenre, outlined in The American Film Musical, this article shows that in these early movie musicals, naïve melodrama and “gag” comedy coexist with elements of the sophisticated genre of tragicomedy, including by incorporating the grotesque into the mise en scene of their musical production numbers. Once again, I am creating connections between things that are not usually thought of in association with each other – theories about the high-status art of drama and literature linked with popular musical comedies of an awkward transition stage in Hollywood’s history.
“‘Some of These Days’ and the Study of the Great American Songbook.” Journal of the Society for American Music 4:2 (May 2010), 175-214.
In this article, I offer a history of both the print editions and recorded versions of “Some of These Days” (1910) by Shelton Brooks, a landmark early jazz standard. I am arguing that to understand fully this genre, we have to look at both performances and sheet music, and at both the creation of the song and how it kept being revived and changed over the decades. The saga of “Some of These Days” commences with a hitherto unanalyzed precursor to Brooks’s famous song that shares nearly the same opening words and melody, the 1905 “Some o’ Dese Days,” by Frank Williams. It continues through nine major print editions and numerous recorded performances, of which this study examines forty-six, including ten as the theme song of Sophie Tucker. Performers are clearly influenced by both performed and printed variations; more surprisingly, so are changes in the various print editions. Thus, such Tin Pan Alley songs are best viewed as products of collaboration within a community of songwriters, publishers, and performers. Brooks fills “Some of These Days” with compositional details that are conducive to effective jazz-influenced performance variations. This elusive intrinsic adaptability represents, for 1910, a modern, innovative quality and is central to any understanding of this song genre. Oft-neglected, such early popular standards – poised at the juncture of musical cultures, oral and print, amateur and professional, live and mediatized – help the critical historian pinpoint aspects that make this repertoire valuable. This paper was my first foray in publishing about many of the topics I cover in my 2021 book, My Melancholy Baby: The First Ballads of the Great American Songbook – with the added advantage that here I could go into more details about the print history of just one song.
“Songs about Entertainment: Self-Praise and Self-Mockery in the American Musical.” Studies in Musical Theatre 1:3 (Fall 2007).
In this article, I examine songs about entertainment, such as ‘There’s No Business Like Show Business’ (Annie Get Your Gun, 1946). There are many such lyrics in American musicals from at least the late 1890s, and they reveal important aspects of the genre. Jane Feuer notes the self-praise in such songs, as well as the nostalgia for past entertainment traditions. In addition, however, musicals feature a strong, heretofore neglected propensity towards satire of a wide range of artistic culture. Specifically, the American musical is frequently self-mocking. Parody, burlesque, and irony are long-standing conventions of the genre; and they imply a sophisticated reception process that encourages a sense of community. In this paper, I illustrate these tendencies by analyzing songs about entertainment dating from both the mid-century period so often dubbed the Golden Age of the American Musical and also, crucially, from the formative decades of the early twentieth century that are frequently neglected in critical analyses of the genre. This research was part of my dissertation work. It reacts to scholars and critics of musicals who seem always to think that self-parody in musicals is a new thing – a view which I prove incorrect. Indeed, though it was beyond the scope of my research, my impression is that self-parody is a trait of such comedies-that-use-music going back to Ancient Greece. I was also pleased in this article to be able to quote song lyrics that are no longer in copyright – the public domain being another interest of mine.
“Reflexive Songs in the American Musical, 1898 to 1947.” PhD dissertation, City University of New York, Graduate School and University Center, Theatre.
In reflexive songs, the lyrics mention music, singing, dancing, or entertainment. In my dissertation, I supply a history of reflexive songs in the American musical, 1898 through 1947. Crucially, in selecting the songs and shows, I use diverse criteria: not just quality (“the great enduring shows and songs”) but also prevalence and typicality (the “average” show or song), and prominence (now-forgotten “successful shows” and “hit songs”). I surveyed 2,367 songs and found 46% are reflexive songs. One hundred and forty-seven lyricists are represented, including: the complete lyrics of Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Lorenz Hart, and Ira Gershwin; hit songs; and the scores for seventy sample productions, obscure and famous, studied in-depth. I cover Broadway musical theatre and Hollywood movie musicals, ranging through operetta, musical comedy, and revue. The songs exist within a history of conventions—techniques, tropes, topics, and themes – that built a tradition of intertextual connotations. I use the seminal discussion of reflexivity in musicals by Jane Feuer as a springboard, extending it conceptually and chronologically. I reveal irony and related reversals of convention as basic components of the American musical going back to at least the 1890s – a topic which led to my 2007 article, listed above. I focus one chapter on detailed analyses of three shows: He Came from Milwaukee (an obscure 1910 Broadway blend of operetta and musical comedy), King of Jazz (a 1930 movie musical revue, built around bandleader Paul Whiteman), and On the Town (the often revived 1944 musical comedy, by Betty Comden, Adolph Green, and Leonard Bernstein). Reflexive songs act as keys, unlocking meaning in American musicals.
Other scholarly publications
“Robert Alton: The Doris Humphrey of Musical Comedy,” in Dancing in the Millennium: An International Conference: Proceedings (2000). “Rouben Mamoulian,” and “Mary Rodgers,” entries in The Grove Dictionary of American Music, second edition, edited by Mark Clague. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013. “Operetta,” entry in Broadway: An Encyclopedia of Theater and American Culture, edited by Thomas A. Greenfield. Santa Barbra, Cal.: Greenwood, ABC-CLIO, 2010. “Irving Berlin’s American Musical Theater, Jeffrey Magee” book review, Studies in Musical Theatre 10:3 (Spring 2017). “America’s Songs: The Stories Behind the Songs of Broadway, Hollywood, and Tin Pan Alley, Philip Furia and Michael Lasser,” book review, Studies in Musical Theatre 4:2 (Fall 2010). “The Theater Will Rock: A History of the Rock Musical from Hair to Hedwig, Elizabeth L. Wollman,” book review, Theatre Research International 34:1 (Spring 2009).
“Me, Tin Pan Alley, Folk Music, and Vox Pop,” Reflection 2, Aug. 2020. “The Diamond Method in the College Classroom,” Reflection 1, Aug. 2019. “Tweaking the Old House,” Reflection 1, Aug. 2019. “Theatre and Spit,” Submissions, Purchase College campus magazine, Fall 2013. “American Songwriters,” parts 1-3, and “Scat Singing,” Music Alive, Jan.-Apr. 2013. “Stacy Wolf Featured in ATHE News,” Musical Theatre Studies (Feb. 2008). “Published Proceedings on Music Theatre,” Musical Theatre Studies (Apr. 2008). Both of the two last-mentioned, online at https://archive.mith.umd.edu/musical-theatre/. “Trucking,” program notes, W.C. Handy and American Music Conference, CUNY Graduate Center, New York City (2000). “Some Notes on Dance,” The Diamond Report, 133 (March 1988).