Book Review and Reflections: “Easy to Remember” by William Zinsser

easy to rememberWhen I saw the author’s name on the spine of the large paperback,I bought the book immediately. I’m glad I did. Just finished the book, and loved it.

I consider myself a disciple of William Zinsser. His “On Writing Well” is one of the best books I’ve ever read about the art and craft of non-fiction writing.

Zinsser wrote “On Writing Well” in 1974 when he was teaching at Yale. Before going into teaching in the 1970s, he’d been a writer and drama critic for the New York Herald Tribune for ten years and a free-lance magazine feature writer for another decade or so. He’s penned several other books about writers and writing. The man knows his business.

“I write to affirm,” he once put it. He’d rather celebrate that denigrate. So would I.

American Music’s Golden Age and Its People

Author William Zinsser

Author William Zinsser

Zinsser also knows his music. “Easy to Remember,” written in 2001, is an education in America’s four-decade golden age of music. That golden age began in the magical American year of 1927 with “Show Boat,” a work that drew upon the talents of composer Jerome Kern and librettist Oscar Hammerstein. With its songs like “Ol’ Man River,” “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man,” and “Misery’s Comin’ Around.”

“Show Boat,” as Zinsser puts it, elevated the musical from a grab-bag of songs into “a drama with musical numbers that established character and anchored the story in a social context.”
For about 40 years – through the rest of the Jazz Age Roaring 20’s, the Depression, World War II, and the Fabulous Fifties – music and songs written for Broadway and Hollywood were the standard-bearers of our country’s culture. This book tells of the people who composed the music and wrote the lyrics for those songs.

The team of Richard Rodgers (at piano) and Oscar Hammerstein

The team of Richard Rodgers (at piano) and Oscar Hammerstein

Some of their names were familiar to me, though I knew little about their personal histories: Hammerstein, George and Ira Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, and Richard Rodgers among them.

Other giants of the era about whom I knew next to nothing included Frank Loesser, composer and lyricist of “Guys and Dolls;” E.Y. Harburg, who wrote “Brother Can You Spare a Dime,” and “Over the Rainbow” for Judy Garland and “the Wizard of Oz;” the prolific Harry Warren, who gave us “There Will Never be Another You,” “Chattanooga Choo-Choo,” and “I Only Have Eyes for You;” and Jule Styne, whose “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” shot Carol Channing to stardom.

Society and the Movies

Zinsser builds the book largely around the biographies of the musical artists. But he also delves into the cultural and societal influences such as sheet music, African-America jazz, and World War II. He writes of the outsize impact of performers like Frank Sinatra, Fred Astaire, Ethel Merman, and Ella Fitzgerald, and of game-changing movies like “Wizard of Oz” and “Casablanca.”

“As Time Goes By” by Herman Hupfeld was the seventh-most frequently played song of the 20th Century, according to ASCAP, the American Society of Authors, Composers, and Publishers. Zinsser devotes almost a chapter to that song and to “Casablanca,” and it’s a fascinating little story in itself.

Hupfeld wrote the piece for a 1931 Broadway musical, “Everybody’s Welcome.” A woman named Frances Williams sang it so beautifully that a Cornell student named Murray Burnett fell in love with it and made a recording, which he played often.

Dooley Wilson as Sam, Humphrey Bogart as Rick, and Ingrid Bergman as Ilsa in "Casablanca"

Dooley Wilson as Sam, Humphrey Bogart as Rick, and Ingrid Bergman as Ilsa in “Casablanca”

Burnett went to Vienna in 1938 and saw first-hand the horrible treatment of Jews at the hands of the Nazis. On his way back to America he happened to visit a bar in Paris where a black guy was playing the piano. He returned to New York and wrote his own play, “Everybody Goes to Rick’s,” which Warner Brothers bought and made into “Casablanca.”

That’s not the end of the story, however. The script calls for Ilsa to enter the bar and ask the piano man to play “As Time Goes By.” Producer Max Steiner of Warner Brothers didn’t like the song and wanted to cut it. But Jack Warner liked the song and ordered him to make it the musical centerpiece of the movie. Zinsser explains how the song and the movie gradually grew into twin cultural icons. He says, further, that it really isn’t much of a song and that jazz musicians tend not to play it unless asked. He concludes, “Melodically it’s inert. Lyrically it’s platitudinous. But emotionally it’s off the charts.”

End of an Era

The author says that he was lucky enough to be born right at the beginning of that golden age. I and my boomer friends came into this world just as that era was ending and rock and roll took over. The songs discussed in this book were all just out of reach in my generation’s immediate past. Zinsser’s America was one where just about every home had a piano and at least one family member who could play it. America back then was a self-entertaining country. It’s no longer that way, for many reasons.

Unlike William Zinsser, I have no musical talent, no ear for music, no skill in any instrument. But music moves me – to laughter, to melancholy, to tears. That only makes me human, I guess. Gogi Grant’s rendition of “Wayward Wind” never fails to raise goose bumps. Singers like Barbra Streisand, Judith Durham, Linda Ronstadt, Johnny Mathis, and Don McLean usually make me pause what I’m doing and enjoy the emotional ride along with them. Recordings played on my favorite oldies station transport me back to those high school dances of fondest memory.

The book explains that the dawn of the rock and roll era and a larger, underlying cultural shift ended the musical theater era. True, we have a number of contemporary masterpieces that will be around for a long time: “Les Mis,” “Phantom of the Opera,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Lion King” are some the author cites.

Zinsser, the master writer and lover of language, explains that rock also altered the way we Americans listen to music. Our generation, he says “…didn’t insist on songs that told a story, or on rhymes that exactly rhymed…But what fundamentally changed was the audience. The love affair with language was over…The great American songwriters wrote for men and women who cared about literary forms. It was the end product of a heritage that esteemed the written and the spoken word.”

The words, he said, needed exactly the right melodies, and the melodies needed exactly the right words. The combination was easy to remember and impossible to forget.

I highly recommend this book, and I agree with a quote on its jacket: “It’s a de-lovely biographical companion to the Great American Songbook.”

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