Our American Songbook: The Gershwins, Smokey And Gordy, And The Grammys

Our nation can move forward, backward or sideways. The American songbook reflects, channels and sometimes redirects the nature of that movement.
02/15/2017 10:10 am ET Updated Feb 15, 2017

On this past Sunday, over 26 million viewers watched the live broadcast of the Grammy Awards Ceremony for 2016. On the Friday before the Grammys, a much smaller audience viewed the PBS airing of a pre-recorded presentation of the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song to Smokey Robinson.

Both of these events were musically spectacular with talent in abundance. What made them even more special are what they and the latest additions to our American songbook say about this nation and its people.

The Grammys were a testimony to the diversity that is America, the music that Americans appreciate, and the critical role that music plays in shaping our culture today. The Gershwin Prize was a testimony to the evolution of this country and the role that music has played in that evolution.

The Library of Congress Gershwin Prize is named after the Gershwin brothers, George and Ira, whose parents were Russian-Jewish immigrants to the U.S. The Gershwins were a songwriting team of the Jazz Age who worked together from 1924 to 1937 when George died at the age of 38 of a brain tumor.

They co-authored numerous hit songs such as I Got Rhythm, Embraceable You, The Man I Love, Someone to Watch Over Me, and Fascinating Rhythm. But, their true genius is shown by their orchestral compositions and musical scores which included Porgy and Bess, Rhapsody in Blue, and An American in Paris.

While they were of an era, their music transcends it and cuts across boundaries. This is the point made by Smokey Robinson who after learning he was to receive the Gershwin Prize said, “Gershwin music was always on in our house. So, for me to be mentioned in the same breath as the Gershwins is just unbelievable.”

It might be unbelievable for him, perhaps – but not for us. Just as the Gershwins are legendary for giving birth to words, sound and style that will live on forever, Smokey has done the same.

His legacy is being a driving force behind the Detroit-based Motown sound. He has written, recorded or produced songs such as: You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me, The Tracks of My Tears, My Girl, Second that Emotion, and The Way You Do the Things You Do.”

In 1960, Robinson’s vocal group the Miracles recorded Shop Around, the first million selling record, for Berry Gordy’s Motown record label. He went on to serve as the label’s vice president for nearly three decades.

Other Motown recording artists, in the early years included: the Supremes, the Four Tops, the Jackson Five, Marvin Gaye, and the Marvelettes. And, the list could go on and on and on.

Gordy and Robinson and Motown helped to transform both the nature and face of American music. Their contributions to the American songbook made during the early days of the civil rights movement helped bring this country together and to move it forward.

The evidence of this accomplishment was attested to by the audience at the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize performance. It was diverse and mixed - including legislators from both sides of the aisle - with nearly everyone singing along to virtually every song.

Near the close of the ceremony, Berry Gordy took the stage to introduce Smokey Robinson to receive the Gershwin Prize. They shared the stage as they should have. But, Gordy gave all credit to Robinson, of whom he said, “As we worked together he became the teacher – mine.”

After receiving his award, one of the songs that Smokey sang was the Gershwin’s “Our Love is Here to Stay.” That classic song which was written for the 1938 Goldwyn Follies is here to stay – as are so many of Smokey’s songs.

They are the lyrics and rhythms in our American songbook that take us from generation to generation as have the Grammy Award winners - many of whom are here to stay as well. This was proven once again by this year’s Grammy Awards.

Grammys are awarded for almost every form of music from country to classical and everything in between. The superstar performers this year included Adele, Beyonce, Bruno Mars, Lady GaGa, and Katy Perry. They are all redefining our music and sometimes themselves as they shape what we are listening to and thinking about.

These household names were joined by first-time Grammy winners such as Chance the Rapper for New Artist and Maren Morris for Best Country Solo Performance. In addition, there were memorial tributes to artists who spoke to and for others, George Michael and Prince, and a retrospective on the music of the Bee-Gees for the 1977 movie Saturday Night Fever.

But, the differentiating moments of the Grammys this time around, because of the current state of disunion and discontent in America, were statements either made in accepting awards or in performances. Beyonce declared after receiving the trophy for her breakthrough album, Lemonade, how important it was that her children see representations of themselves in “the news, the Super Bowl, the Olympics, the White House and the Grammys.” She continued to state that she wanted that “for every child of every race.”

Katy Perry, a supporter of Hillary Clinton during the presidential election campaign wearing a Planned Parenthood Button and an armband that said “Persist”, ended her rendition of politically oriented song “Chained to the Rhythm” sung along with Skip Marley standing in front of a backdrop of the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution.

Our nation can move forward, backward or sideways. The American songbook reflects, channels and sometimes redirects the nature of that movement.

In her comments on the Gershwin Prize, Carla Hayden, the Librarian of Congress noted, “As home to the largest collection of original George and Ira Gershwin materials, the Library of Congress celebrates the power of music to entertain and enlighten us.”

We celebrate that along with Ms. Hayden. And, add to our reasons for that celebration, the power of music to empower, to energize, and to embolden.

America’s music is the world’s music. The world’s music is America’s music. America’s music is America.

That’s our American songbook. There is no other like it. Let’s keep it that way.

[The Library of Congress maintains a National Recording Registry of the nation’s culturally, historically or aesthetically significant sound recordings. To see the songs on that registry, click on this link.]

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