Book Review: Stories Of Famous Songs, Volume One

Stories Of Famous Songs, Volume One, by S.J. Adair Fitz-Gerald

This was one of my finds on Forgotten Books, and in reading this book, I was struck by the fact that some of them were familiar to me. After all, this song was written over 100 years ago (it was published in 1901), and many of the songs in it were already somewhat quaint or obscure by the time this book was written. These songs were all written before the days of Tin Pan Alley and before the creation even of our “standards,” which are old enough. These songs are all nearly a century before the start of the Rock & Roll era, and so this book is definitely an exercise in music history of a particularly intriguing kind. Those curious about its contents ought to note the various chapter titles: “Home Sweet Home,” “Robin Adair and Eileen Aroon,” “Auld Lang Syne,” “La Marseillaise”, “The Mistletoe Bough,” “Ever Of Thee,” “Die Wacht Am Rhein/Die Schwertlied/Kutschke Lied and other German songs” “The Star-Spangled Banner/Yankee Doodle and other American songs,” “Auld Robin Gray and Les Constantes Amours D’Alex Et D’Alexis” “Katileen Mavourneen and Katty Avourneen” “The Last Rose of Summer, The Bells of Shandon, and The Exile of Erin,” and a miscellaneous chapter of other favorite songs including Edgar Allen Poe’s “Anabel Lee.” This is the first volume of a two volume set, and so the material in the second volume is still a mystery to me.

As might be gathered, some of the songs in the above list are very familiar even now (Auld Lang Syne, La Marseillaise, The Star Spangled Banner, and Yankee Doodle Dandy are still familiar to many people, as are Anabel Lee and Die Wacht Am Rhein, which is a well known German patriotic song, at least to me). There are plenty of these songs that I had never heard of, though, and this book was very instructional in the way that the author focused on the biographical details of the songwriters, where that was known (and that was always known) and also providing a critique of the music, with less focus on the lyrics than is common in my own song analysis [1]. In reading these song reviews, it is pretty clear that the writer is a bit of a snob. Some people may enjoy seeing comments about a song’s music being “beneath serious criticism,” which is rather pointless when one is writing about popular songs (and even in the 19th century, popularity and quality were not the same thing). It seems a bit pointless, and hypocritical, to be priggish when one is engaged in the subject of writing about popular music. Among the author’s more unfortunate comments is the fact that he does not believe there has yet been a notable American composer or national anthem (even though the author of “Home Sweet Home” was himself an American, and the author speaks warmly in praise of him, even if the song itself was appropriated as an English song). Of ironic importance is the fact that some of the songs the author dismisses as not being particularly memorable, like “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” are far more memorable than most of the songs he chooses to write about here.

What is most striking about this book is the way that it focuses on the lives of the often obscure people who wrote music. There are a lot of threads that run through this work–many of the people who wrote these once-notable songs were “one hit wonders” of a sort who only wrote one song that caught on, while the rest of their lives passed without any kinds of poetry collections. Likewise, there were a lot of lawyers and playwrights who wrote famous songs, which might have been good, as those people who wrote music from more humble backgrounds often fared poorly. Over and over again the author is scathingly harsh about the way that music companies in the 1800’s stole the rights for songs from the actual composers themselves and made money while the artists in some cases literally starved. Two of the more ironic biographies deal with the late 1700’s, when the lyrics to what became a popular patriotic German song were found in the clothes of a dead German soldier in the Napoleonic wars, and when the author of France’s republican anthem “La Marsaillaise” was actually a royalist who spent time as a political prisoner on several occasions. Writers and artists have always lived interesting, even tragic lives. As the author poignantly quotes, “Most poets “learn in suffering what they teach in song.”” That is advice we would do well to remember. Despite the flaws of this work, the fact that this author did a lot of research on obscure people, and writes with obvious passion and humanity does him a great deal of credit and makes this a worthwhile and honorable book.

[1] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/07/17/word-crimes/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/06/07/gospel-minus-gospel/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/05/06/ash-and-ember/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/04/19/hey-brother/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/04/01/broken/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/03/06/brave/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/01/16/if-only-for-a-second-i-see-it-twinkling-in-your-eye/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/01/05/the-high-road/

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Book Reviews, History, Music History and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Book Review: Stories Of Famous Songs, Volume One

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