Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Hear America singing

If you're like me and you love to multitask, - or if you hate multitasking but love music - here's something to do while you're sitting at your computer putting the finishing touches on a new blog post.

Around the turn of the 21st century, National Public Radio assembled the NPR 100 - a list of the most important American musical works of the 20th century - and produced a short segment about each one of them.

The ones I've heard have all been pretty fascinating, and thanks to the virtually unlimited capacity of cyberspace, they're still available for your listening pleasure. Unfortunately, you can only listen to them as streaming audio, so you can't download them as MP3s and put them on your iPod.

The music comes from all genres - show tunes, folk, rock 'n' roll, pop, gospel, blues, jazz, classical. I guarantee you'll find something that interests you. Since I'm a history buff, and a bit of a folkie, some of my non-show-tune favorites tell the stories behind "Blowin in the Wind," "We Shall Overcome" and "This Land is Your Land." It was also fun to hear the stories behind some of my favorite albums, like Tapestry and Born to Run.

There are quite a few shows and songs on the list from the world of musical theatre. The ones I've listened to include Oklahoma, Fiddler on the Roof, Guys and Dolls, West Side Story, My Fair Lady and A Chorus Line. Each segment talks about the show's history and cultural significance.

Here's the description for the Oklahoma segment: The Broadway musical Oklahoma!, premiered in 1943, and was expected to flop. Richard Rodgers wrote it without his long-time lyricist Lorenzo Hart (its librettist, Oscar Hammerstein, was only, at that time, famous for his failures). However, the show did a little better than expected: it launched a revolution in American musical theater and turned a huge profit.

For some background, you can read the transcript of an interview with Murray Horwitz, who was vice president for cultural programming at NPR at the time, talking about how the list was assembled. Also, here are are some related stories, and a list of 300 songs from which the final hundred were picked.

Horwitz says that NPR got input from listeners and from a panel of 18 musicians. The two groups weren't all that far apart. The song "Louie Louie" and Madonna were two cases where listeners rated them higher than the artists. Horwitz says that a lot of people also wanted The Beatles on the list. "We were at pains to point out that they were not American."

When NPR began the project, Horwitz said that some staffers objected, calling it "a bogus millennium gimmick." But he disagreed. "And my argument was if, at the end of the day, a few more people listen to Samuel Barber's "Adagio For Strings" or Fats Domino's "Ain't That a Shame," this is a good thing. And if we can start some discussion about the real significance of American musical expression, which is one of our country's great gifts to the world, this will be terrific."


Dale said...

If only I had time to hear all I wanted to and read as much too! Sounds like a great show.

Esther said...

I probably should have been more clear about it - each segment is only 10 to 15 minutes long. So if you have some time, browse through the list and find one that interests you. It really is a great series. But I know what you mean about never having enough time.