Each year, Lincoln Center puts together the American Songbook series, meant to celebrate songwriting while expanding the idea of what makes up the canon of music classics. Bluegrass artists, R&B songwriters, an Inuk throat singer (the mesmerizing Tanya Tagaq) and others are on a diverse roster of performers from almost all corners of the musical map, showing the breadth and depth of what is capable in songcraft.
amNewYork caught up with a few of the artists from the series to ask them each the same question: Since the American Songbook series celebrates songwriting in all of its forms, what to you makes a song that stands the test of time? Here’s what we heard.
Perhaps it is when a song speaks to the kind of distances and longings we feel as humans. (Not just sad longing; even in sacred or celebratory music, it’s calling up the feeling, arousing it from somewhere else and amplifying it.) It seems to me that in the great songs, the melody and words are inseparable, fused things. Anyone would recognize the feeling regardless of knowing the language. (March 22, Penthouse)
There’s no surefire formula. Sometimes a song comes along that defines a moment in history (“Strange Fruit” by Abel Meeropol); sometimes it strikes an emotional chord with a group of people (“Seasons of Love” by Jonathan Larson); sometimes only in retrospect do we understand how meaningful a song is (“Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen). In any case, the music has emotional resonance and relevance to a moment in the past and a moment in the present. (March 27, Penthouse)
Universality, specificity, and a killer melody. I recently heard “Not a Day Goes By” (sung beautifully by Whitney Bashor) in a production of “Merrily We Roll Along” and was blown away by how relevant that song is. It will never get old. For as long as love exists in the world, it will resonate with those who have had a great romance, and then lost it. (March 27, Penthouse)
Page Burkum of The Cactus Blossoms
Before we could record songs, the only way to keep them alive was to write it down or, in the case of folk music, to pass them on by singing them within a community over generations. Some songs are forgotten the minute after they end, but others stick with us. When it’s time to party we have “I Feel Good,” when we’re lonely we have “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” when we need to stand our ground we have “I Shall Not Be Moved” and the list goes on. No songwriter will never know if their song will be remembered after they’re gone, but we’re thankful for the songs that last. (March 28, Penthouse)
Why, many years, of course! (Feb. 1, Appel Room)