Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Wild About Alec Wilder

WHOEVER has my copy of ``American Popular Song,'' by Alec Wilder, please give it back.

I never ask people to return books. Why now? Because I've just sung one of author-composer Wilder's own better-known songs, ``I'll Be Around,'' to the accompaniment of almost 20 trombones. I've just read that he enjoyed ``doing good by stealth,'' never admitting to jazz pianist Marian McPartland how he helped put her wonderful program on National Public Radio. And I've just discovered that Wilder has a newsletter published in his name and an organization dedicated to preserving his memory and keeping his music played.

About these ads

So this time, if I remembered who the borrower was, I would no longer a lender be. I can't honestly echo Wilder, a composer of the eccentric rumpled-professor school, and just say I give my books away: ``Indeed, the books I've given away constitute a kind of huge, floating, national library.''

How can I not wonder who's hanging on to the unsurpassed volume that I've been hyping ever since it came out in 1972?

Fortunately, some Wilder comments remain in introductions I typed up when our band played a jazz concert in a library, where referring to a book seemed appropriate.

Wilder explained, for instance, why we would still play ``It Had to Be You,'' a 1924 tune that Harry Connick Jr. gave new fame in that Harry-meets-Sally movie. In his words, it's a song that ``reaches the listener as a wholly agreeable moment in time.'' Its unusual elements have become usual. There's that remarkable drop of an octave (when the lyrics say, ``But nobody else ... gives me that thrill'') -``one of those mysterious choices that a good [song] writer makes....''

Turning to Jerome Kern's classic ``All the Things You Are,'' Wilder recalls a story: Right after Kern told a friend he thought such a complex piece could never become a hit, he heard someone whistling it in the street. ``Perhaps one should hark back to that old theory that if the opening measures of a song are singable, it doesn't matter how complex the rest of it is.''

Wilder would never have claimed classic status for his own ``Good for Nothin,' '' but it has now been given the permanence of a compact disc. Wilder's bouncy, countryish tune fits a lyricist's pre-feminist humor: Men are good-for-nothin', but women wash their socks and can't do without `em.

The droll performance is from a 78 r.p.m. duet of four decades ago combining Marlene Dietrich's worldly-wise Germanic accents with Rosemary Clooney's all-American fizz. The pairing is as quirky - and successful in its way - as many of Wilder's compositional choices.

About these ads

Who else would imagine setting the poetry of Phyllis McGinley in a song cycle for mezzo-soprano, bassoon, and harp? Wilder was always calling the back rows of the orchestra to the solo stage - the tuba, for instance, in ``Elegy for the Whale.''

His completed songs, operas, ballets, orchestral works, chamber pieces, film scores, and recordings make a list filling more than 40 pages. Wilder songs have been recorded by such stars as Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Eileen Farrell, Ella Fitzgerald, and Sarah Vaughan.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.