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.

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.

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.

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