A Q&A with Rob Kapilow, author of ‘Listening for America’

Rob Kapilow discusses his book, “Listening for America,” and the importance of understanding the context behind music.

Courtesy of Peter Schaaf and W. W. Norton & Company
Music commentator Rob Kapilow writes about the popular songs that became the soundtrack to Americans' lives over the decades in “Listening for America: Inside the Great American Songbook from Gershwin to Sondheim.”

Rob Kapilow knows music. For decades, he unpacked snippets of classical scores on his NPR show “What Makes It Great.” Now, he turns to Broadway show tunes and popular songs in “Listening for America: Inside the Great American Songbook From Gershwin to Sondheim.” He answered questions about the intersection of history and music.

Q: You start with an Irving Berlin quote: “Songs make history, and history makes songs.” Can you explain that?

Berlin’s quote refers to the success of “White Christmas,” which came out in 1942 at the same time that the soldiers were spending their first Christmas away during World War II. It gave them a vision of what they were fighting for. ... So whether it be the huge Puerto Rican immigration in New York City and its relationship to “West Side Story” or the revolution in morals in the 1920s and the rise of Cole Porter, the relationship between history and songs really became important. That was the genesis of this book: seeing if I could both get people inside the music by taking it apart in a very detailed musical way but also get them inside these songs as a moment in American history.

Q: What sort of challenges come with writing for a broad audience?

When I started my “What Makes It Great” series, every time I would say a word in the taping that they thought the public wouldn’t understand, they would hold up a sign that said “No.” Modulation? No. Chromaticism? No. Tonic? No. It was really a failure because I realized I had this vocabulary that I was using from being a music professor that was incomprehensible to the general public. ... I tried to write the book in a style without using any technical terms ... because that music was designed to be gotten across to anybody.

Q: How does knowing the context behind music change the way you hear it? 

Let’s take an example. Cole Porter originally titled his song simply “Let’s Do It.” But the censors refused to allow that title. The whole idea of adding “Let’s Fall in Love” was forced upon him. The compromise was he could put it in parentheses. So it became “Let’s Do It (Let’s Fall in Love).” Just simply realizing the difficulty of censorship and how that has changed – it creates what I call historical empathy. 

Q: What was it like figuring out what these songs meant to you?

When I first started taking apart a song like “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” I was just amazed to see how much I had missed. If you listen to Judy Garland sing “Over the Rainbow” or Fred Astaire sing “Cheek to Cheek,” they almost never sing what’s printed. Before recordings became widespread, the fundamental way a popular song got transferred to the public was through sheet music. But once recordings and radio became popular, it became the performer’s song. That changed everything. Jerome Kern was so horrified by what band leaders did with his songs that he tried to forbid them. Irving Berlin tried to block Elvis Presley’s recording of “White Christmas.” So for me, one of the big revelations was going to the music and seeing what was embedded in the songs before it actually got to the interpreters.

And then it was a revelation in terms of American history. These songs were coming at a time when we were inventing the American voice. We were saying, this is our country, we’re coming onto the world stage, and we’re going to talk in our vernacular, our kind of music, and our kind of language.

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