Carole King, James Taylor, and The Great American Songbook.Posted: May 25, 2010
We saw Carole King and James Taylor in concert last night, at the Allstate Arena outside Chicago. One thing that occurred to me during the great evening is how each one, in his/her body of work, synthesized the entirety of twentieth century music — including jazz and the Great American Songbook of theater, film and popular music advanced by Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Harold Arlen, Richard Rodgers and others, along with what came before, and what came later. (Joni Mitchell, while great, is too idiosyncratic, and too much in the worlds of folk and jazz as a songwriter to the exclusion of other forms, to quite fit the picture.) The harmonic language of the Great American Songbook is in their music, and since nearly everything else American is in it, too, that means just about everything. The GAS element is simplified a tad, and used as a color, rather than the color, because of their distilling it through the filters of gospel, sixties pop, R&B, folk, rock, and blues, but it’s there. Listening to their songs again (the two artists alternated in the spotlight through the evening, providing backup for the other when not in it), I was awestruck by the enormity of their accomplishment.
Put it this way: If you decided that it was important that somebody take on the impossible task of summarizing the entire history of twentieth century popular music and blending it into a coherent personal style, you’d find that two songwriters, improbably, had actually done it. Each artist is appreciated by his/her millions of fans, but I’m not sure that each one’s achievement, when viewed from the perspective of the twenty-first century looking back on the twentieth, has ever been given full measure. It began to dawn on me last night.