Along with some great music, I heard a lot of great stories at Tuesday night’s ASCAP concert, from distinguished Congressmen and legendary songwriters alike. But one of the best stories came from a Library co-worker, who was thoroughly excited that I took her picture with Hal David after the concert ended. Galina Teverovsky, a technician in the Asian and Middle Eastern Studies Division, told me that when she was growing up in Russia in the 1970s they did not have access to American songs. Songs like “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” reached those shores by means of a kind of musical samizdat where records were pressed on discarded x-ray film. Such historical efforts are a testament to the enduring influence of American music. Stories like these give hope to those who believe that we can all get along regardless of cultural, political, or any other of the perceived differences that too often tear a society apart.
Fortunately, thanks in part to organizations like the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers, popular songs can be distributed through proper channels, and musical creators can be properly compensated for their work. Tuesday’s concert was the third annual “We Write the Songs” event celebrating the ASCAP Collection at the Library of Congress. Paul Williams, President of ASCAP, returned to host the festivities, and shared a story about one of last year’s great storytellers, Bill Withers (“Lean on Me”). Williams explained that he’d been holding on to this story for a whole year. At last year’s banquet, Withers spoke before members of Congress and pleaded with them to keep the provisions in place that enable songwriters to make a living. If they could not make a living with their music, they would find other ways to make ends meet. Withers’ closing argument? “You don’t want Ozzy Osbourne to be your plumber.”
After a warm introduction from Librarian of Congress James Billington, Williams opened the festivities with a rendition of a song that he offered to the Carpenters, “but they hated it.” “Just an Old-fashioned Love Song” was a hit for Three Dog Night, but it conjures up memories from The Muppet Show to DJ Shadow’s epic landmark album Endtroducing. It was just the first of many highlights of the evening. Jackie DeShannon, introduced by her congressman Rand Paul (R-KY), reminded us that her songwriting talents span well beyond the Brill Building style pop she wrote in the sixties. Her performance of “Bette Davis Eyes” established a 1980s vibe that recurred throughout the evening, in Freddie Jackson’s bravura performance of his R&B ballad “You are My Lady,” and in Billy Steinberg’s performance of a song made famous by Cyndi Lauper, “True Colors.” But the most memorable, and most brave, invocation of that decade was Tom Kelly’s falsetto performance of a song he wrote with Steinberg, “Like a Virgin.” The 1980s were also remembered in the film music portion of the evening. Bruce Broughton and his wife Belinda performed a piano and violin arrangement of the Aaron Copland-inspired music they wrote for director Lawrence Kasdan’s 1985 Western Silverado.
The Coolidge stage has been kind to country music, and Brett James, who performed at the Country Music Association’s Songwriter’s Series last December, returned with fellow songwriters Hillary Lindsey and Gordie Sampson. This hit-making trio performed a song that was a number one country hit for Carrie Underwood in 2005, the heartfelt “Jesus, Take the Wheel.” Lyle Lovett performed two of his signature tunes, “If I Had a Boat,” and “North Dakota,” the latter of which he dedicated to fellow songwriter Willis Alan Ramsey, who recorded one terrific album in the 1970s and is best known for penning the Captain and Tenille’s “Muskrat love.” Lovett gave a powerful, hushed performance during which you could almost hear a pin drop. He seemed truly humbled and honored to be here, and paid homage to his parents, who did what they had to so that he could do what he wanted to do.
Other performers included songwriter and publisher Dean Kay’s “That’s Life,” a hit for Frank Sinatra; and Barry Eastwood’s “When the Going Gets Tough,” originally recorded by Billy Ocean for another popular 1980s film, Jewel of the Nile. The song’s title was inspired by a line Kathleen Turner spoke in the film, “When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping!” Eastmond demonstrated, with the help of musical director Chris Caswell’s excellent band, that the song would not have worked so well if they had left Turner’s line intact. Hal David, who turns 90 on May 25th, reprised his crowd-pleasing performance from last year with conversational renditions of two of his most popular collaborations with Burt Bacharach, “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again” and “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head.” Paul Williams expressed awe at the lyrical charm that drove David to rhyme “pneumonia” with “phone ya,” and the audience was once again in awe at the breadth and depth of the Great American Songbook. The evening closed with Jackie DeShannon leading the assembled guests with the Bacharach-David song that was a hit for her in 1965: “What the World Needs Now is Love.”