This November, Billy Joel, one of the most popular recording artists and respected entertainers in the world, will receive The Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song.
The Gershwin Prize celebrates the work of an artist whose career reflects lifetime achievement in promoting song as a vehicle of musical expression and cultural understanding. The prize commemorates George and Ira Gershwin, the legendary American songwriting team whose manuscript collections reside in the Library of Congress.
The Gershwin Prize is also a reminder that looking closely at popular songs can help us understand key moments from the nation’s cultural history.
Although the Gershwin Collection has not been digitized, the very first recording of one of George Gershwin’s most popular compositions, Rhapsody in Blue, is available for free on the Library’s website.
Gershwin described the composition as being “a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America, of our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, of our metropolitan madness.” A popular New York City band leader, Paul Whiteman, had commissioned it in 1924 for a concert intended to demonstrate that jazz should to be regarded as a serious and sophisticated art form. The concert was entitled “Experiment In Modern Music.”
Write on the board in your classroom the phrase “Experiment in Modern Music,” and brainstorm what it might mean. Then add the year “1924.” Again, ask students to speculate. Finally, invite your students to listen to Rhapsody in Blue and complete a primary source analysis using the Library’s primary source analysis tool; select questions from the Teacher’s Guide: Analyzing Sound Recordings to deepen their analysis. Tell them a bit about the song’s history, discuss their analysis, and ask them to what extent do they think the song is a vehicle of musical expression and it what way does it contribute to their understanding of American culture in the 1920s. You might also ask them to listen to other music from the same period and compare their responses.
An essay by Raymond White, curator of the George and Ira Gershwin Collection, on The Gershwin Legacy can also provide background information on the Gershwins and their times.
What other popular songs have given your students insights into bygone eras?