American Songbook

Standards every child should hear

My daughter’s hand repeatedly shot up in her third-grade music class earlier this year to her great delight.

The teacher was acquainting the kids with different styles of American music. She played examples of various genres of song, much of it popularized by some of the 20th century’s legendary performers.

The first selection was a pure, clean female voice possessing bounce and sass. Pretty, the voice slid along the melody with an infectious rhythm.


“Does anyone know what type of music that is?” the teacher asked.

The class looked like a gallery at Madame Tussauds at closing time. My daughter raised her hand, somewhat sheepishly. “Jazz. It’s jazz.”

“Very good, Mariella. And does anyone know who that singer is?”

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“Very good, Mariella. And does anyone know who that singer is?” The teacher scanned the little faces before her.

Mariella knotted her brow for a moment, then brightened. She checked to make sure no hands were aloft, then raised her own. “Ella Fitzgerald, I think. It could be Keely Smith. But Ella scatted and that was scatting. So I think it’s Ella Fitzgerald.”

A boy sitting across the aisle shot Mariella a foul look usually reserved for someone caught cheating. He told the teacher, “That’s not fair. She’s from New Orleans!”

While it may be true that Mariella was born in New Orleans, the city had no bearing on her musical literacy.

At the end of the school day, when quizzed about her knowledge of the American songbook and some of its greatest interpreters, Mariella proudly confessed she had heard that music in her dad’s car on the way to school.

The soundtrack of our morning commute had been a happy accident. Afterward it became intentional.

“Sometimes we sing those songs in traffic,” she admitted.

Only after Mariella shared this story with me did I realize the lingering importance of exposing children to classic American music. Up to that point, the soundtrack of our morning commute had been a happy accident. Afterward it became intentional.

Below is a playlist of some songs and artists our children are not likely to encounter on their own. But it is important they encounter them nonetheless. It is up to us to explain why these artists and their songs matter.

Much of the list is foundational to all the pop music that would follow from Chuck Berry to the Beatles to Elvis to Barry Manilow and Michael Jackson. To ignore these roots of American popular song would be a mistake and deprive our kids of the chance to deal with emotions we all grapple with sooner or later — love, loss, regret, and explosive joy.

Here are a few personal suggestions for the whole family’s musical immersion:

1. Frank Sinatra. The grand old man of pop would have been 100 this year. The new Ultimate Sinatra CD, a collection of his greatest hits, nicely encapsulates the sweep of Sinatra’s career from early crooner to swinger extraordinaire. Sinatra sang with authority and captured the totality of the American male experience in his music. Perhaps no single arrangement showcased Sinatra’s gifts like Nelson Riddle’s simmering powerhouse chart for Cole Porter’s “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.” This clip from the early 1960s features the Count Basie Orchestra keeping Sinatra on track. Does American song get better than this?

2. Ella Fitzgerald. Nobody swings like the first lady of jazz. Her improvisatory skill and rhythmic choices were peerless. Like Sinatra, there are hundreds of examples of her brilliance. Listen to this thrill ride of a rendition of “Mack The Knife” (from the musical “Three Penny Opera”) including a rollicking tribute to the people who had sung it before Ella. You’ll be humming this for hours.


3. Judy Garland. Due to “The Wizard of Oz,” most children know Dorothy Gale. What they don’t know is the singer and actress that Judy Garland grew up to be. I’ve long thought Garland needs rescuing from the campy imitations of her work, which too often obscure the singular vocal ability and raw honesty that became her hallmark. Here she is singing a pair songs by her favorite composer, Harold Arlen, who also wrote “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Nobody identified with a torch song like Garland. And few singers could emotionally meld with lyrics as she could. Her acting chops are extraordinary in song and prose (she studied with Brando’s acting guru, Stella Adler at MGM). Here’s what I mean.


4. Dean Martin. My children absolutely love Dean Martin. This should come as no surprise. Dino had a warm, laid back, authentically funny personality. He knew how to swing and had a great time doing it. The charm of his songs can be attributed to that lovable, devil-may-care persona. He didn’t take himself too seriously, and neither did we. Try not to tap your foot and smile while watching Martin’s take on “King of the Road” from a 1960s charity concert. That’s Sinatra and Sammy Davis providing background vocals.

5. Bing Crosby. All that remains today of Der Bingle in the popular imagination is his pristine rendition of Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas.” But before Sinatra and Martin, there was only Crosby. He was the first singer to use the intimacy of the microphone in a compelling way that others would imitate. Crosby also broke down race barriers, befriending Louis Armstrong in the early 1930s and demanding that the trumpeter get equal billing with his white costars. Here is Crosby returning to his jazz roots with Armstrong thrown in to great effect from 1958’s “High Society.”2

6. Sarah Vaughan. She may not be everyone’s taste, but the Divine One had a rare instrument. Wielding a two octave range, Vaughan attempted vocal gymnastics impossible for other singers. As anyone who ever saw her live would attest (and I did), she could hold an audience spellbound with the sheer magnetism of that sound. “Sassy” took incredible risks and could always nail a solid landing. Watch this rendition of “Misty” from 1969, and a jazzy clip from the 1980s if you don’t believe me.


7. Louis Prima: I will invoke my preference for New Orleans for my final selection. Prima is arguably one of the most underrated innovators in American music. A bridge between jazz and rock, Prima was a natural showman who came from the streets of New Orleans and never forgot it. Backed by Sam Butera and the Witnesses as well as his wife Keely Smith (doing her deadpan routine here), Prima was a mad-cap maestro of infectious joy. My children know him best as the voice of King Louie in Disney’s “Jungle Book.” But Prima was also responsible for writing the big-band classic “Sing Sing Sing.” Be on the lookout for strains of Armstrong here and why some people say Prima and Smith were the original Sonny and Cher.

Happy listening!

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