Last night we watched an enjoyable BBC4 programme, ‘The Great American Songbook’. Various artists such as Paolo Nutini, Melody Gardot, Krystle Warren, Gwyneth Herbert, José James and my own personal favourite, Claire Martin gave us their own, updated versions of classic songs from the 1920s onwards. I love the ‘golden age’ of American musicals (Gershwin, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, Rodgers and Hart) and I was keen to see what today’s performers made of them.
The performers were all talented and striking in different ways, but I was sometimes struck by what seemed to me a mismatch between the innocent high spirits of the original material and the intense, emphatic, even tortured versions offered by today’s artists, often singing with their faces twisted into masks of pain. There’s a long tradition, of course, of artists finding qualities in older works which their inventors hadn’t put there. But I was puzzled by several ‘updatings’ which, for example, not only altered the emotion but also wiped out the shape of the original melody and kept only the chord sequence. If you hadn’t heard the songs before, you wouldn’t have had much idea of the melodic genius which made them stick in listeners’ minds for half a century. ‘Over the Rainbow’ shorn of the octave leap at the beginning? No ‘homage’ is successful if it makes you think less of the original.