Lasser ’57 talks American music

by Marley Marius | 4/8/14 4:49pm

Michael Lasser ’57 is a lecturer, writer and critic. Raised in New Jersey — “with Manhattan on my left and the Jersey Shore on my right” — Lasser has made his name as a great arbiter of American music from the late 19th to mid-20th centuries, hosting the nationally-syndicated and Peabody Award-winning radio show “Fascinatin’ Rhythm” for the past 34 years and penning “America’s Songs I and II.” Lasser has also served as a theater critic for The Rochester Democrat & Chronicle and as director and curator of the Wilson Arts Center in Rochester, N.Y. After graduating from Dartmouth, he continued to study at Brooklyn College and Rutgers University.


How would you boil down your role in the various positions you’ve held?

Michael Lasser: I was and still am a museum-goer, a theater-goer, a critic — someone who wrote about the arts, someone who installed exhibits, but not someone who painted or wrote novels. So I’ve had a derivative function, in the same way that actors have a derivative function: no playwright, no actor.

How was your interest in the arts first stoked, and how did Broadway and American standards come to mean so much to you?

ML: I was fortunate to have a mother who loved the theater and ballet, and who was a serious “Sunday painter” -— an amateur who has a certain amount of skill. [She] took me to museums and to the ballet. I lived near New York City growing up, and so I would go out and play ball in the mornings with my friends and then go to the ballet in the afternoon with my mother, and I grew up not knowing that that was strange. She was the one, really, who gave me the opportunity to discover these things.

I grew up just in the crease between the Great American Songbook and “Rock Around the Clock,” the coming of rock ‘n’ roll. Rock ‘n’ roll was fun, but it didn’t really excite me. And so, because I loved the theater and one of the things I went to was musicals, I eventually started looking back rather than forward, and found those songs much more interesting in terms of the quality of the writing.

What keeps the Great American Songbook relevant?

ML: In popular music [today], melody has almost disappeared. I think people respond to melody. You don’t expect young people to turn aside from the music of their own time, [...] but you take those people to a musical, say a revival of something that’s 30 or 40 or 50 or 60 years old, and they enjoy themselves. I think one of the reasons they like those songs is that they rediscover melody.

One of the things that drives me crazy today is the repetitiveness of the lyrics. The lyricists from the time I’m interested in were masters of the same techniques that poets used: rhyme, internal rhyme, alliteration, onomatopoeia, assonance and all of the techniques in the poet’s bag are theirs, too. They create sentiment, emotion, which brings you close, but they also write with wit which requires you to step back, arch your eyebrow and take a clear look. They put the two together through their inventiveness with language.

Where does the Great American Songbook fit into the greater American narrative?

ML: Songs today really don’t tell a story. They are about right now, and “No one’s ever felt the way I do,” and “Nothing’s ever been more precious than this second.” The songs of the Great American Songbook overall took a broader point of view. Most of the songs were about young love as you’d expect, [...] but there was a range of points-of-view. And the songs were also connected to the world: [...] when the telephone was new and exciting, there were love songs about talking on the telephone. When women started to expand they way they lived in the world around the turn of the 20th century, there were love songs about women being more independent. The songs weren’t only about personal feeling, they were also connected to common experience in the world.

Comparing the works and artists on which you’ve built your career to current musical styles, what would you say people of our generation have gained and what have we lost?

ML: When I was young, I could stand at a piano with my mother and my grandmother and the three of us could sing for hours the same things. Each of us knew songs the other didn’t because there were generational differences, but we knew a vast body of songs in common. Songs were a kind of cultural glue that connected us, whereas today, songs define a generation. Both are perfectly legitimate social functions for songs, but I much prefer the first. First, because I grew up on it, and second, I think that America is a very unlikely place. We’re so varied, we’re so diverse, that anything that holds us together without doing a lot of damage, or without being illegal or immoral, is all to the good. So there’s nothing wrong with finding some of your identity in a song or a singer or a songwriter, but the price you pay for it is high because you diminish your connection to other people who are not your age.

It’s the same with social media, email and Internet. You only have to read what you already are interested in and already believe. You never have to encounter anyone or anything that takes issue with you. And that’s the great value of the liberal arts education.

What do you like best about your job?

ML: The chance to hear songs I haven’t heard before that I’ve come to love [and] the chance to see playwrights and actors. You’re discovering new stuff all the time, and it’s sometimes infuriating because you hate what you see, but [it’s] the opportunity that’s always there to see something you didn’t know before. The other thing is the opportunity to write about it. Somebody gives me a free ticket, I get to say what I think, and somebody pays me for it. What a racket! And the other advantage is that it has given me the opportunity from time to time to work with artists or to work with singers whose work I admire. Not so much to review them, but to work with them: to narrate a concert, or something of that sort.

This interview has been edited and condensed.