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This review is taken from PN Review 176, Volume 33 Number 6, July - August 2007.

THE VAST AMERICAN SONGBOOK Reading Lyrics, edited by Robert Gottlieb and Robert Kimball (Pantheon) $39.95
BOB DYLAN, Lyrics, 1962-2001 (Simon and Schuster) £8.50

While both these books reward the careful browser, at 706 and 610 pages respectively, you would not want to read them. If you come across 'Wiggle, Wiggle' by Dylan, or indeed 'Bongo, Bongo, Bongo' in the other book, you will know why. We are all sentimental, we are required to be sentimental, about our era's popular songs. The market says these big, aimed-at-fans tomes do not need a poetry magazine's attention, or an academic's, come to that. They do not need us, but we need them. As I said about requirement, they require some kind of attention from us - we need them because we need to understand why and how they appeal. And, even more importantly, we need to know why some of the songs are so good, even while we notice the show-biz that comes along with them. The climate of a good song is the landscape where words might have a chance of singing. If you do not think we need to know about that, then I wonder who is listening.

The older era's book is suitably different in presentation. For a start, it has an introduction, and could seem more scholarly. For me, though, the veneration, as a kind of inevitable fact, of the 'great American songbook' of show tunes and film tunes is even more suspect than some bonkers Dylan obsessives. While much of it is the work of competent craftsmen, especially in the melodies, not ...


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