Master Lyricists

Great American Songbook lyrics
By Gary Gilson/Special to the Star Tribune
Feb. 26, 2022 

If you prize simplicity as a tool to achieve clarity in language, take inspiration in lyrics from the Great American Songbook, with tunes from the 1920s through 1940s by greats like Irving Berlin and Cole Porter and duos like George and Ira Gershwin and Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II.

Michael Lasser, author of several books on the topic, points out that lyric writers love one-syllable words because they so easily match the beat of the melody, and because they so sparingly express meaning.

Remember the playwright August Wilson's approach to writing: "I just stop trying to sound important. I just say it. The simpler you say it, the more eloquent it is."

That does not mean sticking to one-syllable words; it does mean that, in choosing words, we can create rhythm and music. As Ira Gershwin wrote:

"Our Love Is Here To Stay"

It's very clear
Our love is here to stay
Not for a year
But ever and a day

The radio and the telephone
And the movies that we know
May just be passing fancies
And in time may go

But, oh my dear,
Our love is here to stay
Together we're going a long, long way

In time the Rockies may crumble
Gibraltar may tumble,
They're only made of clay,
But our love is here to stay."

Read the lyrics either silently or aloud; you don't have to know the melody to feel the music, Lyricists strive for that feeling and Ira Gershwin succeeds. After the early death of his brother George with whom he had successfully collaborated on Broadway musicals, Ira continued on as a much-in-demand lyricist, working with composers Jerome Kern, Kurt Weill, Harry Warren, and Harold Arlen.


YIP HARBURG (1896-1981) wrote the lyrics for two of our most iconic songs, “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime” and “Over the Rainbow.” He collaborated with such composers as Harold Arlen, Vernon Duke, Jerome Kern, Jule Styne, and Burton Lane.

DOROTHY FIELDS (1904-1975) In the course of a remarkably long career, with successes from the 1920s all the way into the 1970s, Dorothy Fields wrote some of the most enduring lyrics of the golden age of the American popular song. She was rare, a woman in a man's world.

CAROLYN LEIGH (1926–1983) was an American lyricist for Broadway, film and popular songs. She is best known as the writer with partner Cy Coleman of the pop standards"Witchcraft" and "The Best Is Yet to Come". With Johnny Richards, she wrote the million-seller "Young at Heart" for the film of the same name, starring Frank Sinatra.

OSCAR HAMMERSTEIN II was (1895-1960) a lyricist, librettist, theatrical producer, and director in the musical theater for almost 40 years. He won eight Tony Awards and two Academy Awards for Best Original Song. Many of his songs are standard repertoire for vocalists and jazz musicians.

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Dorothy Fields

Although she was discouraged from becoming a lyricist by her father and brother, who were both successful in show business (Lew Fields and Herbert Fields). Dorothy went ahead and ironically became more successful than both of them.

Popular music during the Golden Age was a man’s world and Dorothy Fields was the only woman lyricist on a par with Ira Gershwin, Lorenz Hart and Cole Porter. Her specialty was the use of wit, everyday slang with a touch of sexy innuendo.

Here are some examples:

“Gee, I’d like to see you looking swell, baby
Diamond bracelets Woolworth doesn’t sell, baby”
From “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love”
(Jimmy McHugh)

“If it should rain, we’ll let it
But for tonight, forget it.”
From “I’m In the Mood For Love” (Jimmy McHugh)

‘When you dance you’re charming and you’re gentle
‘Specially when you do the Continental
But this feeling isn’t purely mental
For heaven rest us
I’m not asbestos”
From “I Won’t Dance” (Jerome Kern)

“We should be like a couple of hot tomatoes
But you’re as cold as yesterday’s mashed potatoes”
From “A Fine Romance” (Jerome Kern)

“The minute you walked in the joint,
I could see you were a man of distinction
A real big spender,
Good looking, so refined.”
From “Hey, Big Spender” (Cy Coleman)

Dorothy Fields’ lyrics had a style all her own.

To see the video in full screen, click the icon in the lower right-hand corner, and to get back, do the same. IMPORTANT:

"Our Love Is Here To Stay"
George And Ira Gershwin

"Let's Call the Whole Thing Off"
George and Ira Gershwin

“Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”
Jay Gorney-Yip Harburg

Cy Coleman- Carolyn Leigh

"It Might As Well Be Spring"
Richard Rodgers-
Oscar Hammerstein II
Oscar WInner 1944

“A Fine Romance”
Jerome Kern-Dorothy Fields