It’s easy to lose sight of just how fucking great the musical legacy of America in the 20th century really is. On top of the dudes you’d read about in this space like Copland and Barber, there’s also the giants of jazz like Ellington and Basie, the early rock and roll stars like Little Richard and Chuck Berry, brilliant folk artists like Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger, hip-hop pioneers like Run DMC and Grandmaster Flash, and on and on and on and on and on. And yet, you can make the argument that the greatest collection of musical talent that America produced were the popular songwriters of the ’30’s, ’40’s, and ’50’s. George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Hoagy Carmichael, Jerome Kern, Johnny Mercer, Richard Rodgers, Sammy Cahn, I mean Jesus of Nazareth that’s a murderer’s row of great songwriting.
One of the greatest of these songwriters was Meredith Willson, born on this date in 1902 in Mason City, Iowa. Willson’s career was fascinating. He played flute and piccolo in the John Phillip Sousa Band and the New York Philharmonic. He wrote the score for The Great Dictator. He had an epic career in radio, working with George Burns and Tallulah Bankhead among others. He wrote two symphonies and a host of other classical music, three autobiographies, including one of the all-time greats, “And There I Stood With My Piccolo,” and “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas,” one of the least-soul-crushingly obnoxious holiday songs in existence. He also composed one of the most famous Broadway musicals around, The Unsinkable Molly Brown.
Also, I’m just gonna leave these here:
The Music Man is probably my pick for the greatest musical ever written. It’s a God damn clinic on so many popular styles of the early part of the century. There’s a superb Sousa-inspired march, a perfectly written barbershop quartet, gorgeous ballads, and some fucking brilliant plays on speech and language. It’s one of the great artistic achievements of all-time, and it was written by one of the most interesting and downright likable guys in music history. So massive ups to Meredith Willson on what would be birthday number 112. When it comes to music as entertainment, he definitely knew the territory.