Great Songwriters on Great Songs: Jimmy Webb, “With A Song In My Heart,” by Rodgers & Hart

Part Five, in which the beloved songwriter of modern standards chooses a 1929 standard for its great lyrics and melody

We’re happy to bring you our fifth installation of this series on great songwriters choosing a song which they consider truly great. By doing so, they shed insight into their ideas of what constitutes great songwriting, which have defined their own songwriting pathway.

It also goes a long way in affirming what Pete Seeger said long ago: “All songwriters are links in a chain.” We’re all connected. Nobody ever became a songwriter without hearing the songs of others, and being inspired to do this thing themselves. Those links are pronounced through this series. In Part 4, Diane Warren chose a Jimmy Webb song, “Wichita Lineman” by Jimmy Webb. This time we bring you Jimmy Webb himself, who chose a song from the previous generation of songwriters, “With A Song In My Heart,” with music by Richard Rodgers and words by his first partner, Lorenz “Larry” Hart. After Hart’s illness and then death, Rodgers worked almost entirely with the lyricist Oscar Hammerstein.

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“With A Song in My Heart” was written by Rodgers & Hart for their 1929 musical Spring Is Here. It was also featured in many other movies, including a biopic about Rodgers & Hart, Words & Music, performed by Perry Como; also Young Man with a Horn, in which Doris Day stars and sings it. Also in Painting the Clouds with Sunshine in 1950, and as the title song in the 1952 musical about Jane Froman and sung by Froman on the soundtrack. It was also recorded by Ella Fitzgerald, Bing Crosby, and The Supremes.

That Webb would choose this song makes sense as it exemplifies the two foundational aspects of songwriting which he’s instilled into his own songs: resplendent melody and compelling lyrics. Webb’s songs have always been deliciously melodic, one of the main reasons they have endured. A piano-based writer, his melodies, not unlike those of Richard Rodgers, are poignantly powerful, romantic and memorable, yet fresh and unexpected.

Unlike Rodgers, however, Jimmy Webb wrote both words and music. But always with a focus on ensuring both words and music are equally strong and compelling; neither element should seem secondary, In his explanation of why he chose this song, Jimmy underscored this distinction by praising Larry Hart’s great but unconventional lyrical contributions, and defying the idea that melody matters most. “It’s the lyrics,” he says in the following, “that paralyze us years later.”

The Tunesmith, Jimmy Webb

It’s a truth borne out by the reaction of so many to his standards, such as “Wichita Lineman,” in which the beautifully-etched imagery and elegant linguistic economy, is always mentioned along with its sumptuous melodics. It’s there at that intersection of lyric and melody where he lives. Here’s the Oklahoman maestro himself – also the author of one of the great books on songwriting (Tunesmith) – on his choice of a truly great song,

Jimmy Webb, “With A Song in my Heart”
By Richard Rodgers & Lorenz Hart

JIMMY WEBB: “I think of Larry Hart  [lyricist of Rodgers & Hart] first of all, and definitely one of my favorite songs ever in the world is “With a Song in My Heart.” People seem to take cheap shots at Larry Hart and I don’t tolerate any of it. They say, `Oh, he was too facile, he was too quick with the rhyme.’ Bullshit. `With a song in my heart, I behold your adorable face / Just a song at the start,  but it soon is a hymn to your grace.’

“I’d say that has to be way up at the top of the list.

Rodgers & Hart. [R-L]

“I love everything about the song:  the words and the music. But I realize that the emphasis is always so much on the composer and that we are all prey to this little composer disease. We all know the cliche story of [sings, to the tune of “Ol’ Man River” “Dum, dum, dum, dum,…”]

“But the thing is, it’s true: we do invest more weight in the composer. In actual fact, it’s the lyric that  carries things that paralyze us years later and we say, `Don’t you remember where it went…’” We’re not just doing the tune, we’re singing the lyric. So I love that song.

“Yes, Mr. Hart! Yes! Don’t let them tell you that you were a hack. I should say Rodgers and Hart. But Dick Rodgers was very hard on Larry. Very hard.”

“A Song in My Heart”
By Richard Rodgers
& Lorenz Hart

With a song in my heart
I behold your adorable face
Just a song at the start
But it soon is a hymn to your grace

When the music swells
I’m touching your hand
It tells that me you’re standing near
And at the sound of your voice

Heaven opens its portals to me
Can I help but rejoice
That a song such as ours came to be?
But I always knew
I would live life through
With a song in my heart for you

© WB Music Corp., Williamson Music Co.-a Div. Of Rodgers And Hammerstein, Warner Bros Music; Warner/Chappell Music Ltd.

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