Who’s the Greatest Songwriter of All Time?

A walk through beloved music leads to one artist 'after God's own heart'

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Art & Music

How would we answer the question “Who’s the greatest songwriter of all time?” For a moment let us revisit our musical past.

What about Andrew Lloyd Weber (b. 1948) with his Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (1968; Broadway 1982), Jesus Christ Superstar (1970), Evita (1978), Cats (1981), and Phantom of the Opera (1986)?

Ah, maybe it’s the Beatles, either as the group with its 17 number-one hits or the aggregate number of 68 which includes 51 additional hit songs written by one of its four members? (John Lennon had 25 as writer, co-writer, or performer and Paul McCarthy had 22.)

Then there’s Burt Bacharach (b. 1928) with his 73 top-40 hits and whose songs have been recorded by 1,000 different artists.

We should consider George Gershwin (1898-1937) and his Rhapsody in Blue (1924) and Porgy & Bess (1935), or Richard Rodgers (1902-1979) and Oscar Hammerstein II (1895-1960) who collaborated on Oklahoma! (1943), Carousel (1945), South Pacific (1949), The King and I, (1945) and The Sound of Music (1959).

There are so many more wonderful, prolific songwriters, including Johnny Mercer (1909-1976) — who wrote You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby (1938), Fools Rush In (1940), and Moon River (1961) — and Cole Porter (1891-1964) and Hoagy Carmichael (1899-1981).

Further back in time we had Stephen Foster, “the father of American music”: Oh! Susanna (1848) Camptown Races (1850), My Old Kentucky Home (1852), Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair (1854) and Beautiful Dreamer (1864).

We should enlarge our view to include country music. One list ranks Hank Williams as number one: https://www.savingcountrymusic.com/greatest-songwriters/

Rolling Stone magazine listed Bob Dylan (b. 1941) as its No. 1, for any genre. The Songwriters Hall of Fame, established in 1969, has 400 inductees “from our era.” To be considered for induction, “nominees must have been published songwriters for a minimum of 20 years with a notable catalog of hit songs.”

One we cannot forget is Irving Berlin (1888-1989) with his 1,500 songs, including scores for 20 Broadways shows and 15 Hollywood films. Eight of his songs were nominated for Academy Awards. Twenty-five were No. 1 hits. I can’t help but list some of his songs, in chronological order:  Alexandra’s Ragtime Band (1911), Play a Simple Melody (1914), I Love a Piano (1915), A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody (1919), Always (1925), What’ll I Do? (1924), All Alone (1924), Remember (1925), All by Myself (1921), Blue Skies (1926) Puttin’ on the Ritz (1930), Say It With Music (1932), Say It Isn’t So (1932), How Deep Is the Ocean (1932), Easter Parade (1933), Soft Lights and Sweet Music (1936), I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm (1937), God Bless America (1938), White Christmas (1942), Happy Holiday (1942), I Got Sun in the Morning (1946), The Girl That I Marry (1946), Anything You Can Do (I Can Do Better) (1946), There’s No Business Like Show Business (1946), Count Your Blessings (1954).

It’s hard to know what parameters to use in considering the identity of the greatest songwriter of all time. There are, after all, the marches of John Philip Sousa (1854-1932) and the waltzes of Johann Strauss (1804-1849). In classical music there are Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, Dvořák, Chopin, Hadyn, Vivaldi, and so many more. Further, there is music from Latin America, China, India, Africa, Persia, Native America, Russia — about which I am ignorant.

Might we take another step and consider sacred music? There are so many Christmas songs, Gospel songs, Negro spirituals, and Protestant hymns by, for example, Edward Caswall (1814-1878), Charles Wesley (1707-1788), Handel (1685-1759), and Martin Luther (1483-1546).

There are Latin hymns by the great Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (c. 1525-1594). And many may not know that St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) was not only a theologian but a poet whose poems have been put to music: Adoro Te Devote (Humbly We Adore Thee), O Salutaris, Pange Lingua (Praise We Christ’s Immortal Body), Panis Angelicus (Bread of Angels), Tantum Ergo (Down in Adoration Falling).

Now let me submit my nominee for the greatest songwriter of all time: King David of Israel (c. 1000 B.C.). In my next post I’ll explain why.

 

James M. Thunder has left the practice of law but continues to write. He has published widely, including a Narthex series on lay holiness. He and his wife Ann are currently writing on the relationship between Father Karol Wojtyla (the future Pope) and lay people.

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