A couple of years ago, my friend, arranger composer, David Berger, suggested that we work together to publish a selection of the best songs we could find that had entered the public domain. We published them in their original versions along with suggestions for more colorful modern harmonies. This collaboration resulted in The Public Domain Song Anthology (available for free download).

Among these songs were many I knew from my youth - songs my grandmother sang to me (You Made Me Love You, I didn’ wanna do it, I didn’ wanna do it), Stephen Foster songs, spirituals everyone seemed to know, and the popular music we heard in theaters, films, and on the radio years before television and YouTube. As we selected the songs we thought deserved re-examination and explored their harmonic possibilities, we developed an increased appreciation of their qualities. The best of this material provides the foundation for the way we hear American music - its grammar, syntax, and vocabulary.

The truism that "music is a universal language," doesn’t withstand scrutiny. Chinese music, and Indian Carnatic music, to pick two examples, affect listeners steeped in their respective languages more effectively and deeply than they do an American ear that has less experience with that music and only absorbs its surface. All good music depends on a sequence of expectations and surprises that are communicated in a shared musical language. The songs David and I chose to include had trained American ears to expect certain kinds of musical relationships, to be comforted when expectations were met and satisfyingly rewarded when unexpected variations proved to have been logical in retrospect. They provide the foundation for American blues, jazz, and the American Songbook.

After the Anthology was published, and the songs had been rattling around my brain for a few months, I began to be attracted to some I’d heard in my youth—songs I’d taken for granted as simply my normal musical environment. Before television, I'd come home from school in the early afternoon and eagerly await the fifteen-minute serial radio comedies and dramas that usually started around 5 o'clock: Duffy's Tavern, Fibber McGee and Molly, The Lone Ranger, The Shadow, The Green Lantern, Sky King… Before those shows aired, there was popular music, and I heard it daily.

Besides Bing Crosby, The Mills Brothers, and Andrews Sisters 1940s hits, there were older songs I’d hear repeatedly. Every early spring day there’d be at least one airing of April Showers - sometimes in a version by Al Jolson that already seemed dated. I never paid it much attention - hadn’t yet become curious about how music affected me. Preparing April Showers for publication required a closer look - a revelatory one. What had formerly been something of an annoyance - that song again! - showed itself in a new light. There was consistent logic and beauty in its melody and possibilities for modern harmony that seemed worthy of a Bill Evans interpretation. Louis Armstrong provided the template for changing squarely written rhythms into the cadences of American speech, providing opportunity for syncopation and cross rhythms, so I looked at the lyrics for suggestions for better rhythmic distribution of the melody. The music was transformed from nostalgia to contemporary relevance.

I had that experience with dozens of the songs we published, maybe even hundreds. Not all to the same degree, but the consistency of quality music surprised and attracted me. Once the Anthology was done, I had some time and began to consider writing band arrangements of some of the more intriguing songs. Sonny Rollins had recorded Toot, Toot, Tootsie, Goodbye in a quartet arrangement I loved (with significant contributions by Sonny Clark), and I started with that - transcribing and orchestrating a lot of what was already on the record. It didn’t need improvement - just welcomed expansion, and it turned out beautifully.

Of course, I knew these songs had entered the public domain, that the original composers and publishers had received royalties now deemed sufficient, and that I could own the copyright to new arrangements. But commercial considerations were a distant second to the fact that I'd become attracted to the music. I was just interested. I wrote a solo piano exposition of Alice Blue Gown (a title I’d misinterpreted as being about a girl named Alice who wore a blue gown, when, in fact, it’s about a gown in a color called Alice Blue) in a style as close as I could get to the way I thought Bill Evans might have played it and followed that with a propulsive band arrangement in 4/4. Rose of Washington Square caught my attention with its sassy, slightly feminist lyric (look it up!). I had a vague memory of having heard it a few times and developing it for a jazz ensemble revitalized it for me. Dozens more followed, another, and another, and then I’d done more than 65, and I’ve yet to tackle Alexander’s Ragtime Band, with its invitation to raucous counterpoint.

This is a gold mine of music - music that defines a beautiful and durable part of American culture. I’ve gotten enormous value from finding personal solutions to the unique musical puzzle each song proposes. It’s just been deeply involving fun, and the DuBoff brothers at Jazz Lines Publications/ have generously agreed to make this music available. Some songs you’ll recognize. Others may be unfamiliar, but each one has the indelible quality of good American music, and they’re treated creatively, colorfully and with the respect they deserve.

Click here for Chuck Israels' Public Domain Song Arrangements.

Chuck Israels
October 2023