Love Songs: The Hidden History by Ted Gioia

Everybody loves a love song. Countless have been written, and billions of words have been expended on them: why a beautifully sung romantic ballad makes us feel all tingly inside, who sings them most persuasively and why, how come they don’t write ’em like they used to anymore. But how many of us have ever actually pondered where the impulse to vocalize one’s affection for another initially came from? Have there always been love songs or are they a relatively new development in human history? Does every culture have love songs? Are these endearing declarations of amore all basically just code for “Please have sex with me”?

Ted Gioia, jazz writer for The Daily Beast and author of previous studies on work songs, healing songs and several other large-scope jazz titles, has given all of these questions decades of consideration, and in just over 250 tautly written pages, thick with the knowledge gained from indefatigable research, he’s provided many insightful and interconnected answers. Yes, it turns out, we’ve pretty much always had love songs, and Gioia’s first several chapters literally start at the beginning, delving into the sounds accompanying the mating rituals of animals (“Birds Do It!” is chapter one) and music’s evolution in primitive societies and early civilizations.

Gioia quickly disabuses the reader of any notion that songs of love are a product of the past century: Not until we’ve traveled through ancient worlds and discovered Sappho and Rumi, the troubadours, the great classical composers, the opera divas and minstrelsy-and weathered the age-old battle between the sacred and the profane-do we reach the familiar worlds of ragtime, jazz, Tin Pan Alley, blues and rock. Some of Gioia’s stories have been oft-told, significantly the invention of the microphone in the early 20th century, which allowed greater intimacy to be voiced by singers who’d previously been forced to shout even the most tender of lyrics. Also well trodden is the advent of recording and broadcasting technology: On records, a greater variety of song now reached larger segments of the public; those in both cities and rural outposts were now able to experience professionals offering songs previously available primarily on sheet music.

Other stories are told afresh in Love Songs-a book that occasionally borders on the academic but never makes for less than a brisk, absorbing read. Writing of the advent of jazz a century ago, the author posits that for all of the attention that has been given to instrumental musicians and their interaction, it was the incorporation of blues singing into then-popular music styles that boosted jazz’s early and quick accessibility. At the same time, the spread of those less-than-polite blues lyrics caused much hand-wringing within polite society, which rejected this music born of slaves in favor of the safe and utterly bland. Writing of the often bawdy music of jazz progenitor Buddy Bolden (none of which, alas, survives on record), Gioia writes, “Music publishers and the early recording companies didn’t care to find out whether a commercial market existed for such fare-at least not yet.”

Not yet but, considering the eons covered in the book, it wouldn’t be long. By the advent of R&B and rock ‘n’ roll, that genie had sprung from the bottle and had no intention of being stuffed back in. The very last paragraphs of Love Songs bring us up to date with the arrival of Lady Gaga and Miley Cyrus. Perhaps it has been about the birds and the bees all along.