By JENNIFER GAVIN
Every song may tell a story—but every song actually offers two stories: the one it tells you through its music and lyrics, and the story of how that song came into existence.
The stories of, and backstories behind, several beloved songs were laid out for a most entertained audience May 11 as the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) Foundation brought forward an evening of songs sung by ASCAP’s member songwriters at the Library of Congress Coolidge Auditorium.
The offering—the second annual “We Write the Songs” event held at the Library in conjunction with the ASCAP Foundation’s gift to the Library of its vast papers in 2009—had nearly 500 audience members standing, cheering and singing along by the evening’s end.
The event was emceed by Paul Williams, ASCAP’s president and the writer of such songs as “We’ve Only Just Begun,” made famous by The Carpenters, and “The Rainbow Connection,” sung in “The Muppet Movie” by leading frog Kermit. Williams declined to actually sing his songs—he did at the previous year’s event—joking, “I’m not going to sing tonight. I got a little something extra to stay quiet.”
ASCAP, founded in 1914, ensures that songwriters are compensated for the use of their songs. Its membership includes not only such recent tunesmiths as Williams, singer/songwriter Tracy Chapman (who performed her hits “Fast Car” and “Give Me One Reason”) and Dion DiMucci (who performed his songs “Runaround Sue” and “The Wanderer”) but also such icons of American music as Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern and John Philip Sousa.
The ASCAP Foundation, founded in 1975, is a charitable organization supporting the development of songwriting through music education and talent-development programs.
Several members of Congress helped introduce the songwriters, including U.S. Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and U.S. Reps. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn), Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), John Conyers (D-Mich.), Ted Deutch (D-Fla.) and Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.).
“There’s nothing than writing songs with your friends—they get finished that way,” quipped J.D. Souther, prior to performing his hit “Heartache Tonight” (made popular by The Eagles). Souther, who also sang “You’re Only Lonely,” said that on “Heartache Tonight” he and his co-authors Don Henley and Glen Frey lacked a chorus—so they called up Bob Seger in Michigan. He composed it on the spot and sang it to them over the phone.
Alan Bergman performed his songs “The Way We Were” (made famous by Barbra Streisand) and “The Windmills of Your Mind” (performed by numerous artists, including Sting). And Wayland Holyfield performed his song “Could I Have This Dance,” popularized by singer Anne Murray and sung or played at weddings everywhere.
The talented, young Jessi Alexander performed her song “The Climb,” a double-platinum-selling single recently sung by Miley Cyrus in “Hannah Montana: The Movie.”
Two songwriters—the iconic Hal David and Albert Hammond—co-performed their song “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before” (made famous by Julio Iglesias and Willie Nelson), and Hammond soloed on his song “It Never Rains in Southern California,” made famous by him and covered by artists including Sonny & Cher and Barry Manilow.
The evening closed with singer/songwriter Bill Withers, who backed his daughter Kori Withers on guitar as she sang his wistful “Ain’t No Sunshine.” Then jazz singer and Broadway star Elisabeth Withers—no relation, but now a great family friend—led the audience in a heartfelt rendition of his song “Lean on Me” to close the show.
Bill Withers explained the genesis of that song: the willingness to share of his family, and his neighbors growing up, in his small town. “We compensated for what we didn’t have by having each other,” he said.
Jennifer Gavin is the senior public affairs specialist in the Library’s Public Affairs Office.