Let’s think about how we would answer this question. Maybe Lin-Manuel Miranda for his marvelous, creative, catchy musical Hamilton with its 47 songs? Well maybe it’s premature to anoint him as the greatest songwriter of all time, eh?
What about Andrew Lloyd Weber with his: Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (1968; Broadway 1982), Jesus Christ Superstar (1970), Evita (1978), Cats (1981), Phantom of the Opera (1986)?
Ah, the Beatles, either as the group with its 17 No. 1 hits, or the aggregate number of hit songs by all four of its members? And there’s Burt Bacharach with his 73 top-40 hits whose songs have been recorded by 1,000 different artists.
We should consider these:
- George Gershwin (1898-1937), including his Rhapsody in Blue (1924) and Porgy & Bess (1935).
- Sigmund Romberg (1887-1951), including his operettas The Student Prince (1924), The Desert Song (1926), and The New Moon (1928).
- 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).
- Jerome Kern (1885-1945): They Didn’t Believe Me (1914); A Fine Romance (1936), The Way You Look Tonight (1939), Smoke Gets in Your Eyes (1933), and Long Ago (and Far Away) (1944).
- Kern and Hammerstein: Who (Stole My Heart Away)? (1925); the musical Show Boat (1927), including Ol’ Man River and Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man; The Song Is You (1932); All the Things You Are (1939) (with Gershwin).
- Johnny Mercer (1909-1976): Goody, Goody (1936); Too Marvelous for Words (1937); You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby (1938); Fools Rush In (1940); Blues in the Night (1941); Skylark (1941); Autumn Leaves (English lyrics 1947); Moon River (1961).
There are so many more wonderful, prolific songwriters, including Cole Porter (1891-1964), witness the film De-Lovely (2004), and Hoagy Carmichael (1899-1981).
Let’s go further back in time and consider:
- Gilbert and Sullivan ( S. Gilbert (1836-1911); Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900)), including their H.M.S. Pinafore (1878), The Pirates of Penzance (1879), and The Mikado (1885).
- Stephen Foster (1826-1864), “the father of American music”: Oh! Susanna (1848) Camptown Races (1850), Old Folks at Home (“Swanee River”) (1851), My Old Kentucky Home (1852), Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair (1854), and Beautiful Dreamer (1864).
If we enlarge our view, we also should consider country music. One commentator identified on August 19, 2015, 85 top Country songwriters, ranking Hank Williams No. 1.
Rolling Stones listed Bob Dylan as its No. 1, for any genre.The Songwriters Hall of Fame, established in 1969, has 400 inductees “from our era.” “In order to be considered for induction, nominees must have been published songwriters for a minimum of 20 years with a notable catalog of hit songs.”
Ah, here’s one we cannot forget: 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 to 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 perimeters to put around our considerations. There are, after all, the marches of John Philip Sousa (1854-1932) and the waltzes of Johann Strauss (1804-1849). And in classical music there are Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Mozart, Bach. 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, 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 Pieluigi da Palestrina (c. 1525-1594). And there may be many who do not know that Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) was not only a theologian but a songwriter: 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).
Let me submit my nominee for the greatest songwriter of all time: King David of Israel (c. 1000 B.C.). There are 150 psalms in the Bible’s Book of Psalms. They are songs. The title of the Book itself refers to “instrumental music” or to the words accompanying music. Furthermore, there are inscriptions that give musical directions such as “choirmaster,” “stringed instruments,” or the proper occasion for using the song (“On the dedication of the temple”; “For the memorial offering”). At least 73 of the 150 are attributed to David. Outside the Book of Psalms, there is evidence from other books of the Bible that David danced (2 Sam. 6:14-16), played music, composed music, and sang:
- “Whenever the spirit from God came on Saul, David would take up his lyre and play. Then relief would come to Saul; he would feel better, and the evil spirit would leave him.” (1 Sam. 16:23);
- “David spoke the words of this song to the Lord in the day that the Lord delivered him from the hand of all his enemies and from the hand of Saul.” (2 Sam. 22:1; the verses of the song are 2 Sam. 22:2-51).
Bono wrote an introduction to a 1999 anthology of Psalms. It began with the following reflection:
At age 12, I was a fan of David. He felt familiar, like a pop star could feel familiar. The words of the psalms were as poetic as they were religious, and he was a star — a dramatic character, because before David could fulfil the prophecy and become the king of Israel, he had to take quite a beating. He was forced into exile and ended up in a cave in some no-name border town facing the collapse of his ego and abandonment by God. But this is where the soap opera got interesting. This is where David was said to have composed his first psalm — a blues. That’s what a lot of the psalms feel like to me — the blues. Man shouting at God — “My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me? Why art thou so far from helping me?” (Psalm 22).
(“Bono on the Psalms,” Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, National Public Radio, March 1, 2002)
Let me list some criteria for “greatest songwriter” in the context of David’s Psalms:
- Enduring: 3,000 years.
- Number of “Hits”: 150 (or at least 73).
- Geographical dispersion: global.
- Translated: in languages too numerous to count.
- Frequency (play time): daily. Jews have sung and recited the Psalms for centuries: in morning services (Shacharit), the Sabbath, Psalms of the Day, etc. Jesus sang Psalms, as reported after He had eaten His Last Supper (“And when they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.” (Matthew 26:30; Mark 14:26)). That meal was celebrated during Passover when Jews sang Hallel Psalms, Psalms 113-118. After Jesus’ Ascension, the Psalms were interpreted to have always been about Him. In Catholic worship, the Psalms are used in every daily Mass since the end of Vatican II, and before and after Vatican II in the Liturgy of the Hours (that is, around-the-clock prayers). Men seeking to become monks in the Middle Ages were required to memorize all 150 Psalms (in Latin). This is not to mention the Anglicans and the Orthodox, and more.
- Covers: too numerous to count.
- Memorable Lyrics; Lyrics in Literature; Lyrics That Have Entered Our Lexicon: One example: “The Lord is my shepherd” (Psalm 23).
- Lyrics Not Vulgar.
- Topics Are Ennobling: laments, thanksgiving, praise, petitions.
- Diverse Topics/Moods: As Bono wrote, “blues.”
- Melodies: Many composers have put the Psalms to music, many of them not in Gregorian Chant. They include Mozart, Bach, Stravinsky, the 1971 musical Godspell (O Bless the Lord and On the Willows). In addition, we have information on how the Psalms were originally sung. See, for example, Charles David Isbell of LSU, “The Musical Notation in Palms,” and Emil G. Hirsch, “Psalms,” Jewish Encyclopedia (1906).
So, that’s my case for declaring King David of Israel “the greatest songwriter of all time.”
David Playing the Harp, 1670 (Jan de Bray, 1627–1697/Wikimedia Commons)