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The 100 most important American musical works of the 20th century

TRANSCRIPT: "CREATING THE NPR 100"
(MORNING EDITION)


BOB EDWARDS, host: This is Morning Edition from NPR News. I'm Bob Edwards.

The NPR 100, a list of the 100 most-important American musical works of the 20th century, has generated a lot of listener response since it first began running in January of last year. People have praised it, but they've also pointed out the omissions. And here to talk about how the works were selected and some of the works that didn't make the list are Murray Horwitz, vice president for NPR's cultural programming, and producer Elizabeth Blair. Good morning.

ELIZABETH BLAIR (Producer, NPR): Good morning.

MURRAY HORWITZ (Vice President, NPR Cultural Programming): Morning, Bob.

EDWARDS: Now how did the process start?

HORWITZ: We cast a wide net among the NPR family. People who do music commentaries, people who produce music for all of our shows were asked to suggest songs from symphonies to pop tunes.

EDWARDS: You searched for a hundred, but, of course, you came up with a few more than a hundred.

BLAIR: We came up with 300.

HORWITZ: Yeah. In the first instance, we tried to get a ballot from which listeners could vote, but as importantly -- perhaps more importantly, frankly -- we wanted musicians to vote. And we put together a panel of 18 musicians, from the conductor Michael Tilson Thomas to the country singer Kathy Mattea to the soul singer Isaac Hayes. And, frankly, when the two lists came in, they really weren't that far apart.

[SOUNDBITE FROM "LOUIE LOUIE"]

BLAIR: In some instances--for example, the song "Louie Louie" was very, very popular with listeners...

HORWITZ: Right.

BLAIR: ...but not so popular with artists. I'm not sure why. Maybe if we understood the words better, it might have garnered more votes.

[SOUNDBITE FROM "LOUIE LOUIE"]

EDWARDS: Did you give more weight to the panel and less to the listeners and more to NPR staff or what?

BLAIR: Well, the NPR staff only nominated works for the ballot. The only people who voted were this group of artists and listeners. So the only time we had to really look at what the artists said was when it was very close with listeners, and that's--like I say, "Louie Louie" was a case. Madonna was also a case...

HORWITZ: Right.

BLAIR: ...where it was moderately high with listeners, but very low with artists.

EDWARDS: Hmm. And what else didn't make it?

HORWITZ: A lot of people wanted The Beatles on there, and we were at pains to point out that they were not American. There were a couple of works that were a little bit controversial because of their provenance. One of them was "Mack the Knife."

[SOUNDBITE FROM "MACK THE KNIFE"]

HORWITZ: It originally started out as a German song written by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, but we argued that it was the American version of the lyric by Marc Blitzstein that made it an international hit. The other one was Igor Stravinsky's "Symphony of Psalms," which, although I think commissioned by the Boston Symphony, was actually written in Europe and written before Stravinsky became an American citizen.

SOUNDBITE FROM "SYMPHONY OF PSALMS"

EDWARDS: What were the heartbreakers, the ones that you just really feel bad about not putting on here?

BLAIR: Well, there are a couple of things that I feel bad about, works that were on the ballot but didn't make the 100 and works that we didn't even have on the ballot. Gospel was a category we should have given a lot more...

HORWITZ: Yeah.

BLAIR: ...I think, time to because how many R&B singers have you heard say, 'My roots are in gospel'? One of our artists wrote in "Oh Happy Day," which is Edwin Hawkins' 1969 composition and the performance of the Edwin Hawkins Singers. And it reached the top 10 in the pop charts. So not only was it a great American musical art form, but it reached a lot of people.

HORWITZ: Yeah.

BLAIR: So that's a heartbreaker for me.

[SOUNDBITE OF "OH HAPPY DAY"]

HORWITZ: My personal daggers are there's not a single Johnny Mercer song on here, there's no Fats Waller, and I can talk till the cows come home about why Spike Jones' "In Der Fuhrer's Face" should be on this list. But it didn't make it.

EDWARDS: "Cocktails For Two."

HORWITZ: Well, except that "In Der Fuhrer's Face," to me, is a significant musical expression, you know, comprising the will of a whole people, as any nation has come ever up with. And no nation on Earth would have come up with that record except the United States.

[SOUNDBITE FROM "IN DER FUHRER'S FACE"]

EDWARDS: Let's see, Noel Coward wrote, "Please Don't Let's Be Beastly to the Chermans."

HORWITZ: Right, but Noel Coward would not have said (makes noise), you know.

[SOUNDBITE FROM "IN DER FUHRER'S FACE"]

BLAIR: A lot of people criticized us for not having more works from the 1990s on the ballot, and I have to say that we actually did have a lot of works on the ballot. We had Lauryn Hill. That's one of my heartbreakers, I think, really; that Lauryn Hill -- I wish she had made the top 100.

HORWITZ: Elizabeth and I disagree a little bit about that. I think, for example, now when we started this process, Lauryn Hill was very, very hot, and now I wonder what she's done or what others have done to follow up on what she did with her big hit record, "Doo Wop." Was that the name of it?

BLAIR: The name of it is The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, and it came out in 1998.

HORWITZ: Well, that's the whole CD, right.

BLAIR: That was a little over two years ago.

HORWITZ: That's what I'm saying.

BLAIR: Give her a break. I mean, some artists are not churning out hits all of the time. Some artists take their time, and what they give us is phenomenal. You know, I was lucky enough to interview Paul Simon, and at the end of the interview, I said to him, 'You've been so prolific, and you've given us so many hits.' And he looked at me like I was crazy. He said, 'I am known not to be a prolific artist. The record labels keep bothering me to churn out more.'

HORWITZ: No, I agree. My point was simply we don't know yet. I would say my personal jury is still out on Lauryn Hill. You know, we don't know yet.

When we started on this whole process, the staff of NPR cultural programming -- some of them raised objections, and they said, 'Come on, this is just arbitrary. You know, you can't pick the hundred best or the hundred most important. This is a bogus millennium gimmick.'

And my argument was if, at the end of the day, a few more people listen to Samuel Barber's "Adagio For Strings" or Fats Domino's "Ain't That a Shame," this is a good thing. And if we can start some discussion about the real significance of American musical expression, which is one of our country's great gifts to the world, this will be terrific.

EDWARDS: Murray Horwitz, vice president for NPR's cultural programming, and producer Elizabeth Blair. You can see the complete list of the NPR 100 and the ones that just missed on the Web site, npr.org.