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Composer Alec Wilder Chronicled Music History

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Composer Alec Wilder Chronicled Music History

Composer Alec Wilder Chronicled Music History

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Alec Wilder was born a hundred years ago this week. He wrote thousands of pieces of music and was acclaimed as one of the most inventive and lyrical American composers. Today, few people can name even one or two of his songs, but he's eminent in musical history because of his 1972 book, "American Popular Song." It featured artful celebrations, insights and sideswipes of the most popular American songs - it didn't even mention one of his - and their composers.

He wrote of Cole Porter, The light touch, the mordant turn of phrase, the fingertip kiss, the double entendre, the awareness of bone-deep fatigue of urban gaiety, the exquisite and lacy list of cosmopolitan superlatives, these were the lyrical concerns of Cole Porter. Kind of hard to hear "Anything Goes" in quite the same way after that.

Alec Wilder also hosted a music program on NPR in the mid 1970s. He loved trains, had no real home, and lived in a constant state of travel, riding trains aimlessly if not quite purposely, but always coming back to New York's Algonquin Hotel, where they kept his clothes and had a drink waiting.

When The New Yorker profiled him in 1973, seven years before he died, Alec Wilder sent writer Whitney Balliett, who died just last week, an extraordinary series of letters in which he tried to explain himself by saying, In spite of my need at the leavening of laughter, I am hourly infuriated by stupidity, indifference, and lack of style. My only ambition is to be a better person and a better creator. It's increasingly difficult, but I attempt to keep an open mind and a hungry heart, a constant need for wonderment and magic. I'm a fiend for order, self-discipline and morality. I do not equate the new or original with the superior. I believe in interdependence, and therefore tradition.

My life, he wrote, has been divided between travel and music and my friends and solitude. Occasionally I just lock my door and stay alone, and that way I can refill my cup. And when I open the door and take off again, I have something to pass along. I hate to see people I love unless I have enough to give them.

(Soundbite of song, "It's a Fine Day for Walking Country Style")

Ms. EILEEN FARREL (Singer): (Singing) It's a fine day. And when our hearts are high, isn't it amazing how the miles go by?

SIMON: Eileen Farrell. "It's a Fine Day for Walking Country Style," by Alec Wilder.

(Soundbite of song, "It's a Fine Day for Walking Country Style")

Ms. FARREL: (Singing) We breath. We feel. We touch. We see. It's so ideal for people...

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