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Singing Off the Same Page: 'Great American Songbook' Website
October 12, 2010  | By Tom Brinkmoeller
 
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Last week in this space, Ed Bark convinced me and a lot of others, I hope, to watch Michael Feinstein's Great American Songbook, a first-rate, three-part PBS series which premieres its second segment Oct. 13 at 8 p.m. ET (check local listings). Feinstein has been collecting, preserving and archiving 20th century American popular music for almost 50 years (he started when he was five), and the series shows how the singer-musician spends almost all of his free time making sure a wealth of material that documents this subject will be available forever...

What he has collected is beyond impressive: video, audio, visuals, printed materials and more that almost surely would have been lost forever, had Feinstein's collecting not been so intensely inclusive. (In the first episode, he stands near a California interstate highway and tells how MGM got rid of countless historically important materials when the highway was being built so those materials could be used as fill for the roadbed. His demeanor makes it clear that if he could, he would tear up the highway to get those materials back.)

Starting early next year, much of the material Feinstein has collected will be displayed in a 6,000-square-foot museum housed in a public building near Indianapolis. More accessible and nearly as complete is the website that has been created to give anyone access to the remarkable collection. The website Michael Feinstein's American Songbook, available HERE, will display many of these materials for anyone with Internet access to enjoy. For fans of the PBS series, the site has the same effect as an encore.

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"We didn't want to make the shows like a freshman survey course," said Amber Edwards, who produced and directed the television series and is a producer of the website. "We wanted (the site) to provide a place for people to explore a little more."

From late 2008, when the series production began, the site was part of the plan, she said. In part, it provides "a wonderful repository" for relevant pieces that couldn't fit into three hours of television. But there is much more than surplus footage, and so much of the content is one-of-a-kind. None of the video clips, recordings or images is "commercially available. . . you can't buy these on iTunes. If we were playing a lot of music you could buy, it would have brought up a lot of copyright issues," she said.

Instead, there are examples of otherwise-lost materials. She mentioned a recording of Moon River sung by its composer, Johnny Mercer, accompanied by Henry Mancini, who wrote the music, as one of the treasures Feinstein has discovered and posted on the Web (found HERE on this page. The recording was part of Mancini's personal property, Edwards explained, and Mrs. Mancini allowed Feinstein to make a copy.

At its launch, Edwards said, there were 2,000 pages of information on the site, and the number will grow. The growth will continue even more impressively if, as Edwards hopes, the series returns next season for more installments. She said she couldn't reveal details, but "we are very hopeful we will be back next season with more episodes."

To that end, she told how a crew accompanied Feinstein this month as he made more acquisitions from a man who collects 78 rpm records. They have put together "a list of a dozen thematic ideas," she said, and are ready to keep shooting and adding more to both the series and the website.

 
 
 
 
 
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