MLA News

Official News from the Music Library Association

A Treasure Not to Be Forgotten: The Great Song Thesaurus

The electronic resources now available to music reference librarians are unquestionably formidable. In our understandable zeal for them, however, we should not overlook the excellent print resources that continue to be ideal for finding answers. A recent query at our music library provides a good example. In preparing for our 75th anniversary, we are planning a jazz concert featuring songs from 1941. Our conductor asked us for a representative song list, and I knew from experience that The Great Song Thesaurus by Roger Lax and Frederick Smith (2nd ed., Oxford University Press, 1989) would more than fulfill her request.

This book is a fascinating source of well-researched information for popular songs from 1558 through the 1980s, with emphasis on the twentieth century. Chapter I, “The Greatest Songs,” presents a chronology of the most significant songs for each year. The heart of the book is chapter V, “Song Titles,” a list of about 11,000 songs with details such as composers, lyricists, dates, and for many, shows and movies in which they were featured, as well as artists who popularized them.

Other lists provide useful information beyond the basics. Chapter IV, “Elegant Plagiarisms,” identifies popular songs based on works of classical composers. Many of these derivations are little known. Chapter VII, “Lyricists and Composers,” lists many writers’ best-known works. Two other chapters in particular, chapter IX, “Thesaurus of Song Titles by Subject, Key Word, and Category,” and Chapter X, “Lyric Key Lines,” are helpful for song-selection and song-identification questions.

I learned about this resource from an excellent jazz-history student who worked for us years ago. When I consulted him about song questions that stumped me, he always asked, “Have you checked The Great Song Thesaurus?” Finally I got the idea. That person is now a distinguished jazz museum director, and I think of him gratefully every time I check it and the answer is there.

Donna Arnold, Music Reference Librarian

University of North Texas Music Library