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The Cartoon Music Book

Will Ryan reviews The Cartoon Music Book and finds a compendium of peculiar vitality.

Cartoons and music. Two great artistic disciplines. Two great subjects, individually or collectively, for a book. So how can an item that calls itself "The Cartoon Music Book" go wrong?

Countless ways I suspect. But, happily for us, this one doesnt!

Oh, you can quibble here and there. After all, its easy to cavil when a work presents as wide an array of opinions, quality of scholarship and depth of insight as this episodic tome (we get about 30 articles in all from nearly as many contributors). But its the motley fabric of the varied points of view which gives this compendium its peculiar vitality.

The editors are Daniel Goldmark and Yuval Taylor. The former is the Rhino Records staff musicologist/editor/compilation producer who left La-La Land to serve as assistant professor of music at the University of Alabama. Apart from co-editing this book, he also is its major contributor. Mr. Goldmark gives us a well-done chapter called "Classical Music and Hollywood Cartoons." He also provides several chapters of interviews with contemporary cartoon composers blessed with not only ability, but with some of the best budgets around. In addition, he gives us a bibliography more extensive than one would possibly expect. Co-editor Yuval Taylor is described as the editor of A Cappella Books (the publisher of this volume) and as editor of The Future of Jazz, which we presume is an A Capella book. He co-wrote with Mr. Goldmark, the introduction to The Cartoon Music Book and clearly exercised sound editorial judgement in reeling in the knowledgeable and resourceful Mr. Goldmark as his co-editor.

From The First Person

The first time I read the 1971 Carl Stalling interview in Mike Barrier's Funnyworld magazine, I was amazed at the music directors response to the first question posed, "How did you become a composer for cartoons?" The famed — at least to title card-scouring cartoon fans of the day — Warner Bros. maestro began his reply, "As I recall, I first met Walt Disney in the early Twenties." Huh?! Walt Disney? Kansas? Do you mean to tell me that Hollywoods Carl Stalling was the Kansas City organist/conductor referred to in Diane Disney Miller and Pete Martins official biography The Story of Walt Disney?! Who knew? This article was the beginning of "cartoon music" scholarship. A highlight of The Cartoon Music Book is a reprint of this Carl Stalling interview.

Milt Gray recently gave me some background on this article. It seems that at the time of the face-to-face interviews (conducted by Mike and Milt in June of 1969 and by Milt and Bill Spicer in November of that same year), Mr. Stalling was not as loquacious as could be desired. After all, hed been retired for years, had rarely if ever been interviewed and wasnt accustomed to spinning self-serving publicity yarns for publication. (In those days that kind of PR baloney was for the show-offs of show biz: actors, producers and the occasional spotlight-loving producer/director, like Hitch or DeMille, or that Castle fella over at Columbia.) The interviewee was amiable and amenable, but given to short, unsparkling, hardly-worth-transcribing responses guaranteed to yield the kind of article that would yawn right off the page. He proved however to be much more capable of eloquence and recall in his written responses to the many follow-up letters sent by his relentless interrogators. So the published interview, which sails along smoothly and reads like a breeze, is actually a painstakingly contrived pastiche, which uses virtually nothing of the actual in-person interviews.

Regarding the topic of "cartoon music," we might all agree that Carl Stalling, as musical director of the Warner Bros. animation division from 1936 to 1958 and with a cartoon career that started in 1928, knows whereof he speaks. Can the same be said of the rest of the contributors to this volume?

Give and Take

Well, as hinted above, its a mixed bag of nuts. On par with the Warners maestro, weve got Scott Bradley, MGMs cartoon music director. The editors have unearthed two fine 1944 contributions written by him for the periodical Film Music Notes, vintage copies of which are not overly likely to be found in the libraries of most homes. Chuck Jones is also represented with a reasonably obscure 1946 article entitled, with felicity, "Music and the Animated Cartoon." Many of the familiar names in The Cartoon Music Book, Goldmark, Maltin, Will Friedwald, Greg Ehrbar, Irwin Chusid, Barry Hansen, Earl Kress, et al., may be relied upon for solid reporting and ruminating in their areas of expertise.

Generally speaking, however, the further you stray from first person source material into the realm of third-hand stories and academic whiffle, the more likely you are to discover unfounded presumptions, ill-supported contentions, idle speculation and just plain ignorance. This is an inevitable, universal law, which I just made up. But it holds true even in the case of this highly recommended volume. Heres an example. One contributor, whose field of expertise is jazz music, startles the reader with an authoritatively presented passage (with footnotes yet!), which reveals a stultifying ignorance of the animation process and of the Disney studios of the 1940s in particular. Checking the footnotes, we discover hes using the sloppy, irresponsible, discredited texts of Mosleys The Real Walt Disney and Eliots Walt Disney: Hollywoods Dark Prince as his authority. Oops.

So remember: Daniel Goldmark and his associate merely edited this book as a compendium. They did not correct and grade these contributions as individual papers. And, despite the odd howler, The Cartoon Music Book is a fine and generous compendium worthy of your bookshelf, be it of the metaphorical or of the old-fashioned, practical kind.

The Cartoon Music Book. Edited by Daniel Goldmark and Yuval Taylor. Foreword by Leonard Maltin. Chicago, Illinois: A Capella Books, 2002. 304 pages. ISBN: 1-55652-473-0 (US$18.95)

Will Ryan has written hundreds of songs for such energetic characters as Donald Duck, Tigger, Elmo Aardvark, Jim Hensons Muppets and, um, Patti La Belle. Next month the Duck Brothers premiere one of his compositions on Cartoon Networks Courage the Cowardly Dog. Currently, the sultry singer VaVa LaVoom is performing Wills intergalactic hits at the space-age architectural marvel "The Encounter," which looms groovily over the center of the Los Angeles International Airport.