The Green Book of Songs by Subject: The Thematic Guide to Popular Music. .
True subject access to music has long been one of the prominent blind spots of the library profession. So much music, particularly popular music, is about something, and yet most library catalogs and reference sources treat music as an abstraction, scrupulously avoiding classification of the emotional or topical content. In our catalogs we assign to music terms that we disingenuously call subject headings, but surely this is an illusion. Does the subject heading "Songs (High voice) with piano," for example, really describe the subject or nature of the songs?
Librarians and scholars are not oblivious to this issue, but the prospect of assigning real subject classifications to musical works is so daunting that few have dared to attempt it, and most attempts have been modest. Jennifer Goodenberger's Subject Guide to Classical Instrumental Music (Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1989) is a slim 163 pages and, despite its limitations, was very welcome simply because there was so little else available. The Web site A Song about the Moon (www.library.ucla.edu/libraries/ music/ref/moon.htm, accessed 22 February 2003), a well-known bibliography prepared by Stephen Fry of the University of California at Los Angeles Music Library, lists the scant few other sources available, but most of these are both outdated and limited in scope. The sole exception is the subject of this review, Jeff Green's The Green Book of Songs by Subject.
Contrasted with its sparse competition, The Green Book of Songs by Subject would seem prodigious even if it were a fraction of its present length. The fact that it exists at all is remarkable enough. The first edition (Los Angeles: Professional Desk References, 1982) was an inch-thick, typewritten, loose-leaf volume, which, despite its humble origins, was a godsend for those librarians fortunate enough to know about it. (The fact that it was not commercially published made it almost invisible to libraries beholden to vendors and approval plans.) Green's work was the first substantial attempt to categorize popular music by subject. Before Green, such a book was one of those fantasy reference sources that librarians never really expected to see. In the intervening twenty years, The Green Book has gone through five editions, each more ambitious than the preceding. The present fifth edition is a mammoth 1,569 pages filled with tiny, precise print. Despite its imposing size, Green still describes his book as selec tive. He states, "the Green Book ... in no way attempts to be comprehensive ... it will never be possible to include every song on every subject" (p. xviii). Green does overstate the parameters of his work somewhat, claiming that "The Green Book covers all genres and generations of music" (p. xv). Well, not exactly. One will not find Schubert lieder or Hungarian folk songs in The Green Book, and the emphasis is clearly on American popular music.
The Green Book is quite straightforward and accessible in its approach, listing more than thirty-five thousand popular songs organized alphabetically under subject headings ranging from "advice" to "young." Green follows each subject heading with a list of boldface song titles, and under each title there is a brief discography of available recordings. B cause The Green Book is aimed primarily at the broadcast industry (such as radio producers looking for songs for thematically organized programs), the information is not presented in the way that librarians might expect. The song entries do not mention he composers or lyricists, and the discographic citations give only principal artist, title, and label. Green does not provide format information, though his "Author's Notes" indicate that most of the recordings cited are compact discs. (Oddly enough, Green n does cite a few 45-rpm and 78-rpm discs, and gives publisher's numbers for them, but these entries are an infinitessimal fraction of the total.) Nevertheless, these minimalistic citations do not impede the utility of The Green Book in traditional music libraries, as the absent information can be easily obtained from other sources.
Green has devised a system of approximately eighteen hundred headings and subheadings, and for the most part these headings are intuitive; librarians and library Lisers will have little difficulty navigating them. The expansion of this system has been one of the most notable elements of the book's evolution since 1982. As the number of songs cited in each edition increased, Green added more and more headings and subheadings to what was originally a very simple collection of general topics. His system, unlike subject thesauri produced by librarians, does not attempt to transform all concepts into nouns or gerunds, and Green does not hesitate to use adjectives, verbs, and even entire sentences as topics. Consequently, some of the headings ("open & closed," "remember," "back on my feet," etc.) are grammatically inconsistent with each other and, at first, may not seem acceptable by conventional bibliographic standards. Indeed, it would be easy, but unfair, to dismiss these headings as amateurish. The author's idi osyncratic approach is ultimately a strength, for it enables Green to categorize a vast range of popular songs in a precise yet accessible way.
Green introduces each subject heading with a kind of scope note--a few synonyms that add clarity to the heading. "Bad," for example, is further defined as "being bad, evil, mean, misbehavior, sin, terrible."
Although these illustrative terms are identified as subcategories, this is an obvious misnomer, since they are not used as subject subdivisions. The author also provides cross-references to related headings. Under "promise," for example, one is advised to see also "character & integrity, cheating & lies, decisions, faith, god, help, love: devotion, marriage, motivation, sex: resisting temptation, togetherness, [and] truth." Perennial and particularly broad topics, most notably "love," are broken down into focused, sometimes amusing subdivisions. Thus, we have "love: back together," "love: can't get over you," "love: choose me," and so forth, proceeding alphabetically to "love: us against the world," "love: women talking to women," and "love: young love." Unfortunately, Green positions the subdivision "general" alphabetically whenever he uses it and casual users might miss it. This is a case in which Green could have benefitted from emulating other standard reference sources. Surely it would have been better t o place the broad, general headings before the subdivided ones.
Green's categorization of songs is almost fanatically exact. Users seeking songs about numbers would naturally expect a category for "numbers," and Green obliges--but individual digits further subdivide this topic. Under "numbers: 1" we find more than six pages of entries, including Britney Spears's "Baby One More Time," Irving Berlin's "I'm Putting All My Eggs in One Basket," and Tommy Dorsey's "Opus One." Green's choice of subdivisions, and his selectivity in applying them, reveals much about recurring themes and motifs in popular music. Under "cars," he provides a list of songs generally about cars (such as Woody Guthrie's "Riding in My Car" and Bruce Springs teen's "Used Cars") and a subdivision for "specific makes and models" (where we find Bob Dylan's "From a Buick 6"). Yet, songs about Cadillacs are so abundant that they receive their own list. Green is also careful to address all of the subject implications of a particular song, and is generous about listing individual songs under multiple headings w hen necessary. Thus, the Beatles's "Ticket to Ride" is listed under both "sadness" and "traveling," and the theme music from the television series The Simpsons is found under "family" as well as television."
In a concluding index that many users may overlook, Green includes an alphabetical list of all the headings used in the book as well as cross-references to related headings, references from the scope note terms (the so-called subcategories mentioned earlier), and "see" references from terms not used as headings or subheadings. Although having a complete array of headings and cross-references in a single, separate list is always helpful, The Green Book would have been improved if all of the "see" references had been included in the main text as well. Infrequent users might miss important cross-references--particularly in cases where Green's heading is idiosyncratic--and abandon the entire work as unhelpful. For example, a reader searching for songs about frustration (perhaps an ironic choice of example) will initially find no heading, and must check the back of the book to find a cross-reference to Green's unexpected selection of the term "stuck."
Despite the occasional pitfalls of the organizational scheme, The Green Book still stands as an essential resource. It addresses a need that no other reference book even comes close to filling, and the sheer scope of Green's accomplishment will likely inhibit anyone from developing a competing tool. Although libraries and their users are obviously not Jeff Green's primary audience, they will benefit from his effort. Perhaps future editions (and there will undoubtedly be some, including the inevitable electronic version) will reconcile some of the inconsistencies of The Green Book. More significantly, though, The Green Book just may inspire some music librarian or musicologist to tackle subject categorization of classical music on the same scale.