The Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song celebrates the work of an artist whose career reflects lifetime achievement in promoting song as a vehicle of musical expression and cultural understanding. Like many of the Gershwins’ compositions, the works of the recipients will cross social, racial and national boundaries, and reflect myriad contemporary traditions such as rock, jazz, country, pop, blues, folk and gospel. Whether he or she is a composer, singer/songwriter or interpreter, the recipient of the prize will be recognized for entertaining and informing audiences, for drawing on the acknowledged foundations of popular song and for inspiring new generations of performers on their own professional journeys.
Billington said, “Named after one of America’s most beloved songwriting teams, George and Ira Gershwin, the prize will be awarded annually to a composer or interpreter of popular song whose life’s work has had a significant and uplifting influence on the world of music and on our society as a whole.” He added, “The prize is part of the Library’s renewed effort to recognize, celebrate and encourage musical creativity, the wellspring of the vast music collections housed at the Library of Congress.”
In making the selection for the prize, the Librarian of Congress turned for advice to leading members of the music and entertainment communities. This year’s advisory committee consisted of Michael Feinstein, Lorne Michaels, Phil Ramone, Paul Simon and Allen Toussaint.
The creators of the Gershwin Prize for Popular Song are Dr. James H. Billington, Peter and Bob Kaminsky, Mark Krantz and Cappy McGarr.
The medal was adapted from the design of the Congressional Gold Medal that the Gershwin brothers received posthumously in 1985. It features George and Ira in profile, along with the now-famous inscription Ira wrote in the guestbook of the Librarian of Congress in 1966. Quoting from his Pulitzer Prize-winning show “Of Thee I Sing,” he wrote, “Shining star and inspiration, worthy of a mighty nation—and I do mean the LOC [Library of Congress].” Edgar Z. Steever and Charles Y. Martin, sculptors and engravers at the U.S. Mint, designed the medal.
The Gershwin Legacy
Why name the award for the Gershwins? Certainly American music has had its fair share of uniquely talented and influential composers. But perhaps none have left quite so indelible a mark on the musical landscape of popular song as the Gershwin brothers. Their music was considered revolutionary in its time—crossing cultural boundaries by infusing ragtime in “Swanee,” blues in “Summertime” and even jazz in “I Got Rhythm.” All of their songs, instantly recognizable, are still performed today—proof of their enduring popularity.
After George’s death in 1937, Ira devoted considerable time and energy to organizing his brother’s papers. Early on, he recognized the importance of preserving George’s music and making it available for scholarly research by future generations. In 1939 Ira wrote to Harold Spivacke, then chief of the Library’s Music Division, asking if “the manuscripts of George were worthy of the national library.” Spivacke replied, “As a great admirer of your brother’s work—and you played such an important part in it all—it is my sincere belief that any and every part of it is suitable material for the collection of our national library.”
The first item Ira gave to the Library in 1939 was George’s sketch for “The Crap Shooter’s Song” from “Porgy and Bess.” With typical modesty, Ira expressed his concern about the suitability of this particular item, saying that with a little more time he might be able to “dig up something more satisfactory.” Following in 1953 were manuscripts of large works from the estate of George and Ira’s mother, Rose. These included “Porgy and Bess,” “Rhapsody in Blue,” “An American in Paris” and the “Concerto in F.” Other family members and friends also contributed to the Library’s burgeoning Gershwin collection.
During the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, Ira made periodic donations of manuscripts and other materials to the Library. One of the most remarkable features of these gifts was the accompanying pages of his annotations and remarks, which provided detailed descriptions of many of the items. Ira’s contributions to the Library’s collection continued until his death in 1983. In the course of the next eight years until her death in 1991, his widow Leonore sustained and expanded Ira’s efforts. In 1987, she donated the remainder of the music manuscripts and lyric sheets from their home; on a number of occasions, she also purchased items for the collection. Established in 1992, the Ira and Leonore S. Gershwin Fund enables the Library to acquire additional materials and to fund programs that extend the legacy of the Gershwin brothers.
The George and Ira Gershwin Collection is rich in primary-source materials documenting the brothers’ lives and work. Chief in importance in the collection are the music (including orchestrations, piano-vocal scores and sketches), lyric sheets, and librettos—many in the Gershwins’ handwriting. The collection also includes a wealth of correspondence, providing a firsthand view of the brothers’ daily lives, creative processes and personalities. Visual materials include photographs of George, Ira, family members and friends, as well as paintings and drawings by both brothers. Legal and financial papers, 34 scrapbooks, programs, posters, scores from George’s music library and scripts for radio broadcasts add up to an unparalleled resource for the study of the Gershwins and their medium.
Opened in 1998, the George and Ira Gershwin Room in the Library’s Thomas Jefferson Building is dedicated to materials from the collection. Included in the display are George’s piano and desk, Ira’s typing table and typewriter, and self-portraits in oil by each brother, as well as music manuscripts and other documents that chronicle their lives and careers.