“Michael Feinstein’s American Songbook” returns to PBS

The American songwriting tradition gets another boost Friday with the Season 2 premiere of Michael Feinstein’s American Songbook. And if there’s one thing that can be said about the new season, according to its executive producer, Amber Edwards, it’s that this time, they had even greater access to America’s song treasures.

Having established “the brand” of the series in Season 1, more collectors — both famous and unknown outside of collectors’ circles — came forward to share their collections and to work with them on American Songbook this time round. “The ‘street cred’ that we got from the first season enabled us to kind of reach a little further afield and make overtures to people who might not have been so willing to be a part of something that was an unknown entity,” Edwards asserts, citing the collection of Hugh Hefner, just one of those whose collections Feinstein visits in the first episode of Season 2.

There just seems to be something about this series and its subject that taps into the distinctly American imagination. “It has captured the fancies of people of all generations,” Feinstein says. “There’s been a lot of excitement about the series, because for some, it has opened up an awareness of a world that they didn’t know existed, previously. The emails and notes I’ve gotten from young people particularly have been absolutely wonderful.”

Edwards echoes Feinstein’s excitement about the reaction among young people and says that it’s one of the principle reasons they embarked on the American Songbook adventure. “One of the things that we really hope is happening — and feel that it is with this series — is that somebody might be introduced to Paul Whiteman or Ethel Waters for the first time [and then] just go on the Internet and — ‘Oh, my gosh! There are 15 YouTube [clips] of Ethel Waters!’ We cannot, in any way, pretend to be exhaustive, but if we can get people to be aware of some of these amazing songwriters and performers of the past and then the technology gives them the tool to just run with it.”

But as great as the response to American Songbook has been among young people, it’s been equally if not more overwhelming to encounter the earnestness of people to share their collections with Feinstein and with the world, and to try to preserve it. “Then there have been — as Amber predicted, though I didn’t pay much mind to it — the offering of collections,” Feinstein explains. “People have been finding things and offering them to me and to my initiative. People asking for advice or information — what do they do with their records or other music memorabilia? How do they preserve it? Where should it go? It has raised the awareness of the importance of preserving this material, and that it really is up to the individual to keep it going.”

Keeping going is just what’s in the plan for Feinstein, Edwards and American Songbook. Now that the show is rolling along and has an enthusiastic viewership, the possibilities have opened up a thousandfold — so much so, that Season 3 is already well underway. “We have Angela Lansbury in the can,” Edwards says. “We have Stephen Sondheim in the can for next year.”

And according to Feinstein, the roads to travel just keep getting more plentiful. “I’m constantly getting sent songs — unpublished songs written by great songwriters that families have found, or that they want me to perform,” he says. “Or there’ll be a notebook with melodies. I mean, there’s a lot of stuff out there.”

Season 2 of Michael Feinstein’s American Songbook premieres on PBS Feb. 3 at 9pm ET. (Check local listings.)


Photo: PBS