The Great American Songbook is often referred to as the great canonical textbook of the history of modern American music, tracing the roots of jazz and traditional music through the crooning orchestral tunes of Irving Berlin to the intricacy found within the piano stylings of George Gershwin. Coming into a new era of music in the 1950s, where the provocative nature of Elvis Presley defined the spectrum of rock ‘n’ roll and the blues began to escape the south and ingrain itself into popular culture, we witness a birth of a new Great American Songbook, one painted by the chord strokes of the electric guitar and the howling inflictions affecting the soul.
This is where the chapter in the life of Tom Petty began; arranging this modern Great American Songbook and crafting new stories that sought to capture the freedom of a generation and the rebellious attitude found within the spirit of rock ‘n’ roll music. With 80 million records sold, numerous lifetime achievement awards, and an induction into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, it is easy to be swept into the mythos of Petty and his crafty writing style, but dig deeper and you shall find one of the most adept songwriters of our generation that not only changed the notion of storytelling through song but the course of music as a whole.
With songs like “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” and “Learning to Fly,” Petty was able to mold worlds beyond on our own that stretched the imagination into ways unfathomable from the precise nature found within the music of the Great American Songbook. Under the influence of his melodic maestro, Presley, Petty set the standard for iconoclast rock ‘n’ roll stars in the 1970s with Mudcrutch and The Heartbreakers, with a Rickenbacker in one hand and notebook of infinite possibilities in the other.
Influencing the likes of The War on Drugs, Ryan Adams and the Foo Fighters, Petty spanned four generations of musicians while maintaining the same timeless aura that drew fans both young and old. No matter if you’re streaming “Damn The Torpedos” on your phone, or setting the needle of your record player down on a scratched-up copy of “Wildflowers, you’re always guaranteed a near-perfect experience that enhances the art form in profound manners.
As a child, I remember first sitting down and listening to the CD “Full Moon Fever,” fascinated with the chord structuring of Petty’s guitar as well as the overarching themes of growing up and falling in and out of love. Though I didn’t quite comprehend what was in my 10-year-old hands, I would soon take on an unprecedented appreciation for “Muddy Wilbury,” who would go on to push me into the direction of picking up the electric guitar and pointing me in the direction of my favorite band, the Grateful Dead.
With his passing on Oct. 2 from a full cardiac arrest, I felt as though my house of glass shattered and my perception of reality with it. A chapter in the modern Great American Songbook has closed and with it, tears embellishing the pages. But as this book is still open with the likes of Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, we can still be ensured that the spirit of Tom Petty will live on through every song that fills the air.