The House That George Built:
With a Little Help from Irving, Cole, and a Crew of About Fifty
New York: Random House. 2007. 335 pp.
Summary for the Busy Executive: The song has ended, but the melody
Scion of the prominent English Catholic publishing house of Sheed & Ward
(papa and mama, respectively), Wilfrid Sheed has flourished in the U.S.
a very long time as a novelist and critic. He brings both skills to
bear here as he considers the American popular song - or, as he calls
it, the "jazz song" - from the Teens through the Fifties. "George" is,
of course, George Gershwin and "Irving," Berlin. You can figure out
"Cole" on your own, I'm sure. Certainly, it's a remarkable body of work,
rivaling the great burst of Lieder, chanson, and melodie in the Nineteenth
Century, with a bunch of geniuses coming along every couple of years to
take music and lyrics in surprising, and surprisingly enduring, directions.
Although right now nobody is writing the jazz song (as the recent Academy
Awards so depressingly demonstrated), there's a small industry of singers,
musicians, and amateur fanatics who've dedicated their lives to keeping
these tunes in play and on the air.
What makes a great song? I can't reduce it to a formula (although
certain very fine songwriters did work with the same formulas over and
over again), but I will make two observations. First, while almost every
great song has a great tune, it need not have great poetry for its lyrics.
In fact, some very fine songs have been written to banalities, as in the
following by Irving Berlin:
I want to go back,
I want to go back,
I want to go back to the farm
Far away from harm
With a milk pail on my arm.
I miss the rooster,
The one who useter
Wake me up at four A.M.
I think your great big city's
very pretty, nevertheless
I want to be there,
I want to see there
A certain someone full of charm.
That's why I wish again
That I was in Michigan
Down on the farm.
Why, the blasted thing (not exactly Yeats's "Second Coming" in the
first place) doesn't even scan! Yet it fits the tune in such an
enchanting way that you can't help singing it. When I hear a great song,
I feel like the ballerina who put on the magic shoes that danced her to
death. And that's as true for "I Want to Go Back to Michigan Down on
the Farm" as for Schubert's "Liebesbotschaft." Popular music gets inside
you the way few other kinds of music can, especially this popular music.
Not old enough to have caught it on its first time around, I've necessarily
learned it third-hand, from interpreters younger than me or from playing
through sheet music myself. My piano skills rise slightly higher than
Irving Berlin's (at least I can play in more than one key), and everything
I do learn in that way tends to sound like Brahms, but the music binds
me as almost no other does. The songs sell certain key values: wit,
fun, tenderness, and a certain adult, mainly urban experience. Unlike
rock, which hammers the immediate now, the standards (especially the
ballads) of the Twenties through the Forties mainly look back: "Last
Night When We were Young," "They Can't Take That Away from Me," "It Never
Entered My Mind," and so on. While classical music transcends my
experience or shows me what may be possible (if I become a much better
person), I take away a certain stoicism from the best of these vernacular
songs, a way to live my life.
In short, I approach these songs in much the same way as Sheed himself.
This is not, unlike Alec Wilder's cranky classic American Popular Song:
The Great Innovators, a technical dissection. This is rather, in Sheed's
own words, a "bull session," but likely much better than the ones you
used to have in college.
Sheed pulls off with real grace something I believe close to impossible.
He aims to get not only inside the minds of the songwriters, but inside
the ethos of the songs themselves and the times that produced them.
Inevitably, he's better on some people and eras than on others. He
writes penetratingly on Berlin, Gershwin, and Porter, less so on Rodgers,
Arlen, Warren (his hero), and Kern. Berlin grew up in a cutthroat
business, which he helped to make less cutthroat (ASCAP, in which he was
a major factor, is surely an artist guild that has truly benefitted a
lot of artists, not just their publishers), but he never lost the prickles
or the armor he had to develop in the early days. Gershwin, often
regarded as a megalomaniac, turns out to have been, in Clare Booth Luce's
phrase, "the most genuinely modest man she ever met." He was incredibly
generous to other talent. He really wanted everyone to be good, because
that made him work harder to become better. Porter, for all his surface
sophistication, remained in his innermost core a hayseed (like the
Nebraskan Fred Astaire) looking at the doings in the Big City. "Don't
Fence Me In" was no parody, but a genuine expression of something
fundamental. Even his sophisticated numbers, like "Begin the Beguine,"
sound a little like a small-town adolescent indulging in the literary
and the exotic. Rodgers remains as opaque as in anything else I ever
read about him, perhaps because he was so tightly buttoned. Sheed also
riffs on the differences the songwriters found between Hollywood and New
York (the two great American centers of songwriting at the time) and on
the transformative influence of the radio.
The prose is wonderful, poetic in the best sense of zeroing in on and
nailing The Way Things Are. Also, Sheed has absorbed these songs into
his bones. Echoes of lyrics pop up in surprising ways, as in this
paragraph on Johnny Mercer:
Mercer was a man of more than one Rosebud, and if the
Victrola in the parlor was his first true love, a second
comes through almost as strongly. Without a doubt, what
he liked best about Hollywood was that to get there and
back you had to take a train: the only form of transportation
ever devised capable of breaking a man's heart. Mercer seems
to have dreamed about locomotives before he ever took one,
and he remained a lifelong addict. "I took a trip on the
train," he wrote for Jimmy Van Heusen, "and I thought about
But I'll bet what he really thought about was more trains - not cardboard
choo-choos leaving for Chattanooga and Alabam', whisking babies hither
and yon, but real ones, blowing lonesome whistles across trestles on the
way out of Philadelphia. Trains were worlds unto themselves, everywhere
and nowhere, with parlors and pantries, uppers and lowers, chugging along
together to a solid beat; and they were full of America and its talk,
like rolling dictionaries of slang. No wonder Mercer's lyrics traveled
so well. They were all written in the lingo de club car, not to mention
of mothers whispering to infants and Pullman porters cajoling drunks
into upper berths. "Time to hit the road."
We get not only the out-and-out quotes from Mercer, but "jazz-baby"
train songs like "When the Midnight Special Leaves for Alabam'" and
"Chattanooga Choo-Choo," those wonderful dinosaurs that preceded Van
Heusen and Mercer's lightly swinging "I Thought about You" - the raccoon
coat traded in for a superbly well-tailored dinner jacket. Why, it's
enough to make a fellow believe in evolution!
The book falls down a bit as the era dies before Sheed's eyes. While
I agree with Sheed's assessment of Mitch Miller as A & R man ("the
Mephistopheles of pop"), I can't get into his condemnation of rock and
r & b. Despite his own warnings at the beginning of the book, by the end
Sheed has caught the fever of so many of the old songwriters who lived
on into the Age of Elvis and Aretha. I met E.Y. Harburg twice (his
son was a professor at the University of Michigan), one of the liveliest
minds I've ever encountered and with more charm than anyone should have,
but all the same stuck in the days of F.P.A. and The Conning Tower.
I once tried to argue with him, pointing out that while the old lyrics
took Gilbert and old French "trick" forms like triolet as their models,
most newer songs looked to folk forms like blues and traditional ballad,
since I thought this would appeal to his (and my) leftish politics. I
quoted from Dylan's "Girl of the North Country," and Harburg blew up,
citing Franklin P. Adams like a devout Catholic fulminating with papal
authority behind him. Ah, well, at least I knew when to shut up. But
I did keep thinking of Gilbert's guy "who praises, with enthusiastic
tone, / All centuries but this, and every country but his own."
Most writers on popular music have a special affection for what they
heard in their adolescence and early twenties. I may be an exception,
since I hated both the rock 'n' roll I heard on local radio (I wasn't
listening to black stations and didn't know where they were) and the Guy
Mitchell-Frankie Lane treacle that poured out of Mitch Miller's Columbia.
Compared to Tchaikovsky, both bored me to tears. I had to wait a few
years before I connected with the so-called "music of my youth." However,
Sheed came to sentience in the Forties - the end of things, as it turned
out, but still of a piece with what had gone on twenty years before. As
a young English boy living in the United States, land of fable, there
was an extra aura of romance to "I'm Beginning to See the Light" and
"Ain't Misbehavin'," where just beyond the radio were the streets and
sounds of show-biz New York, no matter what city the crooner was trying
to get back to, where your blood flowed faster, your mind focused more
intently, and the people were beautiful as angels and far more clever.
One of the really endearing things about this book is that, within the
genre, Sheed is no snob. Broadway songs aren't a priori more sophisticated
than movie songs. Berlin, Kern, Gershwin, Porter, Ellington, Warren,
and Arlen are worth listening to, but so are Harry Ruby, Hoagy Carmichael,
Jimmy Van Heusen, and scores of others, including those you've probably
never heard of, like Louis Alter, Milton Ager, Rube Bloom, and Isham
Jones. Gershwin's instincts were sure: raising all boats raised his as
well. Everybody wanted to do well, and so many did.
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