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Book Review

The House That George Built

The House That George Built by Sheed

With a Little Help from Irving, Cole, and a Crew of About Fifty

Wilfred Sheed
New York: Random House. 2007. 335 pp
ISBN-10: 1400061059
ISBN-13: 978-1400061051
Find it at AmazonFind it at Amazon UKFind it at Amazon GermanyFind it at Amazon CanadaFind it at Amazon FranceFind it at Amazon Japan Find it at JPC

Summary for the Busy Executive: The song has ended, but the melody lingers on.

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 mélodie 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 genuinely 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 you." 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 the 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.

Copyright © 2008 by Steve Schwartz