The Magazine

Fascinating Rhythm

Tin Pan Alley and the Great American Songbook.

Nov 19, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 10 • By EDWARD SHORT
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The House That George Built

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

by Wilfrid Sheed

Random House, 335 pp., $29.95

The novelist and critic Wilfrid Sheed calls his new book "a labor of love, not a work of scholarship, which means that I have been researching it for most of my life."

A lifetime's research into the work of Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Duke Ellington, Cole Porter, and Richard Rodgers, as well as Harold Arlen, Hoagy Carmichael, Jimmy Van Heusen, Johnny Mercer, Frank Loesser, and many others, has provided him with unusually rich materials. That he has gathered them together into a book that reads like inspired conversation will surprise none of his admirers and win him many new readers. Full of astute judgments about the music itself, and the tunesmiths who knocked it into shape, The House That George Built is a delightful companion to an inexhaustibly fascinating subject.

Where did this wonderful music come from? It came from Stephen Foster and Scott Joplin, from Tin Pan Alley and Dixieland, from Basin Street and the Great White Way, from the European waltz and the 12-bar blues, from the Jazz Age and the Crack-Up, from two World Wars and a Depression, from the American dream and an American patriotism that saw America, not any Old Country, as "home sweet home." But mostly it came from the fascination that the Jews of New York's Lower East Side had for the jazz of Harlem. Understanding that fascination is crucial to understanding the great popular music that flourished in America from the 1920s to the '50s, and Sheed misses nothing of its momentous import.

"Music is not produced by whole groups, but by one genius at a time," he writes, "and it may be significant that the two families that gave us Irving Berlin and George Gershwin both fled Russia on the same great wave of czarist pogroms, only to find in America black people not only singing about a similar experience, but using the Hebrew Bible as their text."

Less a formal history than a series of witty profiles, this volume is particularly good at showing the crucial role that the Cotton Club played in helping America find her native wood-notes wild. Of Harold Arlen, for example, the man who wrote "Stormy Weather," "Over the Rainbow," "Last Night When We Were Young," and "Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea," Sheed stresses that "the rough-and-ready give-and-take of the bandstand had been his finishing school, and the Cotton Club was the name on his diploma, not the Juilliard or the Sorbonne."

Arlen's father was an Orthodox cantor who tried hard to separate his son from the secular music that he brought back from Harlem, but Arlen would not renounce his newfound love. "Nature," Sheed writes, "had never intended him to be a rebel; it was a triumph of vocation. When I met Harold Arlen in person years later, I could only wonder, as many people must have, how such a mild, unimposing little man could have produced such powerful and turbulent music." Once MGM beckoned, Arlen obliged with the score for The Wizard of Oz (1939). He found Hollywood almost too good to be true: "They brought us money on bicycles," he recalled, prompting Sheed to remark that "the image of a kid tossing a check onto your porch as casually as an evening newspaper must have packed a positively Norman Rockwell enchantment to eyes used to Depression New York."

Irving Berlin got his start on the Bowery in a Chinese saloon called Nigger Mike's, where he worked as a singing waiter. His piano playing would always remain rudimentary: "If the best in the business is that bad," Hoagy Carmichael observed, "there's hope for us all." Yet the jazz song found its classic expression in Berlin: The score he wrote for Top Hat (1935) would become the standard for all standards.

"At least a part of Irving Berlin was an intuitive jazzman," Sheed points out, "who had once heard the sounds of Harlem as clearly as those of Hester Street and had, so to speak, finally hatched out the embryonic sounds of his early rags into the swinging majesty of 'Cheek to Cheek.' 'Heaven,' as he puts it perfectly, 'I'm in heaven.'"

Sheed is good at showing what a defining influence Berlin had on Cole Porter. The well-heeled Porter envied Berlin his apprenticeship on the Lower East Side--"the Vienna of American song," as Sheed calls it--and when he returned to New York in the mid-1930s after living it up in Paris and Venice, he was determined to give his cosmopolitanism a rest and write, as he put it, "little Jewish songs."