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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If Berlin, Kern, and Gershwin worked hard to emulate the jazz of blacks, Porter worked even harder to emulate the vernacular verve of his Jewish colleagues. As a result, Porter's songs took on a new depth--or perhaps one should say a liberating vulgarity. For "Just One of Those Things" he lifted the line--"A trip to the moon on gossamer wings"--from an ad for mattresses. The sophisticate was putting away his smoking jacket and tuning in to the radio, though the WASP element in Porter always gave the wannabe Jewish element an undertone of ironic wit. Berlin repaid Porter's admiration with a touching note after seeing Can-Can (1953): "It's a swell show and I still say, to paraphrase an old bar-room ballad, 'Anything I can do, you can do better.'" For Porter, the Berlin ballad would always be the top.

Longing was Hoagy Carmichael's great theme. "Star Dust," "Skylark," "Georgia on My Mind," and "Lazy River" all exude a hunger for the unattainable. His songs also teem with an itinerant restlessness. Carmichael, like Porter, might have been born in Indiana, but his music abounds with evocations of other places, from Harlem and Baltimore to Memphis and Hong Kong. Carmichael's nostalgia for places that were not his home was characteristic. After leaving Indiana, he moved to Palm Beach, then to New York, then Los Angeles, and finally Palm Springs. (That this dapper vagabond was a lifelong Republican did not endear him to Hollywood's liberals; it was only their wives who prevented him and Humphrey Bogart from coming to blows.) "Rockin' Chair," which became a staple of Louis Armstrong's, describes a kind of vagabond's nightmare, where there will be no more wandering, only flies, the front porch, and Judgment Day. Sheed sums up this versatile composer nicely: "Hoagy Carmichael was, like many Americans, a divided soul, part nomad and part homebody, who seemed a little bit at home everywhere, but was probably more so someplace else, if he could just find it."

Sheed has a soft spot for the first of Richard Rodgers's collaborators. His take on Lorenz Hart's fondness for the jug is worth quoting, though it would probably cause certain expulsion from any AA meeting:

The one thing that dwarfs really can't do is drink as much as the Jolly Green Giant, and Hart's attempts to do so would lead to most of the grief that followed. In the cramped world of psychohistory, nobody has ever gotten drunk just for fun, but only to escape from some problem he or she can't face. So the possibility that Hart might have had an inspired and highly productive capacity for enjoying himself is simply squeezed into a box marked "manic-depressive," from which nothing good or beautiful has ever emerged.

"My Funny Valentine," "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered," "Love Never Went to College," and "I Didn't Know What Time It Was," to name a few of Hart's gems, prove that Sheed has a point. Hart's demons could never stop him from writing like an angel, and he was not alone in his drink problem. His collaborator Rodgers could not handle the stuff, nor could Johnny Mercer, whom Sheed calls the "meanest, cruelest of drunks this side of James Thurber." Porter never became a drunk, but that was only because he knew how to abstain now and again. ("For when you lay off the liquor / You feel so much slicker.")

Sheed gives pride of place here to George Gershwin, whom he regards as the capomaestro of the golden age of American popular music. "You can subtract any other great name from the story," he declares, "and it would be basically the same story. Without Gershwin, or his godfather, Irving Berlin, it would be unrecognizably different." Moreover, many of the songwriters "looked up to [Gershwin], as the closest thing to a role model that this happy-go-lucky profession would allow itself."

Duke Ellington was an exception. He may have admired Gershwin's music, but he hardly looked up to him. The model for the Duke's ways was closer to home: As Sheed points out, Ellington's father James "had been at various times a butler and a chauffeur to the Washington, D.C., elite, both positions that could teach one an awful lot about irony and the way the world works, and perhaps James imparted some of this outlook to his son." It was certainly the case that Ellington "didn't 'beat down doors,' he walked through them." Sheed also notes that what Ellington took exception to about Porgy and Bess (1935) was not that it appropriated black experience--the man who wrote Such Sweet Thunder (1957) had no problem with anyone appropriating things--but that it didn't make sufficient allowance for the Christianity of its characters. Ellington disliked Gershwin making light of the Bible in "It Ain't Necessarily So."