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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Gershwin, for his part, always let it be known that he envied the bridge of Ellington's "Sophisticated Lady." He was never slow to acknowledge the brilliance of others, citing Kern and Berlin, in particular, as principal influences. He also gave such younger talents as Arlen and Vernon Duke a leg up. Duke, born Vladimir Dukelsky, was a White Russian Cossack, a child prodigy with an aristocrat's belief in his own superiority. Gershwin put up with his airs for the sake of his talent, and inspired him to write some of the loveliest standards in the canon, including "Autumn in New York," "April in Paris," "Taking a Chance on Love," and my father's all-time favorite, "I Can't Get Started." Whenever I had dinner with my father at P.J. Clarke's in New York, we always played Bunny Berigan's classic version on the jukebox. Sheed points out that Duke could not find a lyric for the song and went to Gershwin for help, whereupon George put his brother Ira on the case, who delivered the immortal goods ("I've been consulted by Franklin D / Greta Garbo has had me to tea").

Of Gershwin's generosity to beginners and rivals alike, Sheed says: "It was as if George wanted all those great songs to be written by somebody, preferably by himself, of course, but not exclusively."

The number of truly great songs that Gershwin wrote is impressive, considering his early death at 39. "A Foggy Day," "They Can't Take That Away from Me," "Embraceable You," and "Things Are Looking Up" are just a few of many. He might have done Vernon Duke a favor when he told him to "try to write some real popular tunes--and don't be scared about going low-brow. They will open you up." (Kern was another starchy composer who gained from "going low-brow.") But what set Gershwin apart was that he was never afraid of going highbrow. Rhapsody in Blue and An American in Paris show how right he was to recognize that his unique understanding of popular music opened up a special place for him in classical music. Ralph Vaughan Williams paid him a compliment that Gershwin himself would have relished.

We must not make the mistake of thinking lightly of the very characteristic art of Gershwin or, to go further back, the beautiful melodies of Stephen Foster. Great things grow out of small beginnings. The American composers who wrote symphonic poems for which they were not emotionally ready are forgotten, while the work of those who attempted less and achieved more has become the foundation on which a great art can rise.

Gershwin did not live to build that great art himself, but what an art it would have been if he had. Still, we can be grateful for the riches that he and other songwriters--famous and not-so-famous--left behind. The House That George Built should inspire younger readers to give those riches a listen, and remind the rest of us who prize the great American songbook that our love is here to stay.

Edward Short is the author of a forthcoming book about John Henry Newman and his
contemporaries.