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."

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."

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.

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