EVERY time you turn around these days, another golden age is being celebrated. Nostalgia gilds the past, bad hairdos and all, and the present, to which we are wedded for better or worse, never quite seems equal to the glorious times we keep compulsively half-remembering.
Some sentimental journeys, however, are justified -- even vital, if we’re ever to benefit from traditions inarguably richer than our current efforts. Such is the case with the era celebrated in “The House That George Built,” Wilfrid Sheed’s bouncily written, impressionistic history of American songwriters from the first half of the 20th century. These are the composers, lyricists and composer-lyricists who found their sound in the Jazz Age and spread it from Tin Pan Alley and Broadway to Hollywood and the Hit Parade.
Golden ages inevitably call for a bit of calendar fudging. History doesn’t stop and start on a dime. Sheed’s range of dates -- “from the birth of radio circa 1922 until its death by TV and reruns in the mid-1940s” -- serves to a certain extent as a narrative convenience, whose flexibility varies with the author’s interest. Burton Lane and Cy Coleman are in; Leonard Bernstein and Kander & Ebb are out. And despite having made his name by the end of World War I, Jerome Kern gazes down from Sheed’s “personal Mount Rushmore,” a monumental gathering that also includes Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Cole Porter and Richard Rodgers. The rationale: Kern’s quietly revolutionary, jazz-inflected score for “Show Boat” in 1927 puts him smack in the center of the groundswell.
Glad to have all that settled. “The House That George Built,” as the author himself points out straightaway, isn’t a book for hairsplitting academics, though only the most dunderheaded PhDs would question Sheed’s breadth of knowledge. A musicologist he admittedly is not, but he knows the tunes as well as any armchair expert, and he has interviewed a few of the songwriters he loves (as well as surviving friends and family members) and read the available criticism -- notably Alec Wilder’s “American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, 1900-1950" and Max Wilk’s “They’re Playing Our Song.” He blends it all together with a literary sensibility that mixes biographical anecdote, cultural history and high-wattage moonbeams of critical insight that light up the old standards.
If the discussion can at times seem as circuitous as the patter of a cabaret artist recapping the pedigrees of numbers before performing them, Sheed, a veteran novelist and wide-ranging critic, doesn’t appear to worry one bit. As he puts it, “The proper medium for studying the American song is, after all, neither the lecture nor the library but the sing-along and the rap session, or as it used to be called, the bull session, with its overtones of the tall story and the overconfident assertion.”
The more distinct the personal character of the songwriter, the better Sheed’s method works. Berlin and Gershwin, who are the bedrock of his study, spring to life in a way that less easily caricatured personalities, such as Rodgers and Kern, do not. But then, Sheed writes, “You can subtract any other great name from the story, and it would be basically the same story. Without Gershwin, or his godfather, Irving Berlin, it would be unrecognizably different.”
“Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” Berlin’s unstoppable 1911 hit, though not technically ragtime, introduced a fascinating syncopated rhythm that would revolutionize pop. “Whatever he’d heard as a boy in Harlem was part of him now,” Sheed writes, claiming that this Russian-born, New York-bred son of a cantor did more than anyone “to secure the beachheads of the dance floor and the music rack” with his “semi-black and faintly Jewish melodies.” Not bad for an “unschooled immigrant kid” who, though no world-class piano player, was heralded as a genius even by as high-minded a musical theorist as Igor Stravinsky.
Gershwin’s breakthrough -- if you had to pick one -- was plausibly “The Man I Love,” which Sheed says “cleared the way not only to George’s own best, but to other people’s best too, like ‘My Funny Valentine’ and ‘Night and Day.’ ” The upshot of this 1924 song was “a single pipeline between Carnegie Hall and Broadway” -- and ultimate proof that “sophistication sells.”
But it’s the avuncular nature of Berlin and the genial genius of Gershwin that make the “House” of Sheed’s title a home. Whether they were self-consciously part of a “movement” synthesizing jazz and classical music into a new form of pop is debatable, but Gershwin -- sociable, gracious and competitive in all the right ways -- was the de-facto leader in a musical constellation that demonstrated “a level of uncomplicated niceness unique among the arts.”
One towering figure who isn’t portrayed with the same affectionate gusto is Porter, whose sexual orientation elicits a brusque session of old-school psychoanalysis. Sheed has tremendous respect for Porter’s accomplishment (not for nothing is he given subtitle credit) but seems less taken by the scintillating public persona of a wealthy Indiana boy transformed into the epitome of the urban dandy. Still, there’s no denying Porter’s status as the toast of Broadway. Nor does Sheed -- whose fandom is evident in his incessant reaching for superlatives -- deny that the dapper Yalie who sought to write “Jewish songs” was, along with Berlin, one of our best “pure” songwriters -- the sort whose output contemporary singers still love to sing. The secret? Porter and Berlin were their own perfect lyricists.
Speaking of lyrics, if anyone should have a beef with Sheed, it’s the wordsmiths who delivered them. In Sheed’s universe, the eternal battle for glory waged by musical collaborators is unfailingly won by the composers; nearly all the book’s chapters are devoted to them. As Sheed sees it, if it were not for George, “the odds seem good that Ira would have become an English teacher with a sideline in light verse and an unassuming wife to match.” And while Porter’s “chronically undervalued tunes” may not have come as easily to him as the alliterative dominoes “It’s delightful, it’s delicious, it’s de-lovely,” the music is what makes them memorable.
Johnny Mercer, however, receives his due as an artist whose “lyrics [did] more than anyone’s to split the difference between Tin Pan Alley and the Great American Outback, between Broadway and Hollywood.” But how can you not love the guy who wrote the words for both “Any Place I Hang My Hat Is Home” and “That Old Black Magic”?
The music, of course, was written by the great Harold Arlen, who is today perhaps best known for the songs he composed for “The Wizard of Oz.” Yet his flowing stream of hits (“Stormy Weather,” “It’s Only a Paper Moon” and hundreds of others) precisely defines for Sheed what “the vague but necessary phrase ‘jazz song’ ” means.
If you’re sure you know Arlen but can’t quite call up the catalog, you’ll probably have similar trouble with the composer to whom Sheed dedicates his book -- Harry Warren, an astonishingly fecund genius who had two strikes against him in the pursuit of immortality. The first was his decision to change his name from something difficult to remember (Salvatore Guaragna) to something almost impossible not to forget. The second was that he wrote music mostly for Hollywood, where the pay was enviable but the fame tended to get lost in the roll of credits.
One can argue with Sheed over facts and opinion, preferably with the stereo in the background. But anyone who has ever hummed “I Only Have Eyes for You” or one of the songs from “42nd Street” without wondering who conjured them into existence should be compelled to read his fine chapter on Warren. As for George, Irving, Cole and the rest of that timeless crew, Sheed’s chummy book happily reconnects us with old acquaintances.