California Literary Review

The House That George Built by Wilfrid Sheed

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September 4th, 2007 at 12:18 pm

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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, 309 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★★☆

America Swinging

“I hear America singing,” Walt Whitman famously declared in the middle of the 19th Century. But by the 20th Century, he would have heard America swinging. And not on the prairie, but in THE HOUSE THAT GEORGE BUILT up Tin Pan Alley. Wilfrid Sheed’s new history of popular American song takes us to the urban, suave tunes we knew from long ago and which now belt themselves out once again while their composers and lyricists spring to life in the ambiance of their period. All because of the charms of Sheed’s delivery, happily in sync with every variegated nuance!

The author’s admiration for our American popular song is boundless. Certainly, he’s not alone in suggesting that it was partly responsible for the growth of our nation’s prestige and our superior image across the world during the 20th century. In those days, American songs could be heard in towns and villages throughout the industrialized parts of the globe! What with the emergence of radio, followed by the availability of movies and then “talkies,” there was no stopping these traveling melodies. They soon became a major export from the U.S. of A. —— that would retain its prominence and power, together with jazz, for decades, as catchy and catching as the common cold.

Moreover, Sheed argues in a highly personal vein, considering those creations a kind of memoir from an era long since gone —— an intimate form of social history. “Songs,” he tells us,“ are circumstantial in a way that headlines can never be.” These compositions, he declares, describing his own experience of them, ‘lodged themselves in every hole and corner of my memory, reminding me of where I’d been that summer and what it felt like in the salty air or the misty light, and also what Hitler was up to just then and how far the Allied Forces had advanced in North Africa.——from Tobruck to Benghazi….” Regarding our popular music as an untapped power that can evoke those times, Sheed compares it to finding a cache of lost letters or a family’s buried history in a trunk. He elucidates its grip on him:

“I can remember perfectly things like the tree I sat in as I sang my first Latin American number. “The Breeze and I” it was called, and I can still feel the pebbles underfoot as my sister and I took turns with “I’ve got spurs that jingle jangle jingle” on the banks of the Delaware River, and can almost hear the piously empty street of Wildwood, New Jersey….” Without the “illumination of melody,” he protests, the sense of those times might never be fully recaptured.

And in recreating social history, what a star-studded cast he lines up to perform for us! We find retold the lives and careers of preeminents like Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Harold Arlen, Hoagy Carmichael, Duke Ellington , Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers, and many more. Sheed’s story takes off, embarking with the Jewish side of that music, diving first into the bowels of lower Eastside New York City after the turn of the 20th century. Soon, he moves it briskly around the States to develop jazz currents, first up in Black Harlem, and down in Dixie, thence to mid-America’s Chicago and Detroit. Finally, of course, he reaches that Pacific haven/ or heaven/hell, —— that monied, and poshest of places, that latest invention of a town, known as Hollywood. There, many of these song writers woke up to find themselves replanted at one point or another in their careers!

Sheed shows us how these men and women managed —— as often in feast as in famine —— to pursue their dreamy, wholly impractical and highly unmanageable careers, even, in a sense, how un-American their way of life was, yet how they nevertheless produced such gems as Berlin’s “Oh, How I Hate To Get Up In the Morning,“ “a Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody,” or Gershwin’s, “Rhapsody in Blue,” “Fascinating Rhythm,” and “More than You Know.” Try Cole Porter’s “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” “What is This Thing Called Love,” or Harold Arlen’s, “Stormy Weather,” “Blues in the Night” —— just to pick a few random samples from an ocean of scintillant wonders . Ever hummable, unforgettable tunes, and so many bubbling with good cheer, they remain even at this late date that “American standard” and are likely to keep alive for generations to come.

Yet these songs come accompanied by many tales of woe. Tales of disappointments, entanglements, feuds, mis-caluclations, mismanagements and of sheerest misery—— alcoholism, drug addition, and sad, pathetic or even tragic deaths. Such were woven into and out of the lives of these musicians, the makers of our popular music.

We learn, for example, of Gershwin’s early successes and triumphs, and then of his utter despair! At the top of his form, he saw the first gala production of his operatic masterpiece, PORGY AND BESS flop disastrously on Broadway. Disillusioned, he turned to Hollywood, desperately hoping to keep himself together by feverishly working and yet certain that he’d compromised his music. How painful to follow him to an untimely death and one that prevented his ever learning of his failure’s becoming our American classic. A work that today lives in the spheres while the composer’s genius itself has been recognized as a star of the first magnitude.

Sheed relates the tale of the dapper, ever-ebullient Cole Porter’s decline following an accidental fall from his beloved horse, only to be trampled upon by the terrified beast that has thrown him. Yet, we also hear how he went on producing super-sophisticated songs, superbly light and cheerful despite his debilitation and persistent pain.

As for Jerome Kern’s own miseries, he also imagined that he had abandoned his “ true calling,” when he was forced to resort to Hollywood. He actually believed that when he had forsaken his highest talent and his chosen form, the operetta, he’d lost his integrity altogether. What with early success and recognition for his SHOW BOAT, he had gone forward eagerly with ROBERTA, and with adaptations to “American style” of Vienna-type hits like Rudolf Friml’s clunky ROSE MARIE. But Kern was sure that stooping to Broadway’s notions with such works as ANNIE GET YOUR GUN and, finally, Hollywood’s commercial standards was the pits!. Even so—— came the irony of ironies! What happened was his pairing out on the Coast with Fred Astaire and the great Hermes Pan, his choreographer, to make his songs shimmer as never before. In such incredible musicals as SWING TIME, such miracles as “Never Gonna Dance,” or “A Fine Romance,” we remember still what the composer himself never himself acknowledged, namely that it was these swinging numbers by which he had distinguished himself as a composer.

Indeed, it’s impossible to conclude without mentioning many others, whose names are virtually unknown to us, yet whose songs leap out of every page. A Harry Warren, who wrote “42nd Street,” “Shuffle Off To Buffalo,” “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” “I only Have Eyes For You ,“ and “You’re Getting To Be a Habit With Me.” Or, Jimmy van Huesen, Frank Sinatra’s musical partner, whose, “I’ll Never Smile Again,” and “Imagination,” swept the country along with the cocky singer . Of course, we need to name Johnnie Mercer, the man behind Bing Crosby’s own great performances, whose music and lyrics will ever be identified with the “all-American voice.” Is there any question that his “Something’s Gotta Give,” “My Momma Don Tol’ Me,” and “Accentuate the Positive,” belong to us all, even after the juke box has vanished, replaced by iPod library songs?

Sheed observes early on that he must have hummed hundreds of tunes aloud in the course of writing, THE HOUSE THAT GEORGE BUILT. He concludes his evocations of those glories with Irving Berlin’s judgment of his own life’s work: “If this book starts you tapping your feet, I’m happy beyond words.”

  • tom putnam

    and things, think of the things: foolish things, the things you are – what a language, American songs – don’t forget the writers: Ira, part of miracle; Hammerstein and Hart – ha! Thanks for the memories.

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