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
In December 1952, Fred Astaire joined an all-star jazz group led by the pianist Oscar Peterson to record more than three dozen songs associated with the great dancer during his long career on Broadway and in Hollywood. In the notes he wrote for the album, which he called "a sequence in song starting around 1926 and carrying on to about 1944," Astaire said: "It was my good fortune that Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Arthur Schwartz, Howard Dietz, and others, supplied the music for these various films and stage shows. . . . Yes indeed, that was a fine lot of material to fall into one's lap."
Which of course is sublime understatement, that being no surprise, since sublime understatement was Astaire's stock-in-trade. No performer, Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland included, has had so many brilliant songs written especially for him or her as did Fred Astaire, and into the bargain he reached his peak at the moment when what we now think of as classic American popular song was reaching its own peak. As Wilfrid Sheed puts it in his exuberant tour d'horizon of "this musical Mount Rushmore," Astaire "was of course a phenomenon unto himself. Every writer did his best work for Fred, because, among other reasons, he asked for it." The results were, and are, simply astonishing. From Berlin: "Puttin' on the Ritz," "Cheek to Cheek," "Steppin' Out With My Baby," "Top Hat, White Tie and Tails." From Gershwin: " 'S Wonderful," "Nice Work If You Can Get It," "They Can't Take That Away From Me," "A Foggy Day." From Porter: "I Concentrate on You," "Night and Day," "So Near and Yet So Far." From Kern: "The Way You Look Tonight," "I Won't Dance," "A Fine Romance." From Schwartz and Dietz: "Dancing in the Dark," "New Sun in the Sky," "I Love Louisa."
Et cetera. But, great as the songs tailored for Astaire were, they were only a tiny percentage of the writers' output. A good case can be made that this music, combined with its symbiotic partner, jazz, was the great American cultural achievement of the 20th century, a body of work, as Sheed says, "about the whole country, concerning which [these songs] provide maybe the most trustworthy record we have." It is music that reflects America as vividly and truly as anything the country has created, yet the irony is that it was largely produced by members of two groups of outsiders, Jews and blacks. "The standards have actually been referred to as a Jewish response to black music," Sheed writes, "but this definition is a loaded compliment that neither party has rushed to claim." He continues:
"Music is not produced by whole groups, but by one genius at a time, 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 American black people not only singing about a similar experience, but using the Hebrew Bible as their text."
The one certainty is that all of these people had to come to America in order to write this music. No other place inspired anything remotely similar, as a quick survey of the (mostly feeble) British musical comedy makes plain. In no composer's career is this more evident than in that of Irving Berlin, nee Israel Baline, the son of the impoverished Lower East Side who spent his entire, astonishingly long career capturing in music the essence of the country to which his parents immigrated in 1893, when he was 5 years old. Berlin, who lived to be 101 and became rich many times over, never lost his wonder at what a poor boy could do here or his gratitude that so much had been given to him. Like it or not (and musical snobs don't), he wrote the real national anthem, "God Bless America," and the Norman Rockwell-esque "White Christmas," and a zillion other tokens of his love.
But to see Berlin through the prism of his two most famous songs is to grasp only a minuscule part of him. Sheed: "At least a part of Irving Berlin was an intuitive jazzman 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.' " He wrote what may well be America's most famous love song, "Always," and then he wrote what is almost certainly its best, "How Deep Is the Ocean." He wrote "Blue Skies" and "Easter Parade" (talk about Americana!) and "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm" and, speaking of Americana, the entire score of "Annie Get Your Gun." Inasmuch as he was the first of these composers, and his work influenced each and every one of them, it's something of a mystery that Sheed ascribes the construction of this "house" of American music to Gershwin. Yes, probably Gershwin was the greater musician, but it was Berlin who laid the foundation and put up the frame, as in fact Sheed acknowledges when he says that "if there had been no Irving Berlin, there would have been nothing, for instance, quite like Harold Arlen either, or Jimmy Van Heusen, or even Cole Porter in quite the same form."
Certainly, this isn't to disparage Gershwin, whose only real rival within this pantheon for breadth and depth of accomplishment is Duke Ellington, but to make the point that if we're going to use the image of house construction, let's get the foundation right. On the subject of Gershwin, Sheed is especially good because he emphasizes his singular generosity to other composers and musicians, and because he eloquently defends Gershwin against his highbrow critics: "George did not consider Tin Pan Alley a curse at all, but a gold mine into which one could probably invest all one's time and talent, including one's classical talent, in hopes of finding a genuine new American art. So he went his serene way, alternately writing songs and concert pieces that ran together into a single sound that could be played in a pinch by a jazz band or a symphony orchestra, or by some fusion of both that didn't yet exist."
Okay. If Gershwin isn't the foundation, he's all the outer walls, within which reside Harold Arlen, Hoagy Carmichael, Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers, Johnny Mercer, Frank Loesser, all of whom -- along with heaven knows how many others -- contributed to this incredible outpouring of distinctly, irrefutably American music. The one person about whom Sheed writes who doesn't really fit into this house is Ellington. A favorite phrase of his own, "beyond category," is the most apt description of Ellington himself, and it suggests the difficulty of trying to fit him into this songwriting club that Sheed has assembled. One reason, as Sheed in so many words acknowledges, is that Ellington wasn't a songwriter in the received sense of the word. Not to put on airs or anything, but he was a composer. People came along to attach words to some of his best compositions -- "Mood Indigo," "Sophisticated Lady," "I Got It Bad and That Ain't Good," "I'm Beginning to See the Light" -- but almost all of them seem like afterthoughts, and Ellington himself seemed to regard them as such.
Be that as it may, all of this is in the realm of opinion, conjecture and taste. It baffles me, for example, that Sheed relegates Fats Waller to an appendix, that he discusses Cy Coleman yet ignores his lovely musical "I Love My Wife," and that he gives only a single aside to the incomparable Betty Comden and Adolph Green, who were chiefly lyricists and scriptwriters but whose influence on American music was huge. But in raising these objections I'm simply indulging my own prejudices, or preferences, just as Sheed is fully entitled to his own.
Sheed has been well known for more than four decades as literary critic, novelist, memoirist and baseball fan. His knowledge of classic American popular song came as news to me, but The House That George Built is written with authority and enthusiasm. It is "a labor of love, not of scholarship, which means that I have been researching it for most of my life without knowing it -- starting at the family piano, singing and memorizing Irving Berlin's ragtime spin-offs, and ending with the last phone conversation with the last fellow addict fifteen minutes ago." This music is, well, easy to love, but it's not so easy to write well about, which is just what Sheed does. ·
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is email@example.com.