Hoagy Carmichael's Memories, Straight From the Heartland

Monday, September 3, 2007

An occasional series in which The Post's book critic reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past.

A quarter-century after his death, Hoagy Carmichael remains one of the most beloved composers of classic American popular music, and one of the most unusual. Though most others -- Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Cole Porter -- wrote primarily for the Broadway stage, Carmichael wrote only one musical and it was a flop. Though many others were "outsiders," either Jewish or African American, Carmichael was from old American stock. Though most others were urbanites, Carmichael was from what was then still a small town in Indiana, and throughout his life he "wanted to get back to Bloomington" whenever he could.

He was influenced by Irving Berlin and Louis Armstrong, he venerated Duke Ellington and George Gershwin, yet his own music was sui generis. He loved jazz, especially in the years of his apprenticeship, and the jazz influence is self-evident in many of the songs he wrote -- "Rockin' Chair," "Old Man Harlem," "New Orleans" -- but the dominant theme of his music is small-town and rural America. His family didn't have much money, but throughout his life he had boyhood "memories of solid things, warm and endearing things," and these are what he celebrated in songs that will be played into eternity: "Lazy River," "Georgia on My Mind," "Skylark," "Memphis in June," "Ole Buttermilk Sky," "Heart and Soul" and, of course -- of course!-- "Stardust."

So when Carmichael sat down in the mid-'40s to write his memoir, he really didn't have much choice except to call it what he did: "The Stardust Road." It was published in 1946 and enjoyed modest sales. My rather vague recollection is that I first read it about two decades ago, when the Indiana Historical Society and the Smithsonian Institution jointly issued a superb three-CD set, "The Classic Hoagy Carmichael," with performances of his best songs by the likes of Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby, Ethel Waters, Ray Charles, Jo Stafford, Wynton Marsalis and Carmichael himself, who had an ingratiatingly raspy, folksy singing style entirely appropriate to his music.

The book seems to me every bit as wonderful now as it did then, but it needs to be endorsed with a caveat: It is scarcely a chronological or orderly narrative. If what you want is straightforward autobiography, go to "Sometimes I Wonder" (1965), written with the novelist and journalist Stephen Longstreet; by comparison with "The Stardust Road," it has more Longstreet than Carmichael, more information and less exuberance. Carmichael himself was well aware of what he was up to in "The Stardust Road":

"The wild leaps of time and space, back and forth, the varied people and varied things that keep cropping up doubtless seem out of place. But that is the way it is. I write from a memory of the events that made the firmest impressions upon me, more or less in the order of their remembrance rather than the order of their happening. As you mature, the long exciting days and years of your youth pass before your eyes as in a montage; a montage of the events that were important in making the real you -- the now you. The now me is a composer, a song-writer. Unimportant as it may be, this little book goes on to tell what I was to experience to become that very thing. It is my answer to the question. Another writer's will be different."

Carmichael wrote "The Stardust Road" a bit past the midpoint of his life; he was born in Indiana in 1899 and died in California in 1981. Its focus is almost entirely on the 1920s, when Carmichael was in school at Indiana University and "trying to create jazz." You'd hardly know from this book that he eventually established a brilliant songwriting partnership with the lyricist Johnny Mercer, moved along to California, became a second-tier star of movies and then television, and established a large place for himself in the hearts of millions of Americans. To learn about that you'll have to read "Sometimes I Wonder" or, better, Richard Sudhalter's first-rate biography, "Stardust Melody" (2002).

The book at hand is less a memoir than a riff. Carmichael was drifting away from his jazz roots at the time he wrote "The Stardust Road" -- his later songs were less jazz than high pop, though he never lost his deep connection to the American heartland -- but he wrote this book as if he were improvising. It's exuberant, yet it begins and ends with the deaths in 1931 of his two most treasured friends: Bill "Monk" Moenkhaus ("the surrealist of the campus. Wise and foolish, sane and crazy, lovable and laughable") and Leon "Bix" Beiderbecke, the immortal cornetist who "showed me that jazz could be musical and beautiful as well as hot" and who drank himself to death at the age of 28. Carmichael doesn't say as much, but it's not hard to conclude that these deaths were turning points for him, directing him away from youthful frivolity and toward adult purposefulness.

The book opens on an unabashedly nostalgic note. In 1924, when Carmichael was at Indiana University, Bloomington "was a town then of some twelve thousand inhabitants and as many maples." Just about everybody called him Hoagy except his mother: "My mother always calls me Hoagland. . . . Hoagland -- a boy with dusty feet coming into the cold parlor where stood the upright golden oak piano. Outside life moved on the quiet tree-lined street, but it moved at a modest tempo." Bloomington was then and forever remained the absolute center of his life:

"And all the time I thought of Bloomington. I remembered the boys I knew, the circuses coming to town, and the flour sacks we collected from boardinghouses and sold to the local grocer for a cent each. Remembered the pop stands we built with the money; the quarry holes where we used to swim. I remember the kindly neighbors who suffered us with never a reproachful word, except when we dumped corn silks in their privies or dumped these same little outhouses with a bang! on Halloween."

It seems a white boy's romanticized childhood right out of the treacly poems of Carmichael's fellow Indianan, James Whitcomb Riley, but it was more complicated -- and much more interesting -- than that: "I grew into a normal boy, a member of the East Side gang which in the days of screaming youth knew no distinction between blacks and whites. Bucktown, where the Negroes lived, was only a few blocks away." More important, Carmichael's first musical mentor was a black pianist, Reggie Duval, who taught him a crucial lesson: "Never play anything that ain't right. You may never make any money, but you'll never get hostile with yourself." It was a lesson that he never forgot and that informed every note he played or wrote.

In high school and in college Carmichael and his friends were simply mad about jazz: ". . . in those days, and in the days to follow, jazz maniacs were being born and I was one of them. There were leaping legions of them from New Orleans to Chicago and Bloomington was right in the middle. Alleged to be in the exact center of population at that time and a part of the population was going jazz crazy." They hung out at the Book Nook, a bookstore that gradually metamorphosed into a place that "seated a hundred or so coke-guzzling, book-laden, high-spirited students" who talked jazz, played jazz, lived jazz.

When they could, they went elsewhere to hear the real thing, such as Christmas 1923, when Hoagy went to Chicago to visit Bix. They "headed for the black-and-tan joint where King Oliver's band was playing." The second trumpet, "a big black fellow . . . slashed into Bugle Call Rag," and they were transfixed. Of course it was Armstrong: " 'Why,' I moaned, 'why isn't everybody in the world here to hear that?' I meant it. Something as unutterably stirring as that deserved to be heard by the world."

On another occasion -- for me the high point of the book -- Hoagy and Bix headed downstate for a recording session: "We were halfway to Richmond . . . when we stopped and for some reason Bix took out his horn. . . . And then Bix was off. Clean wonderful banners of melody filled the air, carved the countryside. Split the still night. The trees and the ground and the sky made the tones so right." It is a breathtaking picture: two young men, in the middle of the night and the middle of nowhere, filling the countryside with music for the sheer, irresistible love of it.

Carmichael didn't know it at the time, but he was already on his way. He had begun composing melodies -- "Washboard Blues" came first, then bits and pieces of what was to become "Rockin' Chair" -- and looking back he realized that "the things I did and the people I knew and loved are reflected in the tunes I was to write," which goes a long way toward explaining the emotional power of his music. A bit later something unexpected and big came to him, leaving him with a "queer sensation that this melody was bigger than I." Indeed it was: "I got Stardust. That one's all the girls, the university, the family, the old golden oak, all the good things gone, all wrapped up in a melody."

What came after that -- and there was a lot of it -- is to be found in Sudhalter's biography. But for pure, unadorned Carmichael, you have to read "The Stardust Road." Like Armstrong's memoir, "Satchmo," Carmichael's probably takes a casual approach to factual accuracy, but it gives you the man in full. It's also Indiana to the core, Americana pure and simple.

"The Stardust Road" is available in a Da Capo paperback, paired with "Sometimes I Wonder" ($21).

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address isyardleyj@washpost.com.

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