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Monday, June 4, 2012

“The House That George Built: With a Little Help from Irving, Cole, and a Crew of About Fifty” by Wilfrid Sheed

368 pages, Random House, Inc., ISBN-13: 978-1400061051

In The House that George Built… Sheed tries to recapture the era that spawned those marvelous songs we now call "the standards." And he succeeds beautifully by taking us into his confidence as he tells his stories. Reading this book is like sitting down with Sheed as he spins his yarns about this composer and that lyricist, many of whom he has personally known. OK, so it's not a work for the expert or the specialist in this genre; it is a work for people like me who may not know a diminished 7th from a triplet and don't really care as long as the song speaks to you. And to know how these beauties were given birth was for me one revelation after another. Suffice it to say I now have a greater appreciation for the genius of Gershwin and his heirs. If you love the classics of popular music of that era, buy this book. You will not be disappointed

Sheed is a witty (but not self-indulgently or distractingly so) prose “stylist,” not a musician. In that capacity he's like a jazz musician riffing on a familiar theme (it's tough to come up with new material about the Great American Songbook and its composers) and of particular use to those readers who love the music and wish to express what it means to them as much as it expresses its meanings to them. Sheed is such a reader's voice, and probably a more welcome one than that of the historians, musicologists, composers and lyricists.

I don't think he's disparaging the musicians by showing us their flaws and vices. A Charlie Parker or Miles Davis is certainly no less an artist to me because of his drug habit or even, as in the case of Bird, his selfish, childish, and exploitive ways. If anything, the unpleasant behaviorisms of artists ranging from Buddy Rich to William Faulkner make it easier to relate to them as well as to sustain interest. If they were any better as human beings, their overwhelming talent and, even genius, would simply be too much to bear. Sheed also knows that while it's misguided to judge a book by its cover, in the case of the creative artist the book would no doubt be entirely different, most likely inferior, were the cover not what it is.

As for the melody vs. lyric flap, he's right. The most recorded popular song in American music history – Body and Soul – has an embarrassingly bad lyric (My love a wreck you're making/My heart is yours for the taking…Ugh!) many times over. What counts most in the language of music are the notes, not the words. A song has to be able to stand on its own, apart from the lyrics (and John Coltrane certainly felt that Rodgers' music for Hammerstein did just that). Since the ‘60s we've been inundated by little more than bad recitative (ask any bar pianist or Saturday night saxophone player). On the other hand, great lyrics can 1. Make a great melody an even richer experience; 2. Help shape an infectious melody (for example, Porter's repetition of melodic motifs to fit the theme of "obsession" in countless numbers of his tunes); 3. Bring to the melody the attention that it deserves if not requires to become a standard. Body and Soul got lucky – a great melody and set of chord changes performed by an artist (Coleman Hawkins) whom every great player wanted to emulate.

All of the composers Sheed chooses to discuss are deserving, though it would be nice to have fuller consideration of Van Heusen, Styne, McHugh, Victor Young (When I Fall in Love, My Foolish Heart, Stella by Starlight), and greater focus on isolated sublime melodies that have become jazz standards (e.g. Bronislaw Kaper's On Green Dolphin Street). What the music could use at this stage is a Ken Burns or another director's 20-part PBS series about these leading composers of American music and their songs. Just as Burns' jazz series showed us as much about race, ethnicity, and adversity as the music, the history of American song, with all of the Jewish immigrants who either worked their way up to Tin Pan Alley or were forced by economic necessity to temper their aspirations as serious composers, is equally fascinating and of no less significance. The Great American Songbook us an essential complement to the African-American classical music (jazz) that is America's gift to the arts; it's the indigenous real deal, an art form, not a folk expression, and for far too long it's either been taken for granted or simply dismissed as inconsequential elitist tripe.

In fact, reading books like Sheed's and going back to the songs themselves can't help but lead to an inescapable sense of the enormous influence of African-American cultural traditions on virtually all of the major American composers of the first half of the century. Arlen escaped from cantoring at the synagogue to writing shows at the Cotton Club; Gershwin thought he was writing jazz; and even the elitist and very European Kern is best remembered for, what else, Old Man River (though seeing Irene Dunne perform Kern's Can't Help Lovin' That Man is to discover the indebtedness of the composer not just to spirituals but to the coon song tradition). So deep was the attraction to and love of indigenous African-American music that it's not much of a stretch to think of the most seminal songs of the Great American Songbook as primarily black music. Ironically, the primary exception is Cole Porter who, according to Richard Rodgers, thought he had to learn how to write more Jewish before he'd master the idiom (perhaps contributing to the relative lateness of his first hit, Let's Do It, in 1928). He'd have done better to put his ear to the ground and go directly to the source (though the effect of Robert Browning's poetry on his original syntax is undeniable).

Whatever, it's a fascinating, fruitful subject and adventure, and it's time to take more people along on it. Only a tiny percentage of us read books like Sheed's and are familiar with and care about the songs and their composers. Most college students I meet in the latter days of civilization as we once knew it have never heard of Crosby (unless it's his association with David Bowie) or Berlin or Gershwin or even Body and Soul. At best, they just might know a single standard Over the Rainbow. But those bluebirds certainly aren't singing on this side. They don't know any tunes.

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