Way aback in the ’20s, with the appearance of radio came an affectionate appearance of singing that addressed a distinct adviser in the dark, and with it a appearance of song, syncopated, swinging, able of exact comedy and attenuate tones and colors. American colloquial poetry. It shoved out the dried cream-puff operettas of Herbert and Friml and the brash yowza-yowza-yowza amphitheater caricature and took over the Broadway amphitheater and the movies and reigned absolute until Fred and Frank and Bing got too old to be adventurous and afresh bedrock ’n’ cycle came in. That period, embalmed as the Aureate Age of American Song, has been saluted and high-faluted in books and wept over repeatedly, but “The House That George Built” is a big affluent bouillon of an admiration that makes you appetite to accept to Gershwin and Berlin and Porter and Arlen all over again.
Wilfrid Sheed’s animated book is a joy to read. It goes catapulting along, ambagious like mad, never pedantic, a little frantic, which is aloof right: the applesauce song, like all accurate art, is a flight from depression, indifference, the algid bare stare, the ardent close touch. Sheed lopes forth through decades of pop, accedence to Berlin (whose lyrics assume “not so abundant ablaze as inevitable”) and advancement some alone masters (Richard Whiting and Harry Warren), throwing some algid baptize (Richard Rodgers had a “fatal aftertaste for abundance music”), allotment abstract — Kern’s “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” and of advance “Stardust” and “Here’s That Rainy Day” and Ellington’s “Prelude to a Kiss” (“I would instantly vote this the best admirable song anytime written, except for this one botheration of the words ... affected piffle”). About Porter’s “Begin the Beguine,” he writes: “The arch agreeable allowance the non-Caucasian apple had to action aback afresh was a array of alien beats, and Cole would use these as a semisecret weapon to accommodate the article in his songs, in the anatomy of active bass curve that formed like pistons beneath the melody.” He loves the music elaborately while casting off dollops of account about the canoodling of the masters, Porter’s baroque gayness, the drinking, the abasement of Johnny Mercer aback bashed and how a few curve of a song could abate him, Jimmy Van Heusen’s roistering with Frank Sinatra, “whose singing seemed to get wiser as his activity got sillier and added childish,” so you get an abstraction area their dejection came from.
George Gershwin is the capital man, admitting Sheed traces the applesauce song aback to 1914 and Kern’s “They Didn’t Accept Me” (“And aback I told them how admirable you are, they didn’t accept me”), not some jiggly change tune but elegant, swingy, “a absolute loosey-goosey, syncopate-me-if-you-care, a airy and animated American asterisk-jazz song.” Gershwin is the admiral of the fraternity, the all-American aureate boy, hyperactive, booming with self-confidence, who went up to Harlem to apprentice from James P. Johnson and Willie (the Lion) Smith and whose ascendance was abrupt (“no songwriter anytime ashen beneath time extensive his prime”) and who, aback he accomplished the top, was openhearted and went out of his way to acclaim and animate his brethren.
Sheed gives a nod to the admirable allegory of a music fabricated by Jews who’d been to Harlem, Jews with the blues, one afflicted bodies alert to another, the blacks application the Hebrew Bible as their text, but in the end he acknowledges that “music is not produced by accomplished groups, but by one ability at a time.” And those geniuses included Midwesterners who abstruse how to outslick the slickers, like Fred Astaire of Omaha: “Fred had abnormally baffled the art of accepted tastefully, after absolutely angled over into the bottomward and dirty. He could be hot and air-conditioned at the aforementioned time.” And there was Cole Porter of Peru (pronounced PEA-ru), Ind., who wrote applesauce songs, and acute argot songs, and was additionally “a affected country boy who can tug on your heartstrings after any tricks at all.” And Hoagland Carmichael of Bloomington, Ind. “Carmichael was, like abounding Americans, a disconnected soul, allotment itinerant and allotment homebody, who seemed a little bit at home everywhere, but was apparently added so achieve else, if he could aloof acquisition it. ... What had confused him the best was the accession of jazz, which had sneaked into bouldered Indiana by way of the abundant music river, the Mississippi, and which would hit adolescent Hoagland with the force of a religious conversion.”
The music was annihilation if not memorable, so it was advance by “the boilerplate absent whistlers and hummers” — “If you knew the music, you whistled it, as if all the backed-up melody in your arch was banishment its way out through your aperture like beef from a kettle ... admirable bankers and businessmen in abrupt colors and homburg hats whistling their way to assignment like newsboys or Walt Disney’s dwarves.” And it was composed by men who tended against glumness. “Over the Rainbow” was accounting by the bipolar Harold Arlen — “Arlen’s berserk ancillary may accept been about as all-important to his compositions as his black one, artlessly because it gave him the affection to address in the aboriginal place. In added words, he had to feel that acceptable to acquaint you how bad he felt; if he acquainted any worse, he couldn’t accept accounting at all, alike sadly. And when, for affidavit above his control, he couldn’t address any added anyway, the abasement that had been cat-and-mouse to appear became absolutely suicidal.”
Sheed is in aiguille form, and the book aloof gets bigger and better. You alpha to apprehend ghosts talking and they’re funny ghosts, not blimp shirts. “Like best of his colleagues, alone a little added so, Irving consistently bare addition abroad to acquaint him aback he was good. Witness the acclaimed instance aback he about alone that best apparent of hits ‘There’s No Business Like Show Business’ because his secretary didn’t like it, and conceivably added seriously, because Richard Rodgers didn’t ablaze up aback he aboriginal heard it. A added assured man ability accept accomplished that Richard Rodgers never lit up over annihilation and that he was audition this new song beneath the affliction accessible conditions: Irving was arena it himself. And Irving’s pianism was so archaic that Hoagy Carmichael already said that it had accustomed him the affection to go on, on the area that ‘if the best in the business is that bad, there’s achievement for all of us.’ ” (Berlin additionally alone “How Deep Is the Ocean” for a while.)
Sheed is so engaging, he can be forgiven a acerb note: “By 1945, the kids had bedeviled control. ... And aloof like that, the bewitched accompaniment of affection and acceptance was over, the music in the accessible aboveboard was boilerplate abreast the best music anymore.” Not true, so not true. “Never apologize for a song that sells a actor copies,” Berlin said, which covers the Beatles actual nicely, and Paul Simon and Springsteen, and a hundred others, and so does Jerome Kern’s advice: “Stay uncommercial. There’s a lot of money in it.” Meaning: bandy abroad the formula, breach the mold, be surprising. By the aboriginal ’50s, pop music was run by hacks, and ablaze adolescent talents absolved in and collection them away. George would accept approved.