Swans Commentary » swans.com December 3, 2007  



Wilfrid Sheed's The House That George Built


by Charles Marowitz


Book Review



Sheed, Wilfrid: The House That George Built: With a Little Help from Irving, Cole, and a Crew of About Fifty, Random House, New York, 2007, IBSN-13: 078-1-4000-6105-1, 368 pages.


(Swans - December 3, 2007)   The reason that iPods, iPhones, and Walkmen are so popular throughout the world is that for most people the storage of music is as essential as food, oxygen, and sex. Everyone, no matter what their political persuasion, when pressures become unsustainable, seeks relief in music. That being the case, Wilfrid Sheed's The House That George Built is not only an engrossing history of 20th century popular music but also an anodyne against irritation and distress.

A critic and award-nominated novelist, Sheed, using a jaunty, nimble, and colloquial style, has captured the sweep of American popular music from its golden age (the 1920s-50s) to what one might call its twilight years starting in the rock 'n roll era and ultimately petering out in the Age of Rap. He has achieved this by concentrating on the titans, viz. Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Harold Arlen, Jerome Kern, and Richard Rodgers, making pleasurable stopovers with Frank Loesser, Harry Warren, Johnny Mercer, Hoagy Carmichael, Duke Ellington, and a few other deserving composers who inhabit a somewhat lower realm of the constellation. The avatar of the entire study is, of course, George Gershwin, the "George" of the book's title in whose "house" virtually all of the aforementioned composers found accommodation of one sort or another. His talent towers over the book as he himself did over all of his contemporaries when he was alive and although good songwriters come and go, it is only right to recognize that Gershwin remains the reigning and unseatable Chairman of the Board.

Using a vast storehouse of musical knowledge and apt quotations from the lyrics of his galaxy of composers, Sheed demonstrates that there are two debts that need to be acknowledged without which popular music might just never have happened. The first is the African-American influence, which created jazz and, in a sense, discovered the vein of gold that future practitioners subsequently mined. And the other was the ubiquitous Jewish heritage that produced composers such as Berlin, Kern, Arlen, Coleman, Gershwin, etc.

Sheed aptly describes the east coast and west coast species of composers; that is, those nourished by Broadway musicals and those hatched through the Hollywood studio system that gave them both assignments and handsome financial rewards. But of course, many of the eastern composers went west and vice versa and so the geographical distinction is pretty much blurred.

Magically, Sheed's prose engenders, what you might call a musical accompaniment as one finds oneself sub-textually being serenaded by the actual melodies that comprise the American Song Book. This adds a dimension to a book about music that should not be underestimated. But apart from evoking musical memories, what makes the book even more pleasing is that the author tells us how many of these songs came about; how they were rejected then resurrected, originated, and obscured. (Irving Berlin's "Smile And Show Your Dimple," for instance, began life in 1914 but was discarded because of the poor lyric. It made a jubilant return in 1948 as "Easter Parade.")

One of the book's most enthralling chapters deals with Harry Warren, whom the author knew personally and to whom the book is dedicated. The profile is entitled "The King of the Unknowns" and, truth to tell, Warren lacks the prominence of other composers from the same era such as Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Cole Porter, and Richard Rodgers -- in spite of the fact that he provided the score for the groundbreaking early talkie, "42nd Street" and all "The Gold Diggers" series of the 1930s that followed. He produced a positive flood of hit songs such as "Shuffle Off to Buffalo," "Jeepers Creepers," "We're In The Money," "I Only Have Eyes for You," "I Found a Million Dollar Baby," "Lullaby of Broadway," "Serenade In Blue," et al. Sheed's portrait of the man reveals a resourceful and highly prolific composer who was often blindsided by being too closely associated with the early 1930s -- despite the fact that he wrote memorable scores for later musicals such as "The Barkleys of Broadway," "The Harvey Girls," and "Summer Stock." At the end of his chapter, Sheed comforts himself by writing: "If Harry Warren miraculously lost his anonymity he'd also lose his chief claim to fame," which is a quaint conceit but not really accurate. One cannot really compare Warren to his "Forgotten Man" ballad, as anyone vaguely connected with the music business is aware of his accomplishment over three fruitful decades. (Not too long ago in Los Angeles, there was a show called "Lullaby of Broadway" celebrating the lyrics of Al Dubin who was Warren's major collaborator.) But Sheed's attempt to increase the value of his stock is heartfelt and rather touching.

Of all the American composers he examines, Richard Rodgers seems to be the only one he appears genuinely to dislike. He gives high marks to the Rodgers and Hart collaboration -- rightly so, in my opinion -- and somewhat scants Rodgers and Hammerstein. "After Hart's death," Sheed writes, "Dick never got close to anyone else again.... the Family Rodgers he returned to at night was a perfect period piece; happy on the outside, rotten on the inside. Its tasteful suburban façade proved to be an arena in which the latest ailments and prescription drugs slugged it out in human disguise while the children, who assume that the whole thing is really about them, can start work on their own 'Mommie Dearests.' In one corner we find Dorothy Rodgers (anorexic, constipated), who turns into a raging, capricious monster -- who wouldn't? And in the other, her husband (boozed, tranquillized) who seems permanently depressed and half-stoned. He comes to life one show at a time -- just long enough to romance a new heroine, alienate the writer and the director forever and kiss the whole chorus line goodbye before returning home to keep up appearances for the neighbors, as his father had once kept them up for his patients." And a few sentences later Sheed declares "...the tragedy, if that's the right word, is that in the end Rodger's lifelong attempt to merge music, words, dance and even scenery, into something like great art would be deemed kitsch and hardly art at all. His climactic masterpiece, 'The Sound of Music,' has survived into this century as a festival of high camp."

On a personal level, all of this is probably true, but one wonders what it has to do with the lyrical ambrosia that wafts out of Rodgers and Hammerstein's best numbers ("Many A New Day," "I'm Just A Girl Who Can't Say 'No'," "You'll Never Walk Alone," "If I Loved You") in "Oklahoma" and "Carousel" respectively. One feels that Sheed's personal dislike of Rodgers somehow colors his opinion about the music -- like art critics finding it hard to objectively evaluate the watercolors of Adolf Hitler.

In a book of such scope and outreach, one will inevitably have some cavils. For instance: Although Vincent Youmans is just barely wedged into a final chapter along with Arthur Schwartz and Walter Donaldson, his bubbly musical "No No Nanette" and its hit song "Tea For Two" would, in Sheed's words "end up expressing the 1920s -- 1925 to be exact." But there is no mention in the book of the other composer who dominated the twenties Hit Parade and that was Albert Von Tilzer, who apart from writing baseball's national anthem "Take Me Out To The Ballgame" and the sentimental evergreen "Put Your Arms Around Me Honey" also knocked out staples of the Twenties such as "Oh, By Jingo," "Dapper Dan," "Honey Boy," and that epitome of flapper masterworks, "My Cutie's Due at Two to Two." Maybe Albert Von Tilzer is a little early to qualify for the pop section of the American Songbook but he was as dominant a figure in the Twenties as Vincent Youmans and, in many ways, more characteristic of the goofiness of the era.

Music is inescapably a matter of individual taste and those people that get off on Hank Williams or Eminem are never going to swoon over Jerome Kern's Brahmsian musical construction or Gershwin's syncopated rhythms. But tossing objectivity out the window, I would argue that the popular music written between the early 1920s and the mid '50s contains some of the most exquisite art ever created in America -- albeit in categories such as jazz songs, blues, ballads, theatre music, film scores, etc. The House That George Built is an affectionate monument to a truly glittering golden age of America song, which, many ages hence, will be remembered along with imperishable artifacts such as the Silents of Chaplin and Keaton, the novels of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, the Charleston and the Lindy Hop, the recordings of Billie Holiday and Jo Stafford, MGM musicals and other, even more arcane artifacts which are virtually invisible to the creatures that inhabit this troubled, fickle, and over-satiated age.


[Ed. Charles Marowitz's latest book, just completed, is entitled The Sound Of Music: Early Recording Artists and deals with the vocalists who first gained prominence on cylinders and 78-rpm records.]


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Published December 3, 2007