Ira Gershwin: The Art of the Lyricist
The Poets of Tin Pan Alley: A History of America’s Great Lyricists
The Complete Lyrics of Ira Gershwin
Lyrics on Several Occasions
The Memory of All That: The Life of George Gershwin
The “golden age” of the American popular song is commonly held to run from about 1925 to 1950. One might quibble over the exact dates, but there’s no questioning the form’s range, richness, drive, durability. As it happens, its heyday corresponds with golden periods for other American genres—the Hollywood screwball comedy, the modern novel of Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Faulkner, the theatrical renaissance led by O’Neill. But to my mind, none of the others matches Tin Pan Alley for perpetual freshness and replenishment. For anyone susceptible to the music’s spell it’s obvious why James Joyce once remarked that the soul of a culture is to be discovered in its music halls. The songs of Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Harold Arlen, Richard Rodgers, Cole Porter, and Hoagy Carmichael really are “standards” in the broadest sense—not only perennial melodies, but touchstones that crystallize a momentous chapter in our nation’s culture.
If you’re even passingly familiar with Tin Pan Alley’s scattered literature—its biographies, memoirs, album liner notes, playbill pronouncements—you know that the field seems to attract temperaments with a taste for rankings and hierarchies. One is forever coming across some catalog of the five greatest “saloon songs” ever written, the best “list songs,” the finest “sob ballads”—assertions posited in that tone of ferocious, likable partisanship with which a pair of baseball buffs will wrangle over whether DiMaggio or Mays was the better centerfielder.
Who was Tin Pan Alley’s greatest songwriting team? A simple tally of the votes would probably give the nod to Irving Berlin—songwriter and lyricist both, and a resourceful, indefatigable force in American music for half a century. This was the judgment reached by Alec Wilder, whose The American Popular Song remains, a quarter century after its publication, an authoritative guide to the field. Jerome Kern was still more sweeping in his estimation: “Irving Berlin has no place in American music. HE IS AMERICAN MUSIC.” Yet while taking nothing away from Berlin (have any film actors—anytime, anywhere—been blessed with a more magical score than Astaire and Rogers in Top Hat?), my own final allegiance lies with George and Ira Gershwin.
George was only thirty-eight when, in the summer of 1937, he dropped into a coma as the result of a tragically undiagnosed brain tumor and died two days later. Although he and Ira, who was two years his senior, had collaborated on a song as early as 1917, their partnership did not begin in flourishing earnest until 1924. Hence they were a team for only thirteen years—roughly half the span of time allotted to the golden age. Long enough, however, to put together nearly a thousand songs: a mountain of music, in which ran veins of ore remarkable—even by the standards of a golden age—for their purity.
This December marks the centenary of Ira’s birth. He was born in New York City, to Jewish parents themselves born in Russia. The …