At different times and in different places there occur seemingly inexplicable explosions of new art forms: Greek drama; Elizabethan drama; the theater of Racine, Corneille, and Molière; the Victorian novel; the painting of the Italian Renaissance. But these phenomena can also take place on less exalted levels. The first half of the twentieth century, for instance, saw in our country the apparently spontaneous eruption of three popular art forms that went on to conquer the world. Jazz is one, Hollywood movies are another, and they’re both umbilically connected to the third: the large body of songs we now refer to as “standards.”
Who created them? The founding fathers—Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, George Gershwin, Richard Rodgers, Cole Porter—were all born within fifteen years of one another, four of them Jewish, growing up in New York. (Porter—from Peru, Indiana—boasted of how he painstakingly taught himself to “sound” Jewish.) They all got their real starts on Broadway. And they all cautiously admired each other—and sometimes not so cautiously. As Kern famously pronounced, Irving Berlin is American music.
How and why did it happen? The time was right, in post–World War I America, for a new music, and there were new, efficient ways of getting it to the public: radio, phonograph records, and, when sound came in during the late Twenties, the movies. (No more standing around the piano singing “After the Ball.”) And the genius? As Wilfrid Sheed puts it in the introduction to his entertaining new book, The House That George Built, “If someone will provide the stage and the cash, the genius will take care of itself.”
And so the songs that are an indelible part of our national consciousness just kept coming, until suddenly, soon after World War II, they in turn were replaced. Time marches on, carrying the culture with it, but fortunately for us, the “standard” melodies lingered on, kept alive by jazz and cabaret artists and CDs.
If we accept Sheed’s definition of “standards,” we’re talking about a large body of work that fits loosely into the quarter-century between 1925 and 1950. George M. Cohan, a little earlier, doesn’t make the cut—today’s cabaret artists and jazz musicians aren’t rushing to give us their take on “Forty-five Minutes from Broadway” or “Mary Is a Grand Old Name.” No—in the beginning was Irving Berlin, and it’s Berlin who’s the subject of Sheed’s first chapter centered on a specific songwriter, “The Little Pianist Who Couldn’t”—a reference to Berlin’s famous inability to read music or play the piano. (“Irving’s pianism was so primitive,” Sheed tells us, “that Hoagy Carmichael once said that it had given him the heart to go on, on the grounds that ‘If the best in business is that bad, there’s hope for all of us.’”)
It was in 1911 that Berlin wrote the song that catapulted him to worldwide fame, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” and his domination of the field lasted fifty years. He was the Champ—of Broadway, Hollywood, the Hit Parade. It was he who came up with our Christmas anthem, our Easter anthem, our showbiz anthem, and our unofficial national anthem—something he wrote in 1918 (oddly, Sheed has the date wrong) and pulled out of a trunk twenty years later for stately, plump Kate Smith, America’s favorite radio songbird, who sang it (again and again) to inspire us into and through the war. Yes, it’s corny, but as Sheed points out, “Right after the terrorists struck at the very heart of Irving’s own city on the 9/11 that lives in infamy, nobody’s words or tunes rang the bell more resonantly or accurately than good old ‘God Bless America.’”
If that simplest of songs still rings true, it’s because Berlin was a true believer. America had been astoundingly generous to the one-time singing waiter Izzy Baline, and he paid his adopted country back with a jubilant and unpompous patriotism—with “Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning” in the First World War and “This Is the Army, Mr. Jones” in the second. (The closest parallel is Louis B. Mayer, another Russian-Jewish exile, just three years older than Irving, whose patriotism expressed itself most endearingly when he upgraded his birthday to July 4. Eventually, Louis and Irving would do a lot of business together.)
“As a small boy in England in the 1930s,” Sheed writes, “I knew just two American songsmiths by name, Stephen Foster and Irving Berlin,” the latter of whom he goes on to characterize as “a kind of finger-snapping Benjamin Franklin for immigrants.” The comparison is apt. Berlin and Franklin both epitomized the kind of American success story that appears easy and inevitable but is actually based on hard work, practicality, and a somewhat suspect surface geniality. (Two other examples of this kind of Horatio Algerism: Dwight Eisenhower and Bing Crosby.)
Sheed’s approach to Berlin is an irresistible combination of loving tribute to the composer’s genius, cool-eyed perception of him as an emotionally withdrawn man, and a sharp personal response to the music. He contrasts the bland feel of “Always”—“a song of generalities, a kind of hymn to whatever you feel like today, almost a rental”—and “How Deep Is the Ocean,” Berlin’s “first full-throated love song…. It pulls out all the stops on the organ at once and plugs the air with genuine feeling.” He’s particularly incisive about the crucial partnership between Berlin and Fred Astaire (Irving wrote the songs for three of the great Astaire-Rogers films), and he’s suggestive and touching on the lack of self-confidence that Berlin’s lack of training condemned him to. Finally, he’s provocative on the personal and musical relationship between Berlin and his junior (by ten years) rival and friend, George Gershwin.
Gershwin, of course, is the “George” of the title, and if you wonder why Sheed incorporates his name there rather than Berlin’s (The House That Irving Built), the answer, I believe, lies in the message—almost the dogma—of his book: the best American popular music is all about swing. Even better, it’s all about jazz. Yes, Irving could rag and Irving could swing (that’s the crucial aspect of the Astaire connection), but that ten-year gap between him and George is the difference between jazz absorbed as a second language and jazz as the air one breathes. Gershwin’s first great hit, “Swanee,” is syncopated—his apprenticeship didn’t involve things like Berlin’s first published song, “Marie from Sunny Italy,” or “Yiddisha Nightingale,” or “Herman, Let’s Dance that Beautiful Waltz.”
George was not only jazzier, he was also more musically ambitious. Irving never strayed from Tin Pan Alley and Broadway except for lucrative raids on Hollywood; George had higher aspirations. “While all [Mrs. Gershwin] basically wanted was for her gifted son to write a lot of hits like Mr. Berlin and make the family rich, some impulse (of snobbery? ancestral memory?) also told her to make sure that he got the best classical training that the Gershwin treasury could spring for.” And so on to the Rhapsody, the Concerto, Porgy and Bess.
Sheed is caustic about the prissy music critics who pulled up their skirts at a mere songwriter storming Carnegie Hall, and points to the way Gershwin’s classicism blurs into, and reinforces, his popular tunes; how they’re part of the same musical impulse. But in his righteous reaction to those critics who “were guarding all the entrances to make sure Gershwin didn’t smuggle any of his dirty Tin Pan Alley tricks into the classical shrine,” he tends to overestimate the value of the classical ventures, even while nodding to Serge Diaghilev’s barbed perception that the Concerto was “good jazz and bad Liszt.”
Let’s not complain, though. Sheed loves Gershwin for all the right reasons. He loves his amazing energy and irresistible charm, his movie-star charisma, his supreme self-confidence, and his remarkable generosity to his fellow composers, both famous and aspiring: there was no one he wouldn’t lend a hand to. And, most important, Sheed has listened acutely and with feeling to the songs:
The throwaway title song of the film Shall We Dance, for instance, now echoes across the years like music over water, conveying the jaunty, sad sound of a whole society that won’t let the band go to bed, because tomorrow is going to be so awful: “The Long Weekend” between the wars was almost over, Gershwin music and all. And the brothers’ [George and Ira’s] last song together, “Our Love Is Here to Stay,” has since been rescued from the trackless waste of The Goldwyn Follies of 1938 to become an anthem to friendship—a final hand-clasp of the Gershwins as the ship goes down, an ode to immortality in four-quarter time.
As Sheed reminds us, everyone agrees that those founding fathers—Berlin, Kern, Gershwin, Rodgers, Porter—are the Big Five, with the field open for a sixth favorite of your choice. (His is the ultimate Hollywood pro, Harry Warren: “42nd Street,” “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” “There Will Never Be Another You.” For Alec Wilder—author of American Popular Song, the Bible in the field—it’s Harold Arlen: “Stormy Weather,” “Blues in the Night,” “That Old Black Magic,” “Over the Rainbow.”) For Sheed, though, much as he reveres the talent of Kern and Rodgers, both of them are guilty of a cardinal sin: sometimes they backslid into operetta.
Kern, with his formal classical education (he actually studied in Germany) and extraordinary facility, found it all too easy to turn from his snappy, light-hearted Princess Theatre shows, written with P.G. Wodehouse and Guy Bolton, to the Gay Nineties’ sentimentality of a Sweet Adeline. Yes, Sheed acknowledges, songs like “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” and “All the Things You Are” (“this greatest of American songs”) are incomparable, but except for the groundbreaking “They Didn’t Believe Me” of 1914, Kern doesn’t get around to swinging until he too (with lyricist Dorothy Fields) is supplying Astaire. Sheed pointedly recounts the story of how Astaire, after finding Kern’s first stab at the score for Swing Time hopelessly undanceable (“No syncopation at all”), successfully educates him on what swing is really about. The results: “Pick Yourself Up,” “A Fine Romance,” “Never Gonna Dance,” and—swingiest (and least Kern-like) of all—“Bojangles of Harlem.”
Yet the brilliance of Kern’s score for Show Boat, the greatest of American musicals (or operettas; or musical plays), is tarred for Sheed by the show’s lyricist and librettist, Oscar Hammerstein, toward whom he shows almost unrelenting hostility. What’s the opposite of jazz? Corn! And that’s what, in Oscar, was as high as an elephant’s eye. Sheed just doesn’t get it. Not only are the lyrics for Show Boat corny, but Hammerstein later commits the crime of replacing the witty, sophisticated Lorenz Hart as Richard Rodgers’s collaborator. Sheed takes deadly aim at the new team: “You could move Rodgers and Hammerstein’s State Fair from Iowa to Oklahoma, or the South Pacific or the Austrian Tirol, and it would still be the same old place: Broadway, in the Scarsdale years.” All this in contrast to the unerring authenticity of the “great New York musical,” Frank Loesser’s Guys and Dolls.