The House That George Built
by Wilfrid Sheed
Random House, 335 pp., $29.95
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 …