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 family name was at various times Gershovitz, Gershwine, Gershvin. Like the father’s serial fields of employment—bakery, restaurant, Turkish bath, bookmaker—appellations were fluid in the Gershwin household: Ira, according to some biographers, was actually named Israel but was called Izzy and grew up thinking his name was Isidore; George was Jacob at birth.
Charles Schwartz’s Gershwin: His Life and Music informs us that George’s birth certificate lists Gershwine as the family name; Joan Peyser’s The Memory of All That: The Life of George Gershwin contrarily implies that it’s Gershvin. In this particular case, Schwartz is the one to trust (he supplies a photograph of the certificate in question), but other inconsistencies are less clear-cut. The discrepancies over names (which grew comically chaotic when I read in another biography that Ira’s birth name was not in fact Israel but Isidore) merely underscores the larger contradictions surrounding the brothers. George especially seems to alter shading and contour from one portrait to the next, and although my focus here is Ira, George’s enigmas were obviously integral to the brothers’ collective accomplishment.
Most of the writing about the Gershwins has, understandably, highlighted George, who brought genius to a partnership to which Ira contributed talent. In addition, George—the taller, handsomer, and more sociable of the two, the “ladies’ man” who had affairs with a French countess and Paulette Goddard—had a near-monopoly on glamour; no cocktail party was ever heated up by spicy speculations about what the bespectacled, square-headed, and very married Ira might be up to. Almost proudly self-effacing, Ira was somebody who took satisfaction in being an unshowy show-business professional. It’s an irony he would have appreciated: that so unromantic-looking a man did so much to mint the language of romance in his time.
Ira’s centenary provides a welcome occasion for featuring the partnership’s too-often-neglected figure, and Philip Furia’s Ira Gershwin: The Art of the Lyricist presents itself as a corrective. Furia, a professor of English at the University of Minnesota, for some years now has proceeded on the salutary assumption that the popular song’s union of melody and words isn’t to be fully appreciated until its lyrics and lyricists are scrutinized in isolation. In 1990 he produced a warm-hearted, useful book, The Poets of Tin Pan Alley, intended as a ground-breaking examination of “America’s Great Lyricists.” His new book is likewise warm-hearted, though somewhat less useful; it often feels like a mere extension of the chapter devoted to Ira in The Poets of Tin Pan Alley. Not quite either a biography (crucial events and issues are unaccountably missing) or a full cultural study, Ira Gershwin: The Art of the Lyricist shows Furia frequently succumbing to the occupational hazard of the writer about musical theater: an exhaustiveness seemingly rooted in trepidation of the reader who is a trivia buff. Furia dishes up encyclopedic detail about the casting, scheduling, and revamping of a number of forgettable Gershwin shows. It’s as though he’s constantly quailing at the thought of being discovered in error about who played the ingenue in some pre-Broadway Detroit tryout.
Actually, the most interesting portrait of Ira I know is achieved collaterally, in The Memory of All That, Joan Peyser’s study of George published a few years ago. She has taken it as her special task to illuminate the “dark side” of the composer’s life, including the revelation—persuasively documented—that he fathered and clandestinely supported at least one illegitimate child. In Peyser’s reconstruction, Ira emerges as a fascinating behind-the-scenes broker: mollifying those whom the “unfailingly insensitive” George had slighted, fending off his brother’s would-be blackmailers, tightfistedly amassing a fortune while the freewheeling George squandered money as if there were no tomorrow (ironically, for him there wasn’t). Peyser has Ira living not only for George but through George. He becomes a character ripe for a Henry James novel: a vicarious soul, experiencing the world at one remove; a symbiotic handmaiden, drawing inspiration from genius; an unprepossessing little fellow who, at the end of the day, having negotiated with a charismatic but boorish brother and a dragon of a wife, would sit down and formulate gallant new ways to declare one’s love.
Unfortunately, not all aspects of Peyser’s portrayal feel earned. Her dislike of Ira’s wife, Leonore, is so pervasive that the reader simply cannot understand by what sorcery the woman held Ira in wedlock for nearly half a century. Peyser pokes into the most private zones of George’s existence in order to advance lurid or wild speculations—he was a sexual masochist, he was impotent, he was a woman-beater—for which she provides only the most exiguous evidence. Perhaps most disappointing, she fails to make good on her provocative assertion that Ira’s lyrics represent a “virtual diary of George’s life.” How convenient if this were true! But the claim turns out to be something of a self-fulfilling prophecy, since Ira’s lyrics, in their generality, can buttress pretty much whatever suppositions we bring to them. A comic song in a Gilbert and Sullivan mode (French Ambassador: “I must know why/You crucify/My native country/with this effront’ry/To the illegitimate daughter/of an illegitimate son/Of an illegitimate nephew/of Napoleon!”) confirms Peyser in her suspicions about George’s having secretly fathered various children. A song about a young man looking for a lusty embrace (“Treat me rough,/Pinch my cheek,/ Kiss and hug and squeeze me/Till I’m weak”) supports her assertion of George’s masochism. But one might equally conclude, from lyrics like those of “The Man I Love,” that George was homosexual, or determine from “I Don’t Think I’ll Fall in Love Today” (“Safer to be platonic;/Why burn up with romance?”) that he was celibate. The fact is, most of Ira’s lyrics sprang from revues and shows, and they were about what most Tin Pan Alley lyrics were about: love, the falling into it and the picking yourself up after the fall out of it. They seldom speak in code.
Ira was the “scholar” of the two brothers. To some extent, the role was a put-on, no less a playful exaggeration than George’s dark, gangster-like mugging. Yet if his intellectual pursuits were not terribly broad, within the scope of his professional interests he was quite penetrating, as his charming book Lyrics on Several Occasions, composed at the end of his career, confirms. Although Ira completed a few semesters of college (unlike George, who quit school at fifteen), his formal studies were intended to be practical and businesslike; in the world of letters where he found his vocation and made his fortune, he was essentially self-educated.
Lyrics on Several Occasions boasts a number of the stylistic flourishes and patchy, appealing pockets of erudition one associates with the autodidact. Its foreword is dotted with unlikely terms—conjointment, paronomasia, reduplicative—and its epigraph is taken from the seventeenth-century author John Aubrey. But what comes through is the wit and nimbleness of a man seemingly born for the taxing, highly specialized task of “fitting words mosaically to music already composed.” If George inspired most of his finest lyrics, Ira also worked fruitfully with composers as varied as Kern, Arlen, Kurt Weill, and Aaron Copland. And some of this work was very good indeed. Like most popular song aficionados, I keep my own list of “bests,” and am ready to argue with anyone that “The Man That Got Away”—a collaboration with Arlen—is one of the five best torch songs ever written.
For all its pleasures, Lyrics on Several Occasions makes clear—and the far larger Complete Lyrics of Ira Gershwin, published in 1993, makes clearer—that Ira lacked that rare verve which can make a lyricist’s work wholly gratifying on the page, without benefit of musical accompaniment. There are probably only three American popular lyricists—Lorenz Hart, Cole Porter, Stephen Sondheim—whose lyrics can truly stand alone, and all three, not coincidentally, are verbal pyrotechnicians.
Ira’s best effects were, characteristically, quieter. He never saw his lyrics sweep the country the way Hart’s “Manhattan” or Porter’s “You’re the Top” did, inspiring a national fad of reprints and parodies. His wit usually depended on musical reinforcement, as in his Wild West parody “Bidin’ My Time,” whose refrain begins:
I’m Bidin’ my Time—
‘Cause that’s the kinda guy I’m.
Contractions usually belong to people in a hurry, but in this case the speaker has all the leisure in the world. That preposterously contracted “I’m” is rendered all the more silly and superfluous by the melody, which gives it two syllables:
I’m Bidin’ my Ti-ime—
‘Cause that’s the kinda guy I-I’m.
Ira was a self-described “fitter” of words to tunes. In most cases, he would probably have agreed with Berlin’s assessment: “Lyrics look scraggly in cold print, for that’s not what they were written for.”
He was a born collaborator. Of all the books about the Gershwins, Deena Rosenberg’s Fascinating Rhythm (1991) perhaps most faithfully conveys a sense of the brothers’ songwriting process. Ira was forever stressing the need for a “singable” line, which usually meant a paring down, a quest for simpler phrases. Yet his sort of simplicity was a complicated business, as he, a little triumphantly, noted:
Given a fondness for music, a feeling for rhyme, a sense of whimsy and humor, an eye for the balanced sentence, an ear for the current phrase, and the ability to imagine oneself a performer trying to put over the number in progress—given all this, I still would say it takes four or five years collaborating with knowledgeable composers to become a well-rounded lyricist.
If Ira made a virtue of blending in, he stood out from his fellow lyricists in one notable respect: his theoretical bent, his self-analytical scrutiny of his peculiar vocation. Sprinkled throughout Lyrics on Several Occasions are apt observations about the practice of tailoring words to music. Where his craft was concerned, he liked minutiae, he savored technicalities. He kept careful tabulations of his tasks (“Filling in the seventy-three syllables of the refrain wasn’t as simple as it sounds”) and relished historical analogies (“In Germany, for instance, Martin Luther was a notable example of the hymnist who took many a secular song, well known to the people, and, retaining the tune, threw out the worldly lyric to substitute one of spiritual quality”).
Not surprisingly, he was particularly interested in the mechanics of rhyme—the prosodic tool that most sharply differentiates the lyricist from the poet. Traditionally, poets have had the luxury of disparaging rhyme as a poor cousin to meter. It has commonly been deemed a secondary tool, when not dismissed outright (Milton blasted it as “the invention of a barbarous age” in his preface to Paradise Lost). The Tin Pan Alley lyricists, on the other hand, could never do without what Ira called “rhyme insurance.” Meter in their songs can often be a lenient or elastic tool—amenable to minor additions or subtractions of syllables as the sense dictates. Not so with rhyme. In Ira’s collected lyrics, it’s rare to go even a couple of lines without a rhyme; and once a rhyme scheme is adopted, its demands tend to be inflexible. In addition, as Ira perceived, the lyricist faces a special handicap:
Most modern poets find “perfect” or “full” or “exact” rhyme too limiting, and favor sound devices called “visual rhyme,” “suspended rhyme,” “historical rhyme,” “dissonance-consonance,” and other literary and intellectual varieties. These are not, I feel, for the lyricist, whose output in the field of entertainment must be easily assimilable and whose work depends a good deal on perfect rhyme’s jingle.
Enjoying little freedom in either the type of rhyme he would employ or its placement, the Tin Pan Alley lyricist had to look elsewhere to express his creativity by formal means. One place Ira looked was to the unlikely or outlandish rhymes of his boyhood hero W.S. Gilbert. (Furia recounts a beguiling boyhood anecdote from “Yip” Harburg, a schoolmate of Ira’s who would later write the lyrics to The Wizard of Oz. Harburg also was a great fan of Gilbert’s verses, and was jubilantly dumbfounded one day to discover from Ira that there was “music to them”; Harburg had fallen in love with Gilbert and Sullivan without knowing there was a Sullivan.)
In Gilbert’s work the teen-age Ira would have come across rhymes like monotony and got any, parsonified and matrimonified, cerebellum, too and tell ’em to. Perhaps he was initially unaware that behind Gilbert’s rhymes—behind all modern outlandish rhyming in English—hovers the ghost of Byron, the master of the unlikely rhyme. But Ira was about to find his niche in a long verse tradition.
Gilbert made free with one of Byron’s specialties, the rhyme that leaps over word breaks and even punctuation, as in Don Juan’s linking of comparative to share it, if and battery to satire, he. This was a practice not lost on Ira (Baby, see/ABC, dummy/”Uh-uh” me). Nor was Ira inattentive to Gilbert’s fondness for rhymes forged from word segments. Again Ira offered an appealing passage, drawn from an experience late in his career:
I thought I knew most of the terms for the classification of rhyme: masculine, feminine, double, triple, rear, eye, assonantal, internal, &c. But Babette Deutsch’s recent and scholarly Poetry Handbook reveals half a dozen I’m sure I’d never come across before. One term especially intrigues me: “Apocopated rhyme, so called because the end of one rhyming word is cut off.” Examples given are: “Say” to rhyme with the first syllable of “crazy”; “Spain” with the first of “gainless.”
Why titillated at this late stage? Because I am suddenly made aware that long, long ago in the last two verse lines of “Looking for a Boy” the music made me rhyme, apocopatedly, “way” with “saying”; and I now feel one with Molière’s M. Jourdain the day he learned he’d been speaking prose for over forty years.
As printed in The Complete Lyrics, Gershwin’s apocopated rhymes often look stiff or fussy:
To Bill and Ben I’d pay atten-
Tion now and then, but really, men
Would bore me.
As a tot,
When I trot-
Ted in little velvet panties,
I was kissed
By my sist-
Ers, my cousins, and my aunties.
Oh, I always knew some-
Day you’d come along;
We’ll make a twosome
That just can’t go wrong.
The sung effect, however, can be surprisingly graceful. Suddenly, a rhyme like knew some and twosome is transformed from clumsy to dexterous.
For all the constrictions his chosen genre imposed on him, Ira often achieved an inspiring sense of freedom. All those typographical conventions that join or disjoin one word and another—the page’s boundary-markers of hyphen and line-break and spacing—fall away when the lyrics are sung. The words drop into place just where they ought to, and the listener is afloat on a sea of syllables. Packs of words may rhyme with packs of words (good die young/should die young) or with slang words (grown so/so’n’so), or everyday words with bizarre contractions (material/weary’ll), or slangy fragments with slangy fragments (delish/ disposish). The air is abuzz with clever connections. The best Gershwin songs project a sort of double bravado: the melody and the lyrics simultaneously take unforeseen turns, provide pretty surprises.
Of course the witty, polysyllabic rhyming associated with Byron and Gilbert by convention belongs to the domain of light verse. Over the centuries, serious poets have implicitly entered into a sort of contract of exclusive use, consenting to restrict themselves to “dignified” rhyming when handling grave subjects. Disyllabic rhyme (“feminine rhyme”) has customarily been regarded as faintly suspect—to be employed warily—and trisyllabic rhyming has been all but barred from serious verse. (Thomas Hardy is virtually unique among English-language poets in frequently enlisting trisyllabic rhymes of the tenderly/slenderly sort in poems evoking grief and desolation.)
From a prosodic standpoint, it has been the particular genius of the American popular song to import the rhyming expectations of light verse into a domain that often strives to be anything but light. Bizarre, loopy, even ridiculous rhymes are concocted in order to sing about heartbreak. And somehow the process works. No serious poet aiming after poignancy would devise a four-syllable rhyme cluster like I lack myself and my back myself; bathos would almost inevitably ensue. But when Lorenz Hart does so, in “It Never Entered My Mind,” the listener nods in rueful, appreciative confirmation.
Something similar occurs with the four-syllable rhymes in Ira’s “Embraceable You.” Although this is a far cheerier song, the words carry—when yoked to George’s blues-tinged melody—a weight to their elation, a profundity of wonder and desire that is far removed from traditional light verse:
My sweet embraceable you.
You irreplaceable you.
Just one look at you—my heart grew tipsy in me;
You and you alone bring out the gypsy in me.
A number of modern poets have fallen hard for Tin Pan Alley, most notably W.H. Auden, whose “Cabaret Songs,” written in conjunction with Benjamin Britten, are a coruscating tribute to Cole Porter. Elizabeth Bishop likewise was lured (“Songs for a Colored Singer”), as were Howard Moss, L.E. Sissman, James Merrill.
Not surprisingly, these were all poets drawn to prosodic experimentation. Those with a fondness for eccentric verbal constructions may naturally gravitate toward song lyrics, which in adopting to the vagaries of melody are likely to assume all sorts of irregular forms. Furia, in The Poets of Tin Pan Alley, makes a nice point about the Gershwins’ “They All Laughed.” George’s melody starts out with a ten-note phrase, which Ira answers with a ten-syllable line:
They all laughed at Christopher Columbus
followed by seven notes and seven syllables:
When he said the world was round.
Seemingly bent on repeating the pattern, the melody summons another ten-syllable line:
They all laughed when Edison recorded
But this time around, George’s music demands not seven syllables but one, which Ira gave him:
The melody allows no give or flexibility at this point. An alternative of two or three syllables, however brilliant it might look on the page, would be musically unacceptable. Ira faced exacting requirements, which he fulfilled punctiliously:
They all laughed at Rockefeller Center—
Now they’re fighting to get in;
They all laughed at Whitney and his cotton gin!
A cluster of ten syllables, seven, ten, one…. This combination of regularity and asymmetry recalls the versification of a poet who, in her ethereality, had scant ties to popular culture: Marianne Moore, originator of the American system of “pure syllabics.” If her syllable-counting prosody never caught on as fully as it might have, this is presumably because of its inherent uncertainties and ambiguities. Any poem in syllabics confronts a pair of pesky, intransigent questions: Why this particular arrangement of syllables? And how are individual words to be counted? (E.g., does “different” have two syllables or three?)
Yet both questions vanish when the syllabic verse in question is a song lyric. This particular pattern of syllables was chosen in order to conform to the melody’s contours, and these contours likewise instruct us how individual words are to be pronounced. Page after page of The Complete Lyrics shows Ira meeting rigid syllabic needs; George’s brusque, busy rhythms seemed especially to call for three-syllable lines. For a poet like Auden, Tin Pan Alley offers a place where singular prosodic configurations make sense—they work. And there’s an appealing irony in seeing Ira’s words—even while trafficking in Alley conventions and banalities—rejuvenating a poetic practice associated with the modernist avant-garde.
Prosodic analysis of this sort might misleadingly suggest there was something pedantic and dry about Ira’s working methods. But a book like Schwartz’s Gershwin: His Life and Music quickly dispels any such notion. It shows us how flexible and pragmatic the brothers were. Something was the matter with a song? The audience hadn’t responded as hoped? Alter the lyric, change the performer, toss the song away and substitute another—decisions made in passion but in haste, for there was always a new show opening, a new deadline looming.
At the bottom of this song “doctoring” lay a deeply democratic, deeply egalitarian conviction: a profound faith in the discernment of the public and in the virtue of anything that provided what Fred Astaire—one of the Gershwins’ favorite performers—called a “knockout applause puller.” Ira was unlikely to put the idea quite so bluntly as Berlin did—“The mob is always right”—but the two men shared, along with most of their Tin Pan Alley colleagues, a healthy regard for their audience.
Ira summed up his artistry as an attempt “to capture the ways people spoke to each other—their slang, their clichés, their catchphrases.” He quoted mischievously from the introduction to Eric Partridge’s A Dictionary of Clichés, which warned that the book’s contents consisted of expressions which “careful speakers and scrupulous writers shrink from.” Shrink from them? Ira leaped at them. He listed more than two dozen clichés he had incorporated into songs, and added: “The phrase that is trite and worn-out when appearing in print usually becomes, when heard fitted to an appropriate musical turn, revitalized, and seems somehow to revert to its original provocativeness.” Ira’s method, then, might be described as a fertile cycle: go out into the marketplace “to capture the ways people spoke,” and, after some solitary labor, return to it with the language obtained there, now brightened and “revitalized.”
Artists in our century typically have not shown, heaven knows, a bedrock faith in the wisdom of the man and woman in the street, and surely one of the refreshing strengths of Tin Pan Alley lies in its inclusiveness of spirit. After completing Porgy and Bess, George decided to leave New York and return to Hollywood. Before his departure, he fired off a telegram meant to reassure those studio bosses who felt that, as an opera composer, he might have lost the common touch: “Rumours about highbrow music ridiculous. Stop. Am out to write hits.” It was a vow he meant to keep, and did, with some of the finest songs of his career: “They Can’t Take That Away from Me,” “They All Laughed,” “A Foggy Day,” “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” “Love Is Here to Stay.” He once spoke of wanting “to write for young girls sitting on fire escapes on hot summer nights in New York and dreaming of love.” Although he increasingly harbored more upscale, Carnegie Hall ambitions, he remained genuinely fond of the girl on the fire escape, and he was determined to move her. Like most of his Tin Pan Alley colleagues, he went ruthlessly but respectfully for the heart.
Most artists can only hope that after their deaths their work will not diminish too much or too quickly. What is so striking about Tin Pan Alley—and especially the truncated career of the Gershwin brothers—is the way its finest melodies keep changing as though its makers were still with us Ira once observed, “I never knew how good our songs were until I heard Ella sing them”—a pleasure largely denied to George, who died a dozen years before Fitzgerald’s album Ella Sings Gershwin was issued.
In the nearly sixty years since George’s death, the Gershwins’ music has gone on evolving in directions unimaginable at its conception. The brothers created an expansive territory, into which interpreters of genius and skill have continually gone exploring, often returning with rare finds and treasures. Think of Clifford Brown’s trumpet yanking “Embraceable You” up, down, back, and forth—before setting it down as good as new. Or Thelonious Monk chopping “Nice Work If You Can Get It” into uniformly small pieces—the tesserae of a new mosaic called “Nice Work If you Can Get It.” Or Bill Evans and Jim Hall turning George’s “My Man’s Gone Now” into a gorgeous, grim conversation between piano and guitar. Or Miles Davis and Gil Evans lowering the temperature on “The Buzzard Song” from Porge and Bess until that carrion bird might as well be soaring over a tundra. Or Sinatra in “A Foggy Day” hitting shining five successive times—each of them mellower, sunnier than its predecessor. Or Barbara Hendricks striding with calm dolor through “But Not for Me,” while on their two pianos the Labèque sisters swarm over the melody with the ubiquity of army ants. Or Bruce Hubbard a few years ago resuscitating the dormant heart of “Home Blues,” a song from Show Girl (1929) which had never previously been recorded.
Ira in Lyrics for Several Occasions informs us that the last song George wrote was “Love Is Here to Stay.” As parting shots go, it’s pretty much unbeatable, both for the sweetness of its melody and the agile tenderness of its lyrics. The sentiments may be familiar:
In time the Rockies may crumble,
Gibraltar may tumble
(They’re only made of clay),
But—our love is here to stay.
Yet if this looks like the usual outsize boasting of the Tin Pan Alley suitor, one need only substitute “music” for “love” in the last line in order to change hyperbole to understatement. The music of the brothers does more than endure. It ramifies.
October 17, 1996