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.

Even so, Sheed celebrates Rodgers’s preternatural talent as a collaborator: “Just say something like ‘Bali Ha’i’ or ‘Oh, what a beautiful morning,’ and out would pop the musical equivalent of these words, the perfect tune. But not the perfect jazz tune.” And there’s the rub. In his undeviating commitment to jazz, Sheed can’t see that what he calls Oscar’s “lush emotions and warm humor” can have a tremendous charm of their own. Since he’s not only passionate but honest, he does acknowledge that the score of Oklahoma! is “a perfect specimen of show-tune writing.” But even here he has to taketh away what he giveth: Oklahoma!, we’re told, “was written under Hart’s influence.” Huh? Sorry, Wilfrid, but this time you’ve gone too far. (The problem was that Hart was under the influence.)

On the subject of Cole Porter, Sheed is dazzling. Porter “still sits up there high and dry on the ninetieth floor, untouched by time or fashion like a cast-iron statue of a basic joke…. His wit still clicks, his tunes lilt, and the mere mention of his name makes people smile in both anticipation and memory…. He had the formula down cold for alchemizing lust into romance.” As for how Porter’s homosexuality affected his work, we can only do Sheed justice by quoting him in extenso:

Cole’s gay lifestyle seems to have given him an awful lot of practice at falling in love, and he kept on doing it as assiduously as a research student and as ardently as a teenager long after most married men have finally conquered the habit…. And each new lover seems to have been an occasion of song, as he “concentrated” on this one, and kept “his eye on” that, and experienced yet again the torment of breaking up and the joy of starting over almost with the speed of a swinging door. In fact, it seems that Cole sometimes wrote his lyrics and love letters in the same giddy, boozy rush, which is why the love in the songs seems so real. And if his lyrics couldn’t name who he loved or even precisely what, they certainly could show how much, and he doubled up on this part, expressing his passion with a gusto that simply blows away such pantywaist contemporaries as Ira Gershwin and Oscar Hammerstein. “Only make believe” coos Oscar, and “Come to papa, come to papa do” twitters Ira, and a couple of powerful tunes are slightly weakened, but “the look in your eyes when you surrender” writes Cole, and the tune picks up enough steam to drive home triumphantly.

Sheed recounts Cole Porter’s triumphant and eventually tragic life with intense sympathy—The House That George Built is an exercise in biography as well as in criticism. Until the disastrous end, in uncontrollable agony and condemned to “mind-fogging painkillers,” Cole had lived his entire life

as fully and entertainingly as a life can be lived. This, after the myths have been enjoyed and put away for the night, may be the reason his songs still work. They have a pulse, as if someone is still in there, a real pining lover in the serious ones, eating out a real heart; and in the funny ones, a kid showing off as merrily as ever.

But though he gives full measure to the Big Five (or Six, or Seven), Sheed is also seriously invested in the other major figures of the time, starting with Duke Ellington, for whom he has the deepest respect, but about whom he manifests a certain uneasy ambiguity. Just what was Ellington? A great band leader, a nonpareil orchestrator, a genius, an important composer—but did he write songs? Well, yes—“’I Got It Bad (and That Ain’t Good)’ is so songlike that it’s even got a humpty-dumpty bridge that is manifestly just there to carry singers across.” And “I’m Beginning to See the Light.” And “Do Nothin’ Till You Hear from Me.” And a few others. But mostly, as Sheed sees it, the specific “song” aspect of Ellington’s work is weak:

I can’t think of a less inviting lyric to step up to than that of “Sophisticated Lady.”… It sounds more like an army training film (“one minute with Venus can mean a lifetime with Mercury”) than a great ballad.

Or “In his own arrangements of numbers like ‘Mood Indigo’ and ‘Prelude to a Kiss,’ there don’t seem to be any parts for singers at all that wouldn’t sound better played on something else.”

None of this is meant as criticism of Ellington; it’s an attempt to place him as a musician. Clearly he was a unique figure—“an aristocrat in his own right”—and Sheed is interesting on his trajectory as a black American. His final word on the Duke is that he was “one of the two or three essential figures, the one who kept the music honest, and ensured that the proper jazz levels were maintained, even if he had to overdo it at times.” Anything to protect the jazz baby, even if some songs get thrown out with the bathwater.

When Sheed isn’t being defensive, he can always rely on his sense of humor. Writing about the complicated bond between Ellington and Gershwin, he says, “If jazz songs really were a Jewish meditation on black music, these two would be the prototypes, the best black musician and the most brilliant and thoroughly converted Jew…. But perhaps when George took the logical last step into ‘Porgy and Bess,’ the Duke let out a yelp. ‘What the hell are you doing here?’ One man’s homage is another man’s encroachment.” Sheed has already noted that “in a lawsuit over cultural rights, the Jews could always demand their Bible back.”

It’s when he gets past the universally accepted masters that he tends to hyperbole. Harold Arlen and his cantor father are “one of the most important father and son partnerships in music, at least since the Bach family.” (So much for the Mozarts.) It’s not enough that Hoagy Carmichael made hit records and was a charming presence in a number of movies (most memorably as “Cricket,” pounding the piano with a cigarette stuck in his lips opposite Bogart and Bacall in To Have and Have Not) and wrote a raft of adored songs—first and foremost, “Stardust,” then “Georgia on My Mind,” “Skylark,” “Baltimore Oriole,” “How Little We Know,” “In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening,” “Ole Buttermilk Sky”; he also had to “clinch” the “mythical title” of “the great American songwriter.” What’s more, “If Harold Arlen is the special favorite of jazz song connoisseurs, Hoagy Carmichael probably comes first with just about every one else, regardless of time, place, or musical persuasion.” I’m not convinced, and I’m not convinced that Sheed is convinced either.

And then there is Johnny Mercer—“The All-American Voice”—whose “spirit was always pure pantheist and can still be found in woods and streams and blossom-covered lanes—not to mention railroad depots, late-sight saloons, and any town in America that has a funny name.” Mercer presents a problem for Sheed because although he composed a few good songs (the only ones mentioned are “I Wanna Be Around” and “Something’s Gotta Give”), his fame is as a lyricist—for many aficionados, the best of them all. In fact, his musical collaborators include a number of the central characters in Sheed’s book—most prominently Arlen, but also Kern and Carmichael. So why is he included here, with a chapter of his own, in a book about composers? And why is this chapter so heavily—almost exclusively—biographical? Undoubtedly because, like everyone else, Sheed loves him. As Alec Wilder once put it to him, “You have to start with John,” and though Sheed doesn’t start with him, he can’t bring himself to leave him out.

Besides, Mercer is a perfect bridge to one of Sheed’s consuming interests: the songwriters of Hollywood. Not those who dropped in, like Berlin and Gershwin and Porter, but those slightly lesser talents who made their homes and fortunes there. He manfully (and to my mind, rightly) challenges “the unconditional contempt” that Alec Wilder felt for Hollywood—his bald insistence “that theater songs were better than movie songs.” Sheed, in fact, is fascinated by Hollywood—studio politics, the more or less free and easy life the songwriters enjoyed there in the Thirties and Forties, and the opportunities movie musicals gave them: a seemingly endless flood of films to supply songs for, and great performers to sing them, not just Astaire but Crosby and Chevalier, Judy Garland and Alice Faye, and on to Doris Day.

These lucky writers were both heroes and unknowns—heroes to the studios, unknowns to the public. Harry Warren, Richard Whiting, Ralph Rainger, Jimmy Van Deusen, Nacio Brown, Jimmy McHugh, Mack Gordon wrote hit after hit, even standard after standard, but they never achieved name recognition; you know their songs but you don’t know who wrote them. (Frank Loesser was as anonymous as the rest until he broke for Broadway.) Sheed lingers lovingly on all their careers and achievements, even their persons: “In the few photos I have seen, Van Heusen looks something like Senator John McCain, which is to say a comfortable, good-natured fellow, somewhat prematurely bald in a friendly sort of way, as if hair was pretentious.”

And La-la land itself?

I can verify that as late as 1950… Los Angeles still seemed like a cow town to eastern eyes, with a defiantly antiquated-looking trolley clanking its way from a vestigial downtown to a string of minimalist beaches without a dune or an honest-to-God wave to be seen. The water moved just enough to prove it wasn’t a lake, and it didn’t so much invite you in as put up with you when you got there—if, that is, you were one of those eastern nerve-cases keen on swimming. For everyone else, the beach was just another place to have one’s picture taken and to be discovered by a famous producer.

As for “that most sundering of places, Hollywood,” it’s “the home of divorce, where business partners break up even quicker than married ones and where even Siamese twins are likely to wind up just good friends.” Even so: “Hooray for Hollywood,” as the famous Whiting-Mercer song has it—“that screwy bally-hooey Hollywood,” which proved to be an Eden for so many songwriters until musicals as they knew them went under, and they were left high and dry by television, teenagers, and rock and roll.

Like all love letters, Sheed’s book is personal and immoderate—that’s what makes it so much fun; that, plus its pitch-perfect style and humor. Why, then, quarrel with it? Only because of some peculiarities that need addressing. Why, for instance, is the vastly talented (and highly dislikable) Vincent Youmans—“Tea for Two,” “Hallelujah!,” “I Want to Be Happy”—only dealt with in a coda? Is he really less important than friends of Sheed’s like Burton Lane and Cy Coleman who are awarded full chapters of their own? It’s graceful of Sheed to say that in the case of Jule Styne, he felt that Max Wilk, in his admirable book They’re Playing Our Song, “had done such a splendid job that there was no point doing another one.” But how to explain the absence, except for a couple of almost glancing mentions, of Leonard Bernstein, who doesn’t even get a look-in on a supplementary list of more than fifty names which appears in an appendix—a list that runs from Youmans and Sondheim and Fats Waller to such complete unknowns as Marìa Grever, Brooks Bowman, and Kerry Mills.

I can only assume that Sheed can’t forgive Bernstein for selling out, if not in the usual direction. How could the man who wrote such terrific songs for On the Town, Wonderful Town, and West Side Story have wasted his time on pretentious, boring stuff like the Jeremiah Symphony? (I’m in agreement with him there!) Gershwin, the closest parallel to Bernstein, may have dabbled in concertos and rhapsodies, but essentially he stuck to his real business, jazz, whereas Bernstein’s real business was classical music. And even though he produced a semi-operatic Candide in counterpoint to Gershwin’s Porgy, he more or less abandoned Broadway for the satisfactions of becoming one of the most famous conductors of our time. How could you, Lennie?

In the same spirit, “Austrian” Frederick Loewe is dismissed with two put-downs (and is also excluded from the supplementary list). His unworthy contribution: “scores set in Paris, London, and Scotland”—as if it’s the scores rather than the books of musicals which determine their settings. (So much for Gigi, My Fair Lady, and Brigadoon.) And then there’s Loewe’s partner, Alan Jay Lerner, who “for most of his firecracker prime…had been tied to Fritz Loewe.” Poor Alan.

We’re back to the beginning, with Sheed’s unyielding defense of his jazzy turf against Europe, classicists, operetta, rock, folk, country, and the rest. He’s done a wonderful job with the material that calls to him, but I can’t help feeling his turf is over-defended, and I wish his passions were more inclusive—for his own sake, not ours. How regrettable, it seems to me, that a man with such generous, perceptive love for George’s and Irving’s and Cole’s house should miss out on the pleasures to be had from the house of Motown, for instance, or from Hank Williams, or Bob Dylan, or Carole King and Gerry Goffin, or for all I know, from rap.

On the other hand, it’s gratifying—it’s moving—to discover that this brilliantly acerb novelist and critic has had so much joy for so many years from the music he does love and from the men who created it. He’s paid them back with The House That George Built, and we’re the beneficiaries.

This Issue

August 16, 2007