New Book Celebrates America's Show Tunes

Let’s begin with a few things that critic and novelist Wilfrid Sheed leaves out of his book about the American popular song circa mid-20th century: “Peach Pickin’ Time in Georgia,” “Miss the Mississippi and You,” “Right or Wrong,” “San Antonio Rose,” “Stormy Monday,” “Smokestack Lightning,” “When My Blue Moon Turns to Gold Again,” “I Can’t Help It if I’m Still in Love With You,” “Hey, Good Lookin’,” “Crazy” and “Stagger Lee.” All of those songs were written or sung to wide acclaim in the period that Sheed covers, roughly the time between the two world wars with a 10-year slop over either way. Sheed makes a point of saying that he’s not trying to be encyclopedic, that he’s writing specifically about something he calls the jazz song, a concept that he never really pins down. To speed things along, let’s just say show tunes, which to Sheed are pretty much the end all and be all of American songs. It’s what he grew up listening to, and don’t we all love what we loved when we were young? Yes, but ... given what we know now, looking back, about the richness of American music at midcentury, the idea that someone writing on this subject would simply ignore hillbilly music, Texas swing, blues and early R&B, well, it just seems a little narrowminded.

That’s the worst thing I can say about “The House That George Built” (Random House), Sheed’s book-length mash note to Gershwin (the George of the title), Irving Berlin, Harold Arlen, Jerome Kern, Johnny Mercer, Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers and a small ballroom of other American songwriting geniuses. (Oh, sorry, one more caveat: no Kurt Weill, not even a mention. For shame, Sheed.) As book-length love letters go, this is one of the best. The temptation is just to quote and quote. Sheed on Hoagy Carmichael’s qualifications as “the great American songwriter”: “To my mind, he clinched that mythical title once and for all (in peaceable cahoots with [Johnny] Mercer) in the epic ‘In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening’ (‘In the shank of the night/ When the doings are right/ You can tell them I’ll be there.’). Different words may be used to describe different details now, but the whole laid-back essence of this country can still be found in the multiple cool of this song.” Sheed on Jerome Kern: “A certified genius now, both at home and at school, he hit the ground purring, with a coating of self-satisfaction that nothing could dent, and the aristocratic gift of not needing to be liked or understood, just a bow or a curtsy would do.”

Sheed is what used to be known as a writer’s writer, which is shop talk for a writer who may not sell that well but makes other writers whistle through their teeth. Speaking of whistling, Sheed expends a whole wonderful paragraph on what used to be a casual national pastime and its relation to the songs that were then on the stage, on the radio and in everyone’s head. Here’s the short version: “If you knew the music, you whistled it, as if all the backed-up melody in your head was forcing its way out through your mouth like steam from a kettle.” Sheed on the men and women who wrote for Tin Pan Alley is wonderful stuff, but one suspects that Sheed on just about anything would be almost as wonderful. Maybe more wonderful, in fact, when he doesn’t like something, e.g., Sheed on Hollywood: “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.”

The market for writer’s writers, though, like the market for Broadway songs, is a sometime thing these days. Time was, not even 20 years ago, when a writer could make his or her reputation doing a verbal fan dance on just about any subject. Even when there was legwork involved, you didn’t go to these characters for reporting. Has anyone ever truly learned anything from Wolfe or Mailer or Didion? Maybe a little. But what you paid your quarter to see was the literary equivalent of a two-headed baby in a bottle. You wanted some wow, some literary eye candy, and there were plenty of writers ready to serve it up. Today, that’s all but gone, as dead as the wooden roller coaster, thanks to ... what? The Internet? The many-tentacled entertainment behemoth that makes so many claims on our time? Our impatience with flash or ephemera? Our need to get information quickly and simply? (Gershwin, George, born 1898—hey, Google it yourself). For a variety of reasons, we are unwilling any longer to while away the afternoon with a book that’s the hardcover equivalent of a dorm-room bull session. Sheed wants his readers to argue with him, but I’m afraid he won’t get a fight because people are—or claim to be—too busy. Do they even have fights like that in dorm rooms any longer?

Fight is maybe putting it too strongly, since it suggests polemics à la Ann Coulter or Rush Limbaugh. Sheed is no bomb thrower. He’s a civilized guy with something on his mind. And come to think of it, maybe you do learn something from a writer this smart. For starters, you learn some useful ways to think about things. If you want to learn how songs work, then you need to read Sheed’s late pal Alec Wilder’s classic “American Popular Song.” But if you want to learn how to think about songs and what they mean when they’re new and what they mean 50 years down the line, then you should waste some time with Sheed. He’s a master of the throwaway line (“Gossip, which is the research department of the obituary page ...”), but he’s also a guy who’s got something to say.

Try this, on how, for a few shining hours long, long ago, Johnny Mercer was the king of the songwriting cats: “To clinch his monopoly, Johnny looked and sounded exactly like people wanted him to: with a Huck Finn face, a gap-toothed grin, and an old shoe of a voice that reminded bandleader Paul Whiteman of a man singing in his sleep. Most of the great songwriters, as we’ve seen, looked like something else, but Mercer could have won an open casting call for the part of himself. When an artist resembles his work (as did Picasso, Gershwin, Hemingway), he seems twice as much of a genius, and frequently picks up all the marbles for his generation.”

Now there’s a truth that no professor ever taught. Sheed’s College of Musical (and Other Kinds of) Knowledge now in session. So set ‘em up, Joe, because he really does have something you oughta know.