Sunday, May 29, 2011

"The House that George Built: With a Little Help From Irving, Cole, and a Crew of About Fifty" Book Review

There are several ways in which to write a book on the subject of classic American popular song. One would be to collect a set of interviews when most of the main players – or their associates and progeny – are still alive. That’s the route Max Wilk took in 1974 with They’re Playing Our Song.

Another way would be to dissect the music in a theoretic yet accessible way, showing the reader exactly what made each song tick. That is what Alec Wilder did in his score-filled American Popular Song.

But by far the most effective approach would be this: live through the musical era which produced Star Dust, Blue Skies and The Man I Love as a musically sentient individual, absorbing every note through your pores. Next, develop into an extraordinarily talented music critic and novelist. Then live long enough to develop a sharp and seasoned sense of historical context in which to place the whole thing and – finally – pour it all into a single book.

That is what Wilfrid Sheed has done in his enormously entertaining tome, The House That George Built. A winning combination of insightful musical history and penetrating biography couched in cracklingly witty prose, The House That George Built is a brilliantly original opus which – aside from an occasional reference to another work – borrows very little from its predecessors.

While Sheed devotes entire chapters to all the major artists of the era (and even includes an appendix which contains one paragraph each of lesser-known composers – i.e., the “Crew of Fifty”), his central character – as trumpeted in the book’s title -- is George Gershwin, that amalgam of the classical and popular, who Sheed contends was the indisputable watershed composer of the era.

Wrapping one’s brain around the anomaly that was George Gershwin is a challenge but one that Sheed manages beautifully. He spills gallons of ink on Gershwin’s unique talent, of course, but he also spends a great deal of time debunking the fallacy that Gershwin was an egomaniac, giving myriad examples of Gershwin actively helping younger composers (and basically anyone) within his reach. Along the way, Sheed paints a fascinating portrait of a brilliant and hyperactively gifted individual who practically dared death to catch up with him.

The House That George Built contains a plethora of penetrating insights which are often couched in outrageously piquant images. For instance, in attempting to explain the phenomenal talent of Irving Berlin – a composer who could hardly play the piano – Sheed explains that “it was like someone learning to dance with a booklet in his hand telling him where to put his feet. But this is where the miracle kicks in, for the novice suddenly begins to dance like Fred Astaire.”

Divided into five main sections entitled The Piano Era, Consequences–The Great Jazz Songwriters, The Stage–Broadway Swings, Hollywood–The Sugar Daddy and Survival on Broadway–The Curtain Won’t Stay Down and devoting a chapter each to all the major composers from Arlen to Van Heusen, The House That George Built is a compelling and delightfully insightful read on what is arguably the most melodically rich era of American popular song.

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