The House That George Built

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

Wilfrid Sheed has long been an admirer of the gifted American songwriters who provided the enduring melodies associated with the era of popular music from the end of World War I to the onset of rock and roll during the 1950’s. He has now written a series of essays about the important innovators and influences in the songwriting tradition. The result is The House That George Built: With a Little Help from Irving, Cole, and a Crew of About Fifty, a book that fans of these melodies will want to own both for the insights that Sheed provides and the many superb anecdotes he recounts about these composers and their works.

Sheed knew many of the songwriters and their intellectual world, and he has performed a labor of love in this volume. He is an unabashed admirer of the popular song as an art form and proceeds to make a strong case that the composers enriched the culture both of their nation and the world with their enduring melodies. The book grew out of essays he wrote for magazines such as The New Yorker about the Tin Pan Alley greats of that vanished era, and now he has collected them into a single volume. Sheed does not have the analytic depth of a Gene Lees or a Will Friedwald (neither of whom is mentioned in the text), but his enthusiasm for his subject carries the reader along.

George Gershwin is, as the title suggests, the dominant presence in the narrative. A composer who spun off melodies with ease, he was also a generous patron of his fellow songwriters. Gershwin was never jealous of the success of his colleagues. In ways large and small he encouraged them to excel, confident that their triumphs would only enhance his own achievements. That warmth of spirit pervades Sheed’s sketch of Gershwin’s all-too-brief career. Sheed captures well the ebullient essence of Gershwin. The rest of the book proceeds through a series of biographical essays on other famous and lesser-known composers, from Cole Porter to the less-celebrated Harry Warren.

Sheed is especially tart about the talented but unlikeable Richard Rodgers, whose capacity for self-involvement exceeded even his formidable gift for producing singable melodies. Sheed is in the camp of those who believe that Rodgers did his best work in the 1920’s and 1930’s with lyricist Lorenz Hart. Sheed argues that Oscar Hammerstein II, the partner of Rodgers on such shows as Oklahoma! and South Pacific, was innovative in his choice of themes but very much a practitioner of the older style of operettas. The life of Rodgers provides an edgy chapter amid the book’s warmth and nostalgia for its subjects.

Johnny Mercer is another enigma in Sheed’s analysis. Building on the analysis of Lees and Philip Furia in their recent biographies of Mercer, Sheed probes the mystery of Mercer’s large talent and manifest character flaws. In many respects, Mercer was as generous as Gershwin and very popular with his colleagues, yet at the same time he was a depressed alcoholic, trapped in an unhappy marriage, and longing for some imagined past tied to the Savannah, Georgia, of his youth. He could embark on profane, drunken tirades at parties and then send roses the next day as a kind of apology. Through it all, as Sheed shows, Mercer was capable of superb tunes and especially brilliant lyrics for such songs as “Laura,” “Skylark,” and “Moon River.”

The most enigmatic figure in Sheed’s survey of these composers is Harold Arlen, whose historical fame falls just below that of Gershwin, Rodgers, and Irving Berlin. The writer of such songs as “That Old Black Magic,” “Come Rain or Come Shine,” and “The Man That Got Away,” Arlen collaborated with Mercer and other lyricists to produce a significant body of high-class work. Later in life, however, he fell silent and became more reclusive. In such moments, there is a sense of tragedy that runs through Sheed’s narrative when he demonstrates that individuals who gave so much joy to others struggled with their own personal demons.

Sheed’s book abounds with telling phrases and witty observations. In his chapter on Hoagy Carmichael, he recounts how a friend, driving through Carmichael’s native Indiana, came upon a full chorus, standing on a hill, singing the composer’s “One Morning in May.” There are equally good insights into how Frank Loesser, working with author Abe Burrows, took the stories of Damon Runyon and transformed them into the wonderful score for Guys and...

(The entire section is 1836 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

Downbeat 74, no. 12 (December, 2007): 91.

Fortune 156, no. 3 (August 6, 2007): 102.

Harper’s Magazine 315 (July, 2007): 90.

Kirkus Reviews 75, no. 9 (May 1, 2007): 437.

Library Journal 132, no. 9 (May 15, 2007): 93.

Maclean’s 120, nos. 35/36 (September 10, 2007): 96-97.

The New York Review of Books 54, no. 13 (August 16, 2007): 14-16.

The New York Times Book Review 156 (July 22, 2007): 1-10.

Publishers Weekly 254, no. 20 (May 14, 2007): 46.

The Wall Street Journal 249, no. 152 (June 30, 2007): P6.