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The House That George Built: With a Little Help from Irving, Cole, and a Crew of About Fifty (Anglais) Relié – 3 juillet 2007

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Chapter 1
The Road to Berlin

There are several ways of defining and measuring an era, but an excellent place to start is by checking out the media of the day and what they could or could not do at the moment. For example, when sound recording first came along, the singers belted into it as if performing to an empty stadium. The name that springs to mind is Caruso, the world’s biggest voice. But with the coming of microphones in the 1920s, singing became more personal, and the name became Bing Crosby, the world’s friendliest voice. So songs became brisker and less operatic, to suit not only the mike but the piano rack and the record cabinet. In short, the familiar thirty-two-bar song, which now seems to have been fixed in the stars, was actually fixed by the practicalities of sheet-music publishing and confirmed by the limitations of ten-inch records.

Or one might define an era in terms of women’s fashions and the consequent rise of impulse dancing on improvised dance floors. You can’t really jitterbug in a hoopskirt or bustle. Swing follows costume, and the big news was that by the 1910s skirts had become just loose enough and short enough to liberate the wearer from the tyranny of twirling through eternal waltzes in ballrooms as big as basketball courts, and freed her to do fox-trots and anything else that could be done in short, quick steps on, if necessary, living room floors with rugs rolled up. So that’s what the boys wrote for next. By the 1920s, the whole lower leg could swing out in Charlestons and other abandoned exercises. Songwriters celebrated that with a decade of fast-rhythm numbers. This has always been a dancing country, and never more so than in the Depression, when people trucked their blues away in marathons, or in seedy dance halls. “Ten Cents a Dance” was better than no income at all. And the Lindy Hop was as good as a gym class too.

And so on, through the arrival of women’s slacks in the late 1930s and their increased popularity in World War II for both work and play— Rosie the Riveter could jitterbug on her lunch break without leaving the floor. All she needed was a beat. Which brings us with a final bump and a grinding halt to rock and roll and the totally free-form dancing of today, which can be done with no clothes at all to a beat in your own head while you’re watching something else on television.

The huge, nonnegotiable gap between then and now is that in the past, music and dancing had always been disciplined by something or other. There had always been rules for doing it right, and even the wildest flights of swing and swing dancing had rested on a bed of piano lessons and dance lessons, and dress codes as well. Cab Calloway in a zoot suit was still a dressy man, a dandy; Cab Calloway in jeans or shorts over his knees would not have been dressed at all in the old sense. Going out dancing used to be an event, like going to church. Today all that remains are the rituals of prom night, which must seem weirder every year.

The era might also be measured in demographics or political cycles or even weather patterns. But the brilliant strand of music that, running through Irving Berlin and George Gershwin, has become the music of the standards began with a bang—with pianos being hoisted into tenements, a magnificent and noisy event, and it ended with guitars being schlepped quietly, almost parenthetically, into ranch houses and split-levels to herald the arrival of the great non-event that has been with us ever since.

But first the bang, then the whimper. There was no way of receiving such an impressive object as a piano quietly in such close quarters. Whether it bounced up the staircase or jangled its way over the fire escape and in through the window, the neighbors knew about it all right, and would be reminded again every time Junior hit the keys and shook the building. Short of a Rolls-Royce or carriage and horses, there was never such a status symbol, with the consequence that although “all the families around us were poor,” said Harry Ruby, “they all had pianos.” For such important matters, time-payments were born.

So the parents went into hock and found room for the damn thing someplace, and artistic Darwinism did the rest. You buy a piano for Ira Gershwin, and George is the one who plays it, although sometimes you had to live through a week of hell to learn this. As anyone knows who has ever housed a child and a piano, every tot who walks through the door will bang the bejesus out of the new toy for a few minutes, get bored, and come back, and back again, and bang some more, but then successively less and less until the dust starts to move in and claim it. . . . Unless the child finds something interesting in the magic box, a familiar tune that stammers to life under his fingers, or a promising and unfamiliar one; a chord that sounds good, and rolls out into a respectable arpeggio as well, with, saints be praised, a bass line that actually works for a bar or two—after which a gifted kid with an instrument is like a teenager with his first car and a tank full of gas. Where to, James: Charleston, Chattanooga, or Kalamazoo? Two-steps, or concertos, or parts unknown?

“Well, he’ll probably settle down eventually,” hoped the parents who had only bought the thing for the sake of respectability and maybe for some civilized graces around here. It speaks wonders for those parents in that era that they knew that being a famous lawyer or doctor wasn’t enough in life. If you weren’t a person of cultivation, you were still a bum.

But some of the kids insisted on being bums anyway, and sometimes the piano only made them worse. There were low-life uses for the instrument as well as high, and all the classical music lessons the parents could shout for weren’t always enough to keep Junior out of the gutter, especially once ragtime had come along, in Frank Loesser’s phrase, “to fill the gutters in gold.” Talk about subversive —not even Elvis Presley rolling his hips had as many parents and preachers up and howling and sending for the exorcism unit as ragtime did. After all, not too many kids have hips like Elvis’s, but anyone who could play “Chopsticks” or whistle “The Star-Spangled Banner” could syncopate, and in no time, as Irving Berlin bragged in two of his hits, “Everybody’s doing it” in one form or another, from “Italian opera singers” learning to snap their fingers, to “dukes and lords and Russian czars,” who settled for throwing their shoulders in the air and no doubt rolling their eyes. And there was no place to hide from it, even in an ivory tower. In fact, it would become a staple of B-movie musicals to show a professor at first frowning mightily as he hears the kids jazzing up a well-known classic, only to furtively wind up, beneath the gown or the desk, tapping his own foot too, as if the body snatchers had seized that much of him. And if the “professoriate” and the “long hairiate” couldn’t stand up to it, the kid at the keyboard wasn’t even going to try. Because this is where ragtime belonged, its birthplace, its office and its home, and the great Scott Joplin was still making tunes out of it, which maybe they could use in place of Czerny’s finger exercises while no one was listening.

“What’s that you’re playing? That’s not what you’re supposed to be playing.” Someone was always listening, and one imagines a thousand fights a day over this as George or Harold or Fats would stray once more from his scales and his Bach-made-easy and start to vamp the music of his pulse, the music of the streets.

Well, just because everybody was doing it didn’t make it right. But remember: There was no other living music around except the music of the streets; there were no radios or records, or even talking pictures. Unless your parents took you to the theater, like Jerome Kern’s, or to concerts, like no one I can think of, “good” music only existed in the form of hieroglyphs on a page, which meant that in effect it was a dead language, and a growing child could not survive on dead languages alone. So they listened instead to the sounds that seeped out of the vaudeville house rear windows and under the doors of taverns, and to the riffs of the barrel organs and ice cream trucks playing “Nola” and “The Whistler and His Dog,” and from the upstairs windows of the tenements themselves, where seditious neighbors had actually acquired the latest sheet music and couldn’t wait to bang it out on their new pianos, for the rest of the community to swing to and curse.

But perhaps the most effective medium for spreading the new music around were the average absentminded whistlers and hummers whose names were legion in those days, and still semi-legion when I was growing up in the 1940s and ’50s. In fact, I have a vague feeling I was one myself. Anyway, you had little choice about it. 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. And this medium was no respecter of class or location either. As late as the 1950s, you could still hear respectable bankers and businessmen in stark colors and homburg hats whistling their way to work like newsboys or Walt Disney’s dwarves. The very last time I heard a recognizable tune being whistled all the way through, it turned out to be coming from a natty distinguished senior in the next booth of a men’s room who was whistling while he whatever. By that point in time, this man’s whistling had become the only sound in a quiet building, like a trumpet blowing “Taps” over an empty battlefield, but imagine how that whistle sounded for the first time, back in the days when the natty old man was still a scruffy old boy adding his two cents’...

Biographie de l'auteur

Wilfred Sheed is the author of six novels, two of which, Office Politics and People Will Always Be Kind, were nominated for National Book Awards. He has written three collections of criticism, one of which was nominated by the National Book Critics Circle. Among his other books is a notable memoir of Clare Boothe Luce, who told him that Irving Berlin was the vainest man she ever met and George Gershwin one of the most basically modest. He lives with his wife, Miriam Ungerer, in North Haven, New York

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Commentaires client les plus utiles sur (beta) 47 commentaires
89 internautes sur 93 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
A song in his heart 5 juillet 2007
Par Shalom Freedman - Publié sur
Format: Relié
This is a book about the composers of America's most popular popular music, the music that came into being from roughly 1920 to 1950. It is not a formal treatise or scholarly study but rather a kind of fan's notes ramble, an enthusiastic exuberant high- spirited riff. English- born novelist, essayist Sheed shows great love for , and tremendous knowledge of American popular song. He writes with worshipful insight of the two greatest of the founding fathers of this particular American genre, George Gershwin and Irving Berlin. Both of these children of Russian Jewish parents found in black Blues and American jazz a fundamental inspiration. Both inspired many others and Gershwin particularly was a magnanimous helpful friend to other composers. Sheed cares for the Music above all and gives preeminence to those who create it - the lyrics are significant but secondary. Sheed writes not only about the major figures, Kern, Berlin, Gershwin, Cole Porter but also about fifty others. One special one for him is someone he knew personally , Harry Warren. Warren the composer of "I only have eyes for you' was a modest figure in the background but for Sheed a friend and great composer to whom he dedicates the book.
All the readers of this book I know of have spoken of what great pleasure they had in reading it. The songs of these great composers entered Sheed's heart and his writing is his song of appreciation back to them.
28 internautes sur 32 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
He knows the score (but that's not quite enough any more). 18 août 2007
Par Caponsacchi - Publié sur
Format: Relié Achat vérifié
Sheed is a witty, but not self-indulgently or distractingly so, prose "stylist," not a musician. In that capacity he's "like" a jazz musician riffing on a familiar theme (it's tough to come up with new material about the Great American Songbook and its composers) and of particular use to those readers who love the music and wish to express what it means to them as much as it expresses its meanings to them. Sheed is such a reader's "voice," and probably a more welcome one than that of the historians, musicologists, composers and lyricists.

I don't think he's disparaging the musicians by showing us their flaws and vices. A Charlie Parker or Miles Davis is certainly no less an artist to me because of his drug habit or even, as in the case of Bird, his selfish, childish, and exploitive ways. If anything, the unpleasant behaviorisms of artists ranging from Buddy Rich to William Faulkner make it easier to relate to them as well as to sustain interest. If they were any better as human beings, their overwhelming talent and, even genius, would simply be too much to bear. Sheed also knows that while it's misguided to judge a book by its cover, in the case of the creative artist the book would no doubt be entirely different, most likely inferior, were the cover not what it is.

As for the melody vs. lyric flap, he's right. The most recorded popular song in American music history--"Body and Soul"--has an embarassingly bad lyric ("My love a wreck you're making, My heart is yours for the taking"--"ouch!" many times over). What counts most in the language of music is the notes, not the words. A song has to be able to stand on its own, apart from the lyrics (and John Coltrane certainly felt that Rodgers' music for Hammerstein did just that). Since the '60s we've been inundated by little more than bad recitative (ask any bar pianist or Saturday night saxophone player). On the other hand, great lyrics can 1. make a great melody an even richer experience; 2. help "shape" an infectious melody (for example, Porter's repetition of melodic motifs to fit the theme of "obsession" in countless numbers of his tunes); 3. bring to the melody the attention that it deserves if not requires to become a "standard." "Body and Soul" got lucky--a great melody and set of chord changes performed by an artist (Coleman Hawkins) whom every great player wanted to emulate.

All of the composers Sheed chooses to discuss are deserving, though it would be nice to have fuller consideration of Van Heusen, Styne, McHugh, Victor Young ("When I Fall in Love," "My Foolish Heart," "Stella by Starlight), and greater focus on isolated sublime melodies that have become jazz standards (e.g. Bronislaw Kaper's "On Green Dolphin Street"). If I had to limit myself to a single comprehensive yet surprisingly detailed book on great American popular music and its composers (their styles between the bars of the staff paper as well as in assorted bars about town), it would have to be Gerald Mast's "Can't Help Singing," which can be read for pleasure or used as a definitive reference work. What the music could use at this stage is a Ken Burns or another director's 20-part PBS series about these leading composers of "American music" and their songs. Just as Burns' jazz series showed us as much about race, ethnicity, and adversity as the music, the history of American song, with all of the Jewish immigrants who either worked their way up to Tin Pan Alley or were forced by economic necessity to temper their aspirations as "serious" composers, is equally fascinating and of no less significance. The Great American Songbook us an essential complement to the African-American "classical" music (jazz) that is America's "gift" to the arts; it's the indigenous real deal--an art form, not a "folk" expression--and for far too long it's either been taken for granted or simply dismissed as inconsequential elitist tripe.

In fact, reading books like Sheed's and going back to the songs themselves can't help but lead to an inescapable sense of the enormous influence of African-American cultural traditions (i.e. black music) on virtually all of the major American composers of the first half of the century (examples are too numerous to begin listing, but Berlin never tired of giving a new shape to what were once referred to as "coon songs," and Mercer, Crosby, Astaire loved to recreate minstrel routines (check out the song "Mr. Crosby and Mr. Mercer"); Arlen "escaped" from cantoring at the synagogue to writing shows at the Cotton Club; Gershwin thought he was writing jazz; and even the elitist and very "European" Kern is best remembered for, what else, "Ole Man River" (though seeing Irene Dunne perform Kern's "Can't Help Lovin' That Man" is to discover the indebtedness of the composer not just to spirituals but to the coon song tradition). So deep was the attraction to and love of indigenous African-American music that it's not much of a stretch to think of the most seminal songs of the "Great American Songbook" as primarily "black music." Ironically, the primary exception is Cole Porter who, according to Richard Rodgers, thought he had to learn how to write more Jewish before he'd master the idiom (perhaps contributing to the relative lateness of his first hit, "Let's Do It," in 1928). He'd have done better to put his ear to the ground and go directly to the source (though the effect of Robert Browning's poetry on his original syntax is undeniable).

Whatever, it's a fascinating, fruitful subject and adventure, and it's time to take more people along on it. Only a tiny percentage of us read books like Sheed's and are familiar with and care about the songs and their composers. Most college students I meet in the latter days of civilization as we once knew it have never heard of Crosby (unless it's his association with David Bowie) or Berlin or Gershwin or even "Body and Soul." At best, they just "might" know a single standard--"Somewhere Over the Rainbow." But those bluebirds certainly aren't singing on this side. They don't know any tunes.
18 internautes sur 21 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
And one more for the road 30 août 2007
Par Jon Hunt - Publié sur
Format: Relié Achat vérifié
By tackling an almost impossible task...that of categorizing, rating and recounting the lives of songwriters in the first half of the twentieth century, Wilfrid Sheed has given us a book that is literally all over the map. While offering some fine insights, the author has delivered a hodgepodge of information. It's more than a little bewildering.

Written in a kind of gossip column style, Sheed gets off to a good start with chapters on Irving Berlin and George Gershwin. Without these two men leading the way, it's hard to imagine that the songwriting of the 1920s and 1930s....the heyday of American musical culture... could ever have happened. Add in Cole Porter and you have the great triumvirate of composers. It's always a hard choice to know whom else to include in such a broad sweep of biography and Sheed makes some solid but some strange choices as well. Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen certainly, but Cy Coleman? It seems plausible that Coleman was added because Sheed knew him.

"The House That George Built" doesn't exactly drive a straight line from beginning to end. The book has a circular feel to it. There are very few dates listed and it more or less rolls around as if the author stayed too long at a Hollywood party. But it's Sheed's narrative style that can irritate. Just when you expect him to end a sentence he carries on....and on. Where crisp writing is due, he delivers oatmeal.

Sheed does do a service in comparing New York to Hollywood and why certain composers stayed in one place or the other...or tried one place and returned to the other. He points out that collaboration between composers and lyricists often didn't last long, which must make Rodgers and Hammerstein's time together seem like an eon. There are some good quotes....Richard Rodgers said, "I can pee melody". That's as succinct a delivery as one can get and it's right on target. And Cy Coleman, for all the questions about including him in the book, said something that is remarkably true... "It never occurred to me that the songs were written by different people", Coleman states, "they were all just The Radio".

Side appearances are made by Fred Astaire, Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra (to name just three) and Sheed is good at connecting the dots between their careers and the careers of the men who wrote songs for them. Yet I'm not sure any song would ever have been written without the ever presence of booze. It seemed to fuel every songwriter and broke many a man along the way.

"The House That George Built" has its moments, but Wilfrid Sheed's delivery is too clever and cute by half. By sticking to a more objective stance he would have toned down the narrative and made a more concise read. It's a shame because he knows his stuff.
6 internautes sur 6 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
Not quite the popular song primer it could have been 3 août 2008
Par Mark C. Gionfriddo - Publié sur
Format: Broché
"The House That George Built" by Wilfred Sheed seems at first glance to be the perfect primer to the story of our greatest American songwriters. Not since composer Alec Wilder's groundbreaking reference guide "American Popular Song" has there been a comparable effort to tie together the compositional timelines of Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Jerome Kern & Cole Porter, plus all of the lesser known songwriters they influenced. The main four were somewhat engaged in a friendly competition for top bragging rights as they wrote their greatest hits all about the same time- and for audiences as diverse as Broadway, Hollywood, and the fellow at the parlor piano just looking to learn the latest Tin Pan Alley hit.

From the introductory chapter, Sheed speaks to the reader as if he's across from you at the dinner table with a brandy, ready to regale you with wonderful tales and little known tidbits. And for the most part throughout the book, a compendium of newly written material plus essays that first appeared in Esquire, the New York Times, Time magazine and other print media sources, Sheed delivers: for instance, we learn that the famous "Street Of Dreams" was the focal avenue of the jazz world, Manhattan's 52nd Street; "Laura", the gorgeous movie theme by David Raksin with lyrics by Johnny Mercer was the one song that Cole Porter had wished he had written himself; Burton Lane was discovered playing piano as a lad by Gershwin's mother and soon became a protégé of the master; and so on. But in order for us to understand our famous subjects, Sheed must get inside their private lives, and in most cases, inside their heads. He gets a lot of this interesting information thanks to help from friends and fellow musical aficionados like Wilder, Michael Feinstein, Ann Ronnell (composer of "Willow Weep For Me" and Gershwin's friend), Cy Coleman, Lane and many wives and offspring of his subjects. So we also learn that both Harold Arlen and Larry Hart (Richard Rodgers' first lyricist) were manic depressives; Jerome Kern had a penchant for risky gambling; Irving Berlin had low self-esteem; Rodgers became an uncontrollable alcoholic; and Cole Porter had a surprising religious side in his later years despite his long time penchant for a gay party lifestyle. Admittedly, some of this dishy stuff reads a bit like tabloid fodder, but Sheed offers it as matter-of-factly as possible, presenting to us the human side of these very creative but often tortured geniuses.

Sheed shows us how our four main protagonists (Berlin/Gershwin/Kern/Porter) fit into the transition from classical music into jazz, America's own music, through the intermingling of African, European and Jewish music traditions. The needs and demands of the public also dictated how and what each of these men would write, for Broadway songs would have different expectations next to songs written for Hollywood films. Sheed is right on target, but the slight drawback is that his chapters tend to make for slow reading. Yes, the psychological ramifications are interesting, but we do not really need to hear every detail about Kern's family or Porter's school life, and it often takes a bit of time to get to the stories we really want to hear about- the writing of these popular song masterpieces. After all, we expected this to be a book about music and its history.

The reader happens across an occasional lovely nugget of wisdom, such as Kern's analogy of songwriting being akin to fishing: " may feel twenty tugs on your line and only one of them will be a fish worth keeping, and it might sometimes take a while to know which one." But you'll often come across a tedious bit, like this run-on sentence about Rodgers: "From then on, his parents would magically cease to matter until they later showed up in the orchestra seats, warmly applauding their son- nice people, after all, in that context, who, rare among artists' parents, thoroughly approved of his chosen life: a life that he, perhaps in return, proceeded to keep as outwardly square as he possibly could, dressing and comporting himself like a banker, hiding any private sins in the best private manner, and eventually courting a full length a most suitable and ladylike young woman named Dorothy Feiner, to whom he tried vociferously to be faithful, for a while." Eek. This rambling type of prose gets difficult to sift through after a while, and is really more suited towards story `spinning' than delivering facts. Actually, with Garrison Keillor's warm praise for Sheed's book (front and center on the cover), it's easy to see a similarity between Keillor's Wobegon stories and Sheed's type of storytelling.

Sheed also has an annoying habit of overusing a literary device- a composer's own song titles as a reference to his own life situation. "By the end of it, Kern had learned, if nothing else, how to `let himself go'..." "Linda (Porter's wife) was still `nice to come home to' occasionally and `love' in one's fashion." I guess one could chalk this up to the material coming from different sources. The use of such a device wouldn't normally appear so often in a book, and it reads a bit too punny.

The book does have a well researched Appendix that cites numerous little known songs from the `two hit wonder' composers and songwriting teams of the period. Sheed sets a condition of two bonafide hits in order for these lesser known composers to be included in the listing. I found myself humming the tunes as I read the titles, forgotten gems like Isham Jones's "It Had To Be You", "Fools Rush In" by Rube Bloom, and Gene DePaul's "I'll Remember April".

To sum it all up: this book appears to be geared toward the intellectual set (most likely the type who get most of Porter's lyric double-entendres), and not the casual reader. For those who are musicians or interested in this particular genre, I do recommend giving the book a try. At the beginning I thought I would really love this book; by the end I realized I only liked and respected it. Despite the book's shortcomings, Sheed obviously has great love for these songs and the period from which they came. There is a lot of worthwhile material here- just be prepared that you'll have to dig for it.
9 internautes sur 10 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
Best Gershwin Book Ever 5 août 2007
Par John A. Akouris - Publié sur
Format: Relié Achat vérifié
Really well written! Great overview not only of Gershwin, yet giving credit to contempories that have not gotten the same press/recognition on their contributions to the great standards that we all enjoy today.
Kudos to the author! Keep this book within arms reach so as to be able to refer to it again and again.


John Akouris
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