Great “American Song” Book: The House That George Built.Posted: November 8, 2007
In novelist and essayist Wilfrid Sheed’s latest book, each chapter is essentially a monograph on the life and work of one or another of the creators of the Great American Songbook. (That body of song written mostly for Broadway and Hollywood and mostly from the 1920s through 1960s, extending out a bit on either end.) Together the chapters cover most of the usual (and wonderful) suspects: George Gershwin, Harold Arlen, Richard Rodgers, Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Arthur Schwartz, Jimmy Van Heusen, Johnny Mercer, et. al. The book is an impressionistic study, but impressions can be valuable when they come from someone with something to say.
Three streams meet to provide the book’s source material. The first is Sheed’s reading of all the previous biographies. The second is observations that the songwriters (while they still lived) shared with Sheed in private conversation, about themselves and each other. The third is Sheed’s intimate familiarity with, passion for, and lifelong study of the music.
You might think the first stream has limited value–do we really need a digest of what’s already been written?–but the value is in Sheed’s critical eye and his powers of synthesis. He proves an astute “culler” of the available material, sorting the wheat from the chaff adroitly, and he puts the good bits together to build a persuasive narrative of the interior lives of these composers and lyricists. Some of his extrapolations from the available material are based on intuition, conjecture and speculation–and he is not shy about admitting this when it is so–but it’s informed speculation, and a master novelist’s superior insight into motivation, that he brings to the party. And so the results are seldom less than convincing, and never unworthy of consideration.
As for the second stream, during his sixty-plus years in this country Sheed (English by birth) made the acquaintance of several of the great GAS songwriters and those who knew them. (Sheed came here as a lad in 1940 and immediately fell in love with the music.) What they shared with Sheed, even if in some cases in only one or a few conversations, went beyond mere anecdote to include their perceptions of themselves and one another. And, of course, Sheed was able to form his own impressions of these writers from his encounters with them. A significant amount of this material is fresh, and hence, invaluable. Sheed integrates this data into his life/art narratives, the stories he builds about his subjects and their distinct contributions.
Although yet another quality Sheed brings to the book is a keen ear for the music, I didn’t always agree with him, and there are inaccuracies and errors. But these are minor complaints in light of the book’s qualities. And Sheed’s writing (last but definitely not least) is a joy to read. His prose is almost too rich here, causing you to rinse, lather and repeat just to appreciate all the nuances and felicities of language and allusion, but it’s too much of a good thing, not too much of a bad thing. The book, when all’s said and done, is fun. Sheed doesn’t strain for wit, he’s just born that way.