The House That George Built

David Rickert By

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The House That George Built
Wilfred Sheed
Paperback; 368 pages
ISBN: 0812970187
Random House

Why were so many more good songs written during the first half of the twentieth century than the second half? Wilfred Sheed, who believes this to be the case, presents two theories in The House That George Built. One is that there were many more pianos in households during the 1920s and 1930s than there are in the 2000s, thus providing more opportunities for potential songwriters to discover their talents while banging away at the keyboard in their spare time. The other is that people whistled more, which not only led to the spread of the songs, but also made for better melodies. (Whistle any of the great Tin Pan Alley songs followed by something more modern and you'll see Sheed's point; the old songs truly are more whistle-worthy.)

There were other factors at play, of course, but there is no question that the number of great American songs being written tripled during the heyday of Broadway and Hollywood. There hasn't been a similar flurry of creativity since.

Sheed has written a lively and entertaining book detailing the songwriters who created those enduring tunes—Richard Rodgers, Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Harold Arlen—you know the names, or at least the songs. It's a welcome addition to the history of popular song; most of these composers have received biographical treatment before, and Will Friedwald even chronicled the history of a number of songs a few years ago. But few have attempted a look at so many of the people who were responsible for the tunes we know so well.

One strength of the book is that Sheed is old enough to have been around when a lot of these songs were published, and even came into contact with many of their composers in their later years. To keep up with the atmosphere of congeniality, Freed refers to them by their first names, giving the sense that he's telling stories about a bunch of old buddies. He is exceedingly knowledgeable about the songs he writes about and is not afraid to express his preferences for certain songs over others (he calls "All the Things You Are" a perfect song and, in his description, it's hard to disagree.) There is a wealth of entertaining anecdotes; Gershwin, who many looked to for guidance, said he had more songs in his head than he could possibly write down (and given the consistency of his output, this was probably the case.) But what comes through most of all in profiling these men is seeing how their lives intersected. The congenial competition among them was a huge factor in creating so many memorable tunes.

Another strength is Sheed's writing style. He employs the same dry wit and accessibility of another British jazz writer, the late Richard Cook, that makes the Penguin guides to jazz on CD such a treat to browse through. Admittedly, his writing style takes a little getting used to; he meanders around his topics, appearing to free associate as he goes. But once you get used to it, Sheed is the kind of writer who makes you want to read other books by him, even though they may not be about a subject of interest, simply to get lost in his prose. His take is not meant to be comprehensive or definitive, but rather a glimpse at the careers of these great men. In most cases he dispenses with the early years, preferring to jump right into the songwriting.

The House That George Built is a wonderfully illuminating story of the songs and songwriters making up so much of the great American songbook. On top of that, it's a tremendously well written book, the kind that lands on best seller lists simply because of the style. It's also a handy reference for those who want to know more about the people behind the songs they hear. Occasionally jazz musicians will create an album of covers of newer songs that they claim are the new standards; Sneed's book argues that not only do the new tunes fail to measure up, but there's not likely to be such a string of great material ever again.

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