three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
31-Nov-Dec-2007
user_rating: 
0

With a Little Help from Irving, Cole, and a Crew of About Fifty

A-The House That George BuiltWriter and critic Wilfrid Sheed has spent the better part of a lifetime (he’s 76) feeding his insatiable appetite for jazz, "far and away our greatest contribution to the world’s art supply in the so-called American Century." Here, Sheed goes behind the music. He offers anecdotes and biographical pieces that bring to life the most influential musicians and composers of the Golden Age—from its beginnings in New York City around the turn of the last century through World War II. He covers Irving Berlin ("our most gifted original musician"), Hoagy Carmichael, Duke Ellington, Cole Porter, Richard Rogers, Johnny Mercer, and, of course, George Gershwin (the "George" of the title and he of "the extraordinary aura"), among many others. These artists built Broadway and Hollywood, and Sheed reminds us why we continue to listen to their work.
Random House. 335 pages. $29.95. ISBN: 1400061059

NY Times Book Review 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Wilfrid Sheed’s jazzy prose … goes catapulting along, digressing like mad, never pedantic, a little frantic, which is just right: the jazz song, like all true art, is a flight from depression, indifference, the cold blank stare, the earnest clammy touch. … Sheed is in peak form, and the book just gets better and better." Garrison Keillor

Houston Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"Sheed has a special gift for putting into words exactly what distinguishes a given songwriter. … [T]here’s richness in it, and it will have you humming, whistling or downloading tunes while you read." Charles Matthews

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"The House That George Built, as the author himself points out straightaway, isn’t a book for hairsplitting academics, though only the most dunderheaded PhDs would question Sheed’s breadth of knowledge. … He blends it all together with a literary sensibility that mixes biographical anecdote, cultural history and high-wattage moonbeams of critical insight that light up the old standards." Charles McNulty

Wall Street Journal 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Mr. Sheed shuffles anecdotes and opinions about songs and songwriters as if they were so many bubblegum cards. Alec Wilder’s American Popular Song, published 35 years ago, remains definitive, but Mr. Sheed offers an engaging addendum." Ken Emerson

Washington Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"[Sheed’s] knowledge of classic American popular song came as news to me, but The House That George Built is written with authority and enthusiasm. … This music is, well, easy to love, but it’s not so easy to write well about, which is just what Sheed does." Jonathan Yardley

Boston Globe 3 of 5 Stars
"The book, while great fun to read, has real weaknesses. … Opinionated, quirky, informative, [The House That George Built] will have most readers humming, singing, seeking out recordings of the standards, ‘the official sound of America right through World War II.’" Floyd Skloot

Milwaukee Jrnl Sentinel 3 of 5 Stars
"Sheed’s book is … maddeningly unforthcoming in the standard time-and-event of historical narrative. But somehow, I don’t know how, it captures the spirit, the mood, the exuberance, the peak and the bittersweet decline of a great American art form." David Walton

Critical Summary

Although no musicologist, Wilfrid Sheed has been around the block. He has written acclaimed novels and nonfiction books, most notably on baseball and literature. Here, he displays a lifelong passion for jazz and recounts his interaction with some of the greats in this engaging, knowledgeable, opinionated, and occasionally—some of Sheed’s more obscure references may lose the neophyte—aggravating look at the Golden Age of music in America. The House That George Built doesn’t reach the status of, say, Alec Wilder’s American Popular Song or Max Wilk’s They’re Playing Our Song, in part because it’s not meant to be a coherent, formal history of the period. But Sheed’s book is a testament to the rich work that comes from a lifetime of devotion.

Cited by the Critics

American Popular Song | Alec Wilder (1972): Wilder begins his study of American music with ragtime from the 1890s, but he focuses on major songwriters whose careers spanned the period from World War I to 1950. Be forewarned: it’s an opinionated study, and George Gershwin is put in his place. In addition to Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, Richard Rodgers, Cole Porter, and Harold Arlen (who is a favorite) each rate separate chapters.