The House That George Built: With a Little Help from Irving, Cole, and a Crew of About Fifty
Reviewed by Graham Reynolds, Fri., Sept. 14, 2007
The House That George Built: With a Little Help from Irving, Cole, and a Crew of FiftyBy Wilfrid Sheed
Random House, 309 pp., $29.95
The cover reads: "A History of the Golden Age of American popular music," a huge claim for a 300-page book. In this context, The House That George Built disappoints, lacking the depth of detail and analysis that such a history would require. Approached differently, however, the book can be rewarding, somewhere between a memoir and an extended op-ed page, an essay written by a well-informed expert full of swagger and free-flowing opinions. Sheed documents key players in the creation of classic American songs written between 1925 and 1950 that resulted from a unique blend of cultures, technology, and innovators in New York City. This meeting of African-American and Jewish traditions through many, but especially Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, and most importantly, George Gershwin, created the songbook known as "The Standards." Unfortunately, while all authors assume certain knowledge on the part of their readers, Sheed assumes too much and the book won't work for a beginner, unless that beginner likes to Google. What Sheed does share is a passion for these songs and their composers, an arc of their evolution, and the concept of the Gershwin household as a sort of ground zero for the movement. Rather than a "History" of the golden age of American popular music, The House That George Built is a charming, if occasionally meandering, glimpse at a uniquely American bygone musical universe.