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Washington Lawyer

Legal Spectator: Thanks for the Memory

From Washington Lawyer, October 2007

By Jacob A. Stein

Legal Spectator

Wilfrid Sheed’s new book, The House That George Built, gives the history of American popular song from the 20s through the 40s. He says these songs are “far and away our greatest contribution to the world’s art supply in the so-called American Century.” An understatement. Those songs, the movies, and the 1936 convertible Ford made the whole world envious and changed everything ever after.

Now please return with me to the 1930s, those sad days described by Yip Yip Harburg in his Depression song, “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” (Why am I standing in line, just waiting for bread?). I am in Rudy’s barbershop, reading a frayed film magazine. I ask Rudy if I can take it with me. He said it was mine to take, but why did I want it. I lied. I said the magazine had a story I was reading.

If I told the truth I would have said I wanted the ad in the back of the magazine. It said that for 50 cents, I will get the secret of writing a popular song. No Musical Skill Required. That got me. No Musical Skill Required.

A few days later I received from the mailman a package that contained a 10-page secret rhyming dictionary with the rhyming words used by Irving Berlin, the Gershwins, Cole Porter, and Johnny Mercer.

Words like honey and sunny, blue skies and blue eyes, seem and dream, moon above and love, romance and take a chance, swing and any old thing. I since have learned the French have 51 rhymes for amour. We must do with dove, above, glove, and shove.

Included in the package was a red kazoo with instructions. I was to use the kazoo to hum the melody that went with my lyric. I was instructed to get a friend who knows music to write the notes I was kazooing.

Mr. Sheed, as far as I know, has not written a popular song. Nevertheless, there is evidence he answered the same ad I did. I say that because he has used in his book most of the words in that 10-page secret rhyming dictionary. Sheed’s book is an extended Tin Pan Alley 1930s lyric.

His words dance, skip, and jump off the pages as if Fred and Ginger were reciting them. It’s as if Mr. Sheed sat right down and wrote himself a letter. And if that isn’t so, he will wait until the real thing comes along.

Mr. Sheed’s list of songwriters includes six who went to law school. There is Cole Porter (“My Heart Belongs to Daddy”); Hoagy Carmichael (“I Get Along Without You Very Well”); Kim Gannon (“Moonlight Cocktail” … Coupla Jiggers of Moonlight); Arthur Schwartz (“Dancing in the Dark”); Harold Rome (“My Heart Sings”); and Ralph Rainger (“Thanks for the Memory”). They chose to write Broadway melodies rather than stand up in court and have their uncontested request for a continuance denied.

Irving Berlin did not go to law school. His is an only-in-America story. He arrived in New York in 1893 as a five-year-old immigrant. He had no schooling. No musical training. He was a penniless boy walking the streets of New York’s Lower East Side.

Before he was 18, he discovered within himself the person who was to write more hit songs, one after another, both the words and the music, than any of his contemporaries. He had the thrill of walking to the footlights of a theatre he owned, singing his own songs.

An envious friend of his said that God gave Moses the Ten Commandments and then God gave Irving Berlin “White Christmas” and “Easter Parade.”

There is a story about Irving Berlin that connects with Winston Churchill. During World War II, Isaiah Berlin, the Oxford don, the master of all subjects, historical and philosophical, was stationed in Washington to give London his views on the special relationship between the USA and England. Churchill enjoyed reading the reports. He asked that Mr. Berlin be invited to attend a White House dinner that Churchill was to attend. When Churchill and Berlin met, Churchill asked which of his many books and writings Berlin liked the most. Berlin replied, “White Christmas.”

Sheed says that “if there had been no Irving Berlin, there would have been nothing, for instance, quite like Harold Arlen [‘Stormy Weather’] either, or Jimmy Van Heusen [‘Polka Dots and Moonbeams’], or even Cole Porter [‘My Heart Belongs to Daddy’] in quite the same form.”

The “George” in the title of Sheed’s book is George Gershwin, whose parents, like Berlin’s, were immigrants. Gershwin connected up with popular music at a very early age. He wrote songs for Broadway shows and for movies. He described his astonishment at his own genius with the words of one of his hits—“How Long Has This Been Going On?” He died of a brain tumor at age 38.

Sheed describes his book as “a labor of love, not of scholarship, which means that I have been researching it for most of my life without knowing it—starting at the family piano, singing and memorizing Irving Berlin’s ragtime spin-offs, and ending with the last phone conversation with the last fellow addict fifteen minutes ago.”

I called Cole Porter to tell him of all the nice things Sheed said about him. He wrote a refrain to his song “You’re the Top” for me to pass on to Mr. Sheed:

Sheed’s the Top
He’s a Prettyman brief
He’s an Indian chief
He’s FDR He’s a Rolls Royce car
And there you are
He’s de trop of the Very Top
Of the Top

Jacob A. Stein can be reached by e-mail at jstein@steinmitchell.com.