The Era That Popular Music Built

Article excerpt

July is the time to celebrate what's best in American history and the American "spirit," and nothing expresses that spirit -- the heart, the romance, the soul of being American -- better than the popular song.

Wilfred Sheed's big, appreciative history of the golden age of American popular music -- roughly 1925-1950 -- is all about the spirit of the song. Sheed grew up in Britain and arrived in the United States in 1947, at the tail end of the great age of radio and of Broadway and Hollywood musicals.

"The House That George Built" -- George being George Gershwin -- is a quirky, highly personal and subjective history that rarely settles on any strictly factual line. "A labor of love, not a work of scholarship," the author calls it.

Sheed, the author of six novels, including "Boys of Winter" and "Office Politics," was friends in their later years with a number of the composers he writes about here. He lived in the same apartment building as lyricist Yip Harburg, knew Hollywood songwriter Harry Warren, "king of the unknowns," to whom this book is dedicated, as well as Harold Arlen, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, a "handful" of songwriters' grown children, and Michael Feinstein, archivist to both the Gershwin brothers and Harry Warren before he became a star himself.

"Songs are circumstantial in ways that headlines can never be," Sheed writes, meaning that we experience songs in specific times, places and situations. …