Hoagy Carmichael, the composer of "Star Dust," "Skylark," "Georgia on My Mind," "Heart and Soul," and "Two Sleepy People," among dozens of imperishable songs, was born in Bloomington, Indiana, on November 22, 1899—a hundred years ago tomorrow. If his centennial passes by relatively unnoticed, as I fear it might, the only good explanation will be that there have already been so many centennial celebrations this year, beginning with Duke Ellington's and Ernest Hemingway's, that a predictable element of fatigue has set in. Carmichael wasn't the greatest of the songwriters born around the turn of the century, nor was he the most prolific—not with such contemporaries as George Gershwin, Richard Rodgers, and Harold Arlen. But Carmichael was arguably the one whose melodies best captured the moods of this country from the 1920s to the 1940s, a time of enormous change in America.
"Star Dust," Carmichael's most famous song, which he first recorded as an instrumental in 1927 and to which Mitchell Parish added lyrics four years later, has endured for so many generations (I first heard it done by Billy Ward and the Dominoes, on the near-operatic doo wop version they recorded in 1957) that its specificity to its own time is often overlooked. It is to popular song what The Great Gatsby is to the novel, a distillation of romantic wanderlust that seems at once quintessentially American and specifically Midwestern. Quite apart from Parish's lyrics, Carmichael's melody is as evocative of sophistication paid for with the loss of innocence as the Fitzgerald character Nick Carraway's memories of the chatter of frozen breath on Chicago train station platforms and