Lyricists, not baseball players, were my heroes growing up, and as a young man I found a group of writers—notably including my college mentor, William K. Zinsser, and Wilfrid Sheed—who idolized both. They would fall easily into evenings around a piano, challenging each other to remember second verses and tricky bridges, and sometimes I got to sing along. Zinsser wrote a tribute to popular songwriters, Easy to Remember, and the great editor Robert Gottlieb (another early hero) compiled a largely proseless list of his favorite lyrics with the scholar Robert Kimball, Reading Lyrics; last year Sheed published The House That George Built (issued this year in paperback), a collection of biographical essays about many of the great songwriters. These books are all in their way autobiographies, because the subject is so closely intertwined with the writer’s consciousness.
I may never write or even speak a sentence without some debt to the songwriters who shaped my cadences as strongly as my parents did, but Sheed’s own boyhood and coming-of-age, in England and the United States, were actually set to the songs he heard on the radio and on records, when those lyrics were literally in the air. So this book is as close as he is likely to come to a full-bore memoir.
The House That George Built lays out one idea: that the gregarious and generous George Gershwin—himself the successor to a line of distinctly American songwriters including Stephen Foster, George M. Cohan, and Irving Berlin—spun forth the group of writers who defined the form and brought it to its greatest peak. But after relatively disciplined essays on Berlin and Gershwin, the book becomes a fairly shaggy series of chapters on songwriters Sheed likes, some of them to his mind too-little recognized (Harry Warren, Richard Whiting, and others both supported and swallowed by Hollywood), some of them a bit too revered if undeniably great (Jerome Kern and Harold Arlen).
The conversations with himself—about what makes a song pass the “automatic memorization test,” or why it’s easy to think Johnny Mercer wrote ur-American songs he didn’t (he “could have won an open casting call for the part of himself”)—and with many of the songwriters he met over the years make for delightful eavesdropping, and stimulate much of the jazzy, irresistibly stylish writing that has always made Sheed one of our most readable critics and journalists. This isn’t an indispensable history or scholarly work, something it doesn’t set out to be. But it is an indispensable book about loving songs—and one that brings alive what too many people think of as a dead language.