Sunday, February 6, 2011

Wilfrid Sheed

Last month Wilfrid Sheed died. He was the writerly equivalent of my kind of singer-songwriter: his work isn't easily classifiable. I was drawn to his last work The House That George Built: With a Little Help from Irving, Cole, and a Crew of About Fifty. After reading in his obituary that Sheed wanted the following etched on his gravestone:

He wrote some good sentences.

I decided to go back to his book and find some, which I easily did in his essay on Indiana's Hoagy Carmichael.("...a geographical anomaly who just seemed to write generic American that sounded just right regardless of where you were--even in New York.")

Sheed fixes on Carmichael's wandering spirit, and the way he stayed balanced between worlds of the hip and square. Here are some of his prose gems on this point.

Hoagy Carmichael was, like many Americans, a divided soul, part nomad and part homebody, who seemed a little bit at home everywhere, but was probably more so someplace else, if you could just find it. In fact, you'll still see him on Greyhound buses, either hoping to change his luck in the next county or heading back after failing to...

Hoagy was bewitched by the currents of jazz that carried out to Indiana over his radio in the 1920s. It was

...a force at large now that could take him a million miles away anytime he wanted it to, while--and this was the curious part--leaving him back home when it was done.

Yes! This sense of "home" is what informs so many Hoagy songs that I love: "Memphis in June" and "Rockin'Chair" being my favorites in this regard. (Let's also not forget "Georgia on My Mind" of course). But also there is that wandering that Sheed alludes to that informs other great songs in his catalog: "Stardust" and "Hong Kong Blues" come to mind immediately here.

Carmichael, a Midwesterner, straddled two worlds in popular music.

...part of him would stubbornly remain a square in the world of Hip...we would find him actually squaring off, in the other sense, with Humphrey Bogart over a matter of politics, an Indiana Republican versus a Hollywood liberal, 'Put up your dukes.' (Fortunately their womenfolk easily restrained the two bantamweights.)

Sheed is excellent in describing how Hoagy developed as a songwriter. "Stardust" was his first composition, and it failed at first as a jazz song. But it was written when popular music was pivoting from "hot jazz" to a more contemplative, less dance-oriented style of jazz. Irving Mills, Hoagy's publisher, advised him to slow down the song, and paired him with Mitchell Parish, who wrote the dreamy immortal lyrics.

Sheed writes:

And just like that "Stardust" would prove that Hoagy could actually make money being himself, keep his integrity, and eat his cake too. With one song, Hoagy became both our most and least commercial composer. And meanwhile, he had become too set in his ways to sell out, even if he'd wanted to. Before he had a hit, he had a style.

And what a style! It is so singable, so hummable. "How Little We Know", "My Resistance Is Low", "I Get Along Without You Very Well", "Lazy River", "Lazy Bones", "Two Sleepy People" and "In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening", of which Sheed writes.

To my mind he clinched the title 'the great American songwriter' (if there is such a creature) once and for all with "The Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening"...the whole laid-back essence of this country can be found in the multiple cool of this song.

Take up Wilfrid Sheed in this terrific collection on our great songwriters. You will be in your easy chair listening and humming for hours!

Click here to watch Hoagy sing "Hong Kong Blues" in the 1939 film To Have and Have Not

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