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A Sentimental Journey into the Golden Age of Song

For American songwriter and composer Cole Porter, writing lyrics was easier than writing songs. Porter is shown here in New York in 1952.
Slim Aarons/Getty Images
For American songwriter and composer Cole Porter, writing lyrics was easier than writing songs. Porter is shown here in New York in 1952.

If there was ever a time in American music that gets music lovers humming, it's the roaring period from the 1920s to the 1950s.

It has been called the great period of popular song: Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Duke Ellington, Cole Porter and Harold Arlen, among others, wrote signature tunes that today's cocktail lounge players know by heart.

In The House That George Built, Wilfrid Sheed's first book in a dozen years, the novelist and critic shares his views on the music of the great American songbook. At the outset Sheed, 76, tells readers that his book "is a labor of love." Since childhood, Sheed listened to and loved the work of George Gershwin and many other composers of the era. But he also spent time with some of the greats, and relays an insider's perspective in his biographical and character sketches.

The House That George Built traces the evolution of the jazz song, then focuses on the artists who make the period great. Sheed tells the story of Izzy Baline who changes his name to Irving Berlin, marries an heiress and writes a series of hits including "Always" and "Cheek to Cheek."

In his brief but extraordinary career, the ego-driven George Gershwin straddles Tin Pan Alley and Carnegie Hall, churning out standards such as "Someone to Watch Over Me," "The Man I Love," and "Love Is Here to Stay."

Sheed also brings readers into the writing process, touching on how artists like Duke Ellington and Hoagy Carmichael created some of their great tunes.

Scott Simon joined pianist, singer, and writer Eric Comstock to discuss Sheed's book and the Golden Age of song.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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