A Dozen Songs, a Dozen Notes- Standards From the Golden Age

Stardust Melodies: A Biography of Twelve of America’s Most Popular Songs , by Will Friedwald. Pantheon Books, 397 pages, $27.50.

Let’s suppose that Rip Van Winkle has overslept really seriously this time-say 50 years instead of his usual 20-his wake-up question now would surely have to be “Where did all the music go?” Why, for instance, is nobody whistling anymore? Or trying to learn the words and sing the harmony of this week’s hit on somebody else’s car radio?

Well, maybe it’s because one station seems to have a gardening show on it, and the next one a stock report, and would you believe “the evils of tobacco” on the third one? Has Father O’Mally been lying to us? Anyway, half the pedestrians seem to be talking into little telephones while the other half listens on little headsets.

It’s almost enough to send a man back to bed for a while. But not quite, because if old Rip tottered through the right door, he would also find better copies of, say, Louis Armstrong records or Fred Astaire movies-which don’t have to have those jumps and scratches after all-than he ever heard or saw in his last waking spell. And if he’s very lucky, he might even find a book like Will Friedwald’s that invests the old pop music with an intensity of description and analysis that would have seemed downright pretentious at the time. “After all, it’s only the Hit Parade,” one said-or just a little mazurka, or merely an unassuming polonaise. Intensity seems fine now.

Mr. Friedwald’s game this time is to take biopsies of 12 standards and, by tracing each stage of life-from chancy childbirth to demo, promo and prime on stage, screen and wax-show how incredibly rich and varied the whole music business was back then. When I recently asked Cy Coleman how and when he knew he’d written a hit, he said crisply, “When Tony Bennett makes the record.” Failing that, the song would presumably die unsung and leave no biography at all.

In the 1940’s and 50’s, lots of bands and singers could make your song a hit, but you might need all of them because there were so many other songs and records pouring onto the track, screaming for attention, that even the flops had biographies. And every recording session offered a shot at rebirth. Your baby could die this week as a fox trot and come back the next as a waltz or a rumba. Or how about trying a funny lyric this time? Or a few words in another language? (“C’est si bon beaucoup cherie,” “Bella, bella.”) When Tony Bennett sings it now, it’s official-that’s the way you sing it. But how do you choose even today among the 500-plus recordings that have been made so far of “Star Dust”? Split the difference? Moving right along with his 12 specimens, Mr. Friedwald still needs almost 400 pages to do them justice. How much space would you honestly need to describe the complete work-and nothing but the work-of the Jackson family? With Britney Spears thrown in?

Indeed, an honest book about the Jackson family might contain no music at all, just a mess of pictures and affidavits. Once you start mixing music with other stuff, the other stuff will inevitably take over because it’s always easier to talk about and think about. And Mr. Friedwald’s book, with its 12 songs that use among them exactly 12 notes, may seem positively austere if not monastic. But that is the price of the best. Once Elvis gave the public something to look at while listening-and not just at the movies, but in the bed and the tub and the other music rooms of home-America’s raging love affair with melody began gradually to cool off, and the Golden Age was over.

Fortunately the gold is still out there, as sure as Beethoven, and an amazing amount of it is real. Gershwin, Porter and the boys were not hacks, and one could easily choose 12 other standards, and 20 more after that, and take just as long or longer over it.

In real life, for instance, the Rodgers & Hart song with the longest legs was probably “Blue Moon,” which made it all the way into doo-wop, but who wants to write about that? A catchy tune with a parody commercial lyric-both men deserve better. So Mr. Friedwald does “My Funny Valentine” instead, which had no life to speak of at the time but one hell of an after-life. Contrariwise, Jerome Kern’s all-time favorite by now is surely the incomparable “All the Things You Are,” but “Ol’ Man River” makes a better story.

One imagines amicable arguments between author and publisher over each title, because this makes great arguing music, and because Mr. Friedwald comes across as a good man to find on the next barstool, with a nice sense of when he’s boring you and when he isn’t, and of fine points like exactly how much cold water to dump on received legends without killing them outright. Thus “Star Dust” may have come to Hoagy Carmichael in a single take as he gazed down a real country lane. But there’s evidence he’d already done some work on it, and composers do tend to remember things funny. W.C. Handy may have patched “St. Louis Blues” together from folk sources, but Handy was such a snob that he might actually have spread this rumor himself: better to be a scholar of folklore than a lowlife, in his book.

Ideally, our mythical bar should come with a piano, so the author can jump down and play a few chords here by way of illustration (in other words, you need to know basic notation to enjoy this). Otherwise just belly up to the book again and listen to the stories.

The great Kurt Weill spent half his life vainly trying to catch a truly American sound, without ever knowing that he’d already caught one before he left Berlin. At any rate, “Mack the Knife” sure sounds American by now. And the pure dumb luck award undoubtedly goes to Herman Hupfeld’s “As Time Goes By.” To wit: A minor playwright sticks an old song in a minor play and sells it to the movies. No big deal-the movies were buying seed catalogs back then. But then the miracles start coming. The movie actually gets made. The writer insists on the particular song being kept. Unforgettable dialogue arrives via the Tooth Fairy and once-in-a-lifetime performances are turned in by the usual suspects, and you know the rest.

“Joe, I know you’re getting anxious to close.” Even mythical bartenders go to bed earlier these days, and tonight’s specimen is not just anxious but already closing-it seems some world leader is going on Letterman shortly, and Joe still has 100 exercise units to account for-so you’d better talk fast, mister.

O.K., do you know the one about “Body and Soul”? Johnny Green is this whiz kid who graduates from Horace Mann at 15, Harvard at 19, economics major. And then he writes this incredibly passionate song strictly by the numbers. So here’s my question: Is musical feeling basically just a function of technique? Don’t try it on your own computer, huh? Maybe eggheads have feelings after all. O.K., O.K.

With no new music worth staying up for, or the lure of a last cigarette and then another, even the Broadway Babies are home by now getting their beauty sleep, and there often is “no one in the place” long before “a quarter to three.”

But if Rip Van Winkle is anywhere in earshot, he at least is wide awake by now. And believe me, I know.

Wilfrid Sheed is still at work on a book about the great American songwriters of the piano era.