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The Art of the Lyricist

John Tranter reviews

Ira Gershwin, by Philip Furia, Oxford University Press, 278pp

This piece is 950 words or about three printed pages long

Shelley claimed that poets were the unacknowledged legislators of the world, but then Shelley was mad. Poets have missed out on the law courts, but they have carved a comfortable niche for themselves in the business of advice to the lovelorn. In the modern world, rhymers have set the rules for popular emotions, especially when young folks’ fancies turn to thoughts of love.
     Poetry of course is everywhere, and has been since the invention of radio: vibrating through the walls of our homes and over the oceans, amplitude or frequency modulating waves in the radio spectrum to the tunes of popular songs and ads for hair cream, and squealing from a thousand Walkmans.
     Most of these song lyrics are drivel. The Romantic poet Keats set a bad example by rhyming “moon” and “June” in his poem “Endymion”, and it’s been downhill ever since. “Sun” and “fun” are generally the best it gets these days, as the Beach Boys remind us. But it’s not all rubbish. Much of this writing was cleverly done, especially in the twenties and thirties, and the best of it had a special sparkle.
     New York between the wars was America’s equivalent of the Elizabethan Age: exciting, dangerous, filled with the discovery of exotic art, music and literature. Dorothy Parker and the wits of the Algonquin “round table” were popular among the clever set, but much more widely popular among every set were musicians like the gifted George Gershwin and songwriters like his inventive older brother Ira.
     They took America’s dreams and set them to music — George produced the tune, Ira crafted the words. They collaborated on hundreds of songs — by the time Ira died in 1983 he had written more than 700, including But Not For Me, Fascinating Rhythm, I Can’t Get Started, I Got Rhythm, Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off, Love Walked In, Shall We Dance, Someone to Watch over Me, and They Can’t Take That Away From Me.
     There were plenty of turkeys, too — songs like Uh-Uh, Blah Blah Blah, Please Send My Daddy Back to My Mother, The Gazooka, and I’m a Poached Egg.
     Ira was born Israel Gershvin in 1896. The family, Russian immigrants originally named Gershovitz, changed their name to Gershvin when they arrived in America (and to Gershwin later, when George had his first hit under that name.) They lived at various addresses in Manhattan as the father moved from one business to another.
     Ira was a clever boy — he won a scholarship to Townsend Harris Hall, a high school for bright kids from the Lower East Side. But when the family bought a piano, it was George — likeable, impulsive and energetic — who got to play it. Ira was the shy and thoughtful one — family friends said he was usually to be found standing a little to one side, out of the limelight, browsing through a book.
     The teaching of English has so degenerated these days that it’s hard to believe that Ira’s school curriculum included a rigorous training in classical verse forms such as the ballad, the triolet, the rondeau, the villanelle and the sonnet, but it did.
     In the first decades of the century the daily newspapers in New York were full of poetry too: there were columns devoted to light verse, and often a theatre review or sports notice would be written in couplets or quatrains. Ira used to cut out his favourite poems and paste them into a scrapbook, and imitate them in his school magazine. He was soon buying anthologies of verse, and eventually owned more than two hundred volumes. He drew on all that knowledge for his songs.
     In an introduction to Lyrics on Several Occasions, a 1959 collection of his work, Ira wrote “resemblance to actual poetry, living or dead, is highly improbable.” Maybe; but the literary skill required was formidable.
     His songs were apparently simple — they had to be — but that simplicity took a lot to achieve. He wrote, and rewrote, and rewrote again. His nickname among his colleagues was “The Jeweller”.
     The songwriter of the period was looking for a balance between wit — which often involved puns and complicated rhymes — and “singability”, the fluent flow of syllables along the surface of the tune. Ira achieved this balance more often than most, though many of his all-night efforts were dumped when the storyline of a musical or review — the “book”, in theatre parlance — had to be changed.
     Most of the Gershwins’ collaborative work was done for Broadway musical theatre. They moved to Hollywood in the thirties to tackle the movies — a much more difficult proposition due to the demands of the machinery of movie-making, and the callousness of the producers and studio bosses.
     They’d hardly begun when George died of a brain tumour in 1937, and the oomph went out of Ira’s life. He went on working, on movies such as A Star is Born and An American in Paris, struggling to contrive songs that would make the Hollywood moguls happy. He even wrote words for many of the dozens of unpublished melodies George had left behind, in a ghostly kind of posthumous collaboration.
     For a writer of sophisticated songs about love and passion, Ira’s own life seems to have been suburban and uneventful. Perhaps, like Flaubert, he led a dull life in order to create the conditions to enable him to make brilliant art.
     This book is mainly about that art, and it ends up being not much more than a chronicle of Ira Gershwin’s working life. That has its interest, and as such it is a useful volume. As one might say of a Broadway show, if the “book” is not so hot, at least the lyrics are memorable.

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