Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The House I Live In vs A World We're Stuck With

On 15 August 1945 Frank Sinatra was a guest on a one hour Victory Celebration special of Command Performance. Frank sang ‘The House I Live In’; his performance received an amazing ovation. I wish you could hear it, it’s live and no retakes and Frank nails it. A week later, 62 years ago today, he was in the studio recording it for a Columbia 78 rpm release. On the same day he also recorded one of his best-known songs from the early years - ‘Nancy (With the Laughing Face)’ - co-written by Phil Silvers of Sgt. Bilko fame.

‘The House I Live In comes from a short film with a screenplay by Albert Maltz, a card carrying member of the communist party, a man who was to became one of the renowned ‘Hollywood Ten’ of the McCarthy era, The title song by Lewis Allen and Earl Robinson the film ironically, given the events of fifty six years later, came out on September 11 1945. Everyone involved donated their time and the money that the film generated was given to various charities. As Variety said at the time “A short subject to make everyone concerned feel proud.”

The story is a simple one. Frank interrupts his rehearsals for a radio show to talk to a group of kids about the dangers of prejudice and anti-Semitism. While the film looks somewhat old fashioned today there is no arguing with the sentiment. Frank’s message holds good. “Look. Fella’s, religion makes no difference except maybe to a Nazi or somebody equally as stupid. Why, people all over the world worship God in many different ways. God created everybody. He didn’t create one people better than another.”

‘The House I Live In (That’s America To Me)’ was arranged by Axel Stordahl and recorded for the movie on May 8 1945, V.E. Day in Europe. Frank’s was not the original version of the song; the black gospel group The Golden Gate Quartet were featured singing the song in the movie Follow The Boys in 1944.

In early 1939 Billie Holiday opened at Cafe' Society in New York City, her first real taste of stardom. During her residency she recorded Lewis Allen's anti-lynching protest poem set to music – the remarkable, ‘Strange Fruit’. Her label refused to release it and when it came out opinion was sharply divided on the song, but there is no doubting its impact. While Lewis Allen’s words for The House I Live In may have lacked some of the impact of his earlier work but in its own way it was both important and relevant. It was important for Sinatra to be making this stand, and it was no publicity stunt. Frank showed integrity, a trait that would remain throughout his career, and his life. Frank also sings ‘If You Are But a Dream’ in the movie. In 1998 ‘The House I Live In’ was inducted into the Grammy Hall of fame.

If you’ve not heard ‘The House I Live In’ let me know, I’ll mail it. It is one of the most important songs of Frank Sinatra’s career - one that resonates today. Put aside its ‘of the times’ patriotism and listen to the basic sentiment. We could all learn from it. It’s all too easy to get lost in the wider-world chatter and clutter created by our media when what we should be doing is taking care of our own back yard, looking out for what’s around us and those who are close to us physically and emotionally. We've become diverted from what's really important by a whole series of shifts by the media's constant barrage of 'breaking world news'.


Welshcakes Limoncello said...

I do know the song and it is beautiful. I especially like the line "the right to spek your mind out". But I knew nothing of its history. Thank you.

Richard Havers said...

It's a great line. Allen was more a poet than a songwriter.

What is america to me
A name, a map, or a flag I see
A certain word, democracy
What is america to me

The house I live in
A plot of earth, a street
The grocer and the butcher
Or the people that I meet

The children in the playground
The faces that I see
All races and religions
Thats america to me

The place I work in
The worker by my side
The little town the city
Where my people lived and died

The howdy and the handshake
The air a feeling free
And the right to speak your mind out
Thats america to me

The things I see about me
The big things and the small
That little corner newsstand
Or the house a mile tall

The wedding and the churchyard
The laughter and the tears
And the dream thats been a growing
For more than two hundred years

The town I live in
The street, the house, the room
The pavement of the city
Or the garden all in bloom

The church the school the clubhouse
The millions lights I see
But especially the people
- yes especially the people
Thats america to me

r morris said...

Richard, I believe this song is available on the Columbia Years box set. It is a good song. While the song may seem kind of trite by today's PC standards, it was revolutionary at the time. This was when segregation and anti-Semitism and ethnic prejudice were still very common in the United States.

I have always admired Sinatra a great deal for taking the time to do this spot, and this song. For most of his life, he was a spokesman for the little guy or the oppressed. I could never quite understand why he turned from those ideals after the JFK era, at least politically.

His mom was quite the rabble-rouser and I think instilled in him a sense of justice and an empathy for the working man--of course, when he started out, Sinatra was a working-class guy, too, and he never really lost that hard-driving, perfectionistic work ethic.