Interview: Philip Furia
By Sarah Bell
There is not a time in his life when author Philip Furia did not enjoy writing. I had the pleasure to sit down with Furia to discuss his life growing up in the Pittsburgh area and his work. From the day he received his first typewriter to now, Furia continues to have an appreciation for writing that will never diminish.
Q: When did you begin writing, and why has writing been an important aspect of your life since then?
A: I don’t remember not writing. My father, who worked as a government clerk in downtown Pittsburgh, gave me an old Underwood typewriter, and I would sit in my room, overlooking the Monongahela River, streaked yellow and purple from dumpings from the steel mills between Duquesne and Homestead, and write something—poems, stories, plays (“creative nonfiction” had not been created yet)—every night. I still type with one finger. As I wrote, I would play records on my “HiFi” (High Fidelity phonograph)—Frank Sinatra, Doris Day, Polly Bergen. Rock ‘n’ roll was just underway in the mid-1950s, and I was a fan of Elvis and the Platters, but I also liked these older singers and the songs they sang. Since they could not—or would not—sing current rock hits, they turned back to Broadway and Hollywood songs of the 1920s, ‘30s, and ‘40s--the songs of Cole Porter, Rodgers & Hart, the Gershwins and other songwriters who created the standards (the British call them “evergreens”) we now call “The Great American Songbook.”
All of those lyrics seeped into my memory as I listened—and wrote--night after night, year after year. About twenty years ago, I started writing about the lyrics of those songs in books such as The Poets of Tin Pan Alley: A History of America’s Great Lyricists (Oxford, 1990). We moved recently and, during packing, I came across those old LPs. The very first one I bought was Doris Day’s Hooray for Hollywood (I had a junior-high crush on her after seeing Calamity Jane). As I looked at the songs listed on the cover—“Over the Rainbow,” “Blues in the Night,” “The Way You Look Tonight”—I realized that I had written extensively about each one of them in several of my books.
Q: Why did you choose to write non-fiction?
A: For twenty-five years (and twenty-five winters), I was an English professor at the University of Minnesota, and my specialty was 20th-century American poetry. I wrote scholarly articles, and my first book—God forgive me!—was on The Cantos of Ezra Pound. Because much of this poetry—Pound, Wallace Stevens, Hart Crane—was so difficult for students, I began introducing painting, music, and other modern arts into the course. Students still found Gertrude Stein incomprehensible, but they could see that Picasso was equally puzzling. I called the course “The Jazz Age,” and it helped me win a Fulbright professorship at Austria’s University of Graz in 1983 (at the time the only European university to have a “Jazz—pronounced “Yass”—Institut”).
As I was teaching “The Jazz Age” to my Austrian graduate students, I played them some pieces by Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and other jazz artists. But they wanted to know what popular music was like in the 1920s and 1930s. I had to say “I don’t know”—something always hard for a professor to say but even harder in a foreign country where you’re supposed to know your American “specialty.”
After class, I went to the library and found a book, published by Oxford University Press, American Popular Song, 1900-1950, by the composer Alec Wilder. Reading it, I realized that many songs I knew from recordings by Frank Sinatra, Doris Day and other singers had been the popular songs of the 1920s, ‘30s, and ‘40s. While I knew these songs from listening to their LPs, I did not realize which were written by Porter, Berlin, the Gershwins, Rodgers & Hart, or other composers and lyricists.
It was 1984, and I had brought my cassette tapes of these LPs with me to Austria, so I thought, “Not only can I tell my students about popular songs in the 1920s and 1930s, I can play them some examples.” But as I listened to the tapes, I realized that, as good as their English was, my Austrian students would have trouble following such lyrics as Porter’s
You’re a rose, you’re Inferno’s Dante
You’re the nose on the great Durante.
So I typed up some of these lyrics and photocopied them for the students to follow while I played the tapes. As I typed, I began looking at the lyrics on the page and thinking that Larry Hart was playing with the poetic line in ways that were similar to the poems of William Carlos Williams and that Cole Porter was twisting words in the same way e.e. cummings did.
That’s when it dawned on me that I could write a companion book to Wilder’s American Popular Song, 1900-1950. Wilder had focused on the music of Kern, George Gershwin, Harold Arlen, and others; I decided to write a book that focused on the lyrics of Larry Hart, Ira Gershwin, Dorothy Fields, and other writers I had just gotten to know—even though I’d known their songs for years.
There were a lot of hurdles—particularly copyright issues over quoting from song lyrics--but it all worked out and Oxford University Press published The Poets of Tin Pan Alley in 1990 as a kind of lyrical “companion” to Wilder’s book about the composers of these songs. The book did well—reviews in newspapers across the country, interviews on Larry King Live! All Things Considered, and other talk shows, readings and signings. I shifted from scholarly writing to writing about these songwriters—Ira Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Johnny Mercer—as well about Broadway and Hollywood. As biographies and pop culture histories, my books fell under the relatively new umbrella of “creative nonfiction,” and I switched from teaching English to teaching creative writing.
Q:Did growing up in Pittsburgh have any effect on your writing? Did you ever include the city in your work?
A: I don’t think that growing up in Pittsburgh had any special influence on my writing on American popular song. Most of those songwriters—the Gershwins, Rodgers & Hart, Irving Berlin—were New Yorkers, but I do think growing up in a large city with a vital arts scene helped me relate to urbane and sophisticated music. We went to shows at Carnegie Tech (now Carnegie-Mellon University), to the Pitt Playhouse, and to jazz clubs and coffee houses in Shadyside.
My family was very musical, but I was its untalented black sheep. My Hungarian uncles on my mother’s side were all talented musicians and used to play with gypsy bands at weddings in Braddock, Rankin, and Homestead (when my Uncle Jim showed up at wedding with a dirt spot on his white shirt, the gypsy bandleader took a piece of chalk and “whitened” it).
My uncle Eugene Szilagyi (which he anglicized to “Silagy”) put himself through Duquesne University by playing in jazz bands, and he taught his nephews to play clarinet and sax. Several of my older cousins also helped themselves get through Waynesburg College by playing in nightclubs, and I was supposed to do the same, but I was terrible at music. My Uncle Eugene would get frustrated with my lack of talent as he gave me clarinet lessons and would yell at me and grab my knee to force me to tap my foot in rhythm. I frequently would break down in tears, particularly over the mysteries of 6/8 time (introduced in a song aptly named “The Town Crier”).
Uncle Gene was the band director at Duquesne High School, and when I went there I was old enough to see how bizarre he was. He would scream at the band in rehearsals: “I want you to come on like Marilyn Monroe and instead you come on like Olive Oyl”; “You trumpets sound like a cow who swallowed Ex-Lax”; “If you drummers can’t get the rhythm right, I’m going to charge at you like a mad bull.” When we practiced marching on the football field, he would roll the legs of his suit trousers up to his knees to keep them from getting muddy. When he encountered me in the halls of high school, he would call me “Philly” in front of my friends—and girlfriends. Yet for all of the agony of studying music, he taught me enough so that I understood most of the musical power of the songs I love, which were about the most advanced music I could play. In my senior year, he moved to California—to my great relief—and I could quit playing clarinet. In retrospect, however, I wish I’d stayed on because he was starting to switch me to the saxophone and teach me jazz chords. Ever since, the big gap in my musical knowledge has been harmony.
Q: What inspires you?
A: I don’t think I write from inspiration. I love the story Richard Rodgers used to tell about someone who asked him how he composed music. Rodgers first answered by saying he got up early, had breakfast, went to the piano, and consulted his notebook of musical ideas. But then realized that’s not what the person wanted to hear. “Okay,” Rodgers said, “I don’t compose until midnight, when I’m completely drunk, and I have a beautiful young girl sit nude on the piano to inspire me.”
I guess the closest thing that inspires me to write about these songs is the songwriters themselves. They were a group of about two or three dozen lyricists and composers who crafted songs that have done what popular songs are not supposed to do—stayed popular. Most popular songs are ephemeral; a few of them—very few—are “hits” for a few weeks or even months, then they disappear, remembered, if at all, as “oldies but goodies.” But of the more than 300,000 songs registered for copyright between 1920 and 1950, a handful, about 700, have endured as standards, the bedrock of The Great American Songbook.
Today, singers as diverse as Willie Nelson, Linda Ronstadt, Rod Stewart, Meat Loaf, Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys, and Paul McCartney are recording songs seventy, eighty, even ninety years old. They do this because these songs are just so good. Carly Simon, in her liner notes to her CD Moonlight Serenade, said “I don’t know if I’ve earned the right to sing these songs.” The quality of these songs is astonishing. The composers, such as Porter and Gershwin, were classically-trained musicians and blended the intricacies of European classical music with American blues and jazz. The lyricists, such as Ira Gershwin and Dorothy Fields, were schooled in poetry and light verse and brought that wit and clever rhyming to the art of songwriting.
This small group of songwriters knew each other and hung out together. Most were New Yorkers, and they broke into Broadway musicals at about the same time then moved to Hollywood in the Great Depression when the advent of sound pictures made movie musicals possible—and profitable. While they were writing for the American public, they were also writing for each other. They would gather at Larry Hart’s apartment in New York or Jerome Kern’s house in Los Angeles to play poker or shoot pool, but they also would demonstrate their latest songs. You wouldn’t dare play a bad chord with Cole Porter in the room or sing an off-rhyme with Johnny Mercer at your shoulder. I find their ability to write to the highest artistic standards yet reach a popular audience as inspirational as Dickens and Shakespeare’s ability to do the same.
Q: How do the things you write about relate to your life?
A: I suppose that I write about these songs because they embody things I admire—hard work, integrity, wit, sophistication, compassion, grace. Richard Rodgers said of his partner Larry Hart that he didn’t care about how famous his friends were, how fancy his address was, or how much money he had. He did, however, care deeply about the accuracy of an interior rhyme. My daughter likes to listen to country music and rock, especially in the car because she knows I dislike those kinds of music. The other day she asked me why I don’t. I asked her to listen to what was playing on the radio. In a few seconds, I was able to point out an off-rhyme in a lyric (I think it was trying to rhyme “shine” and “time”). She could hear that the rhyme wasn’t true but said she didn’t mind. I said, “Well, I do.” Johnny Mercer was appalled when he realized—too late—that in “Blues in the Night” he had rhymed “Hear that lonesome whistle/ Blowin’ cross the trestle.” That’s not about rhyme but about integrity.
I’ve been lucky enough to have my books blurbed by famous people who share these values. My favorite comment was this one by the great television host, comedian, and star of the original Tonight Show, Steve Allen (who also was a songwriter): “In an age when much of modern culture seems a matter of vulgarians entertaining barbarians, it is refreshing, even morally so [italics mine], to be reminded of a period during which popular music was characterized by lushly beautiful melodies and literate, sophisticated, and emotionally rational lyrics.”
Q: What is your favorite book? How has that book influenced you?
A: Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. I teach it at least once each year. It has all the wit and sophistication of the songs I love, and it took all the hard work that went into those songs. She revised it over a period of several years, and at one point tore it completely apart as an epistolary novel (consisting solely of letters) and transformed it into a novel that alternated between dramatic scene and narrative summary. No writer before her—not Defoe, not Fielding, not Richardson—had figured out how to write fiction using that alternating pattern and every fiction writer since has followed her example. She also was the first writer to use the third-person limited point of view—telling a story through the perspective of one of the characters rather than an omniscient or first-person narrator. Pretty impressive for a girl who grew up in a little town in the English sticks.
Q:What was it like growing up in Pittsburgh as a writer?
A: Although I never knew any writers as a kid, many people around me loved good writing. My mother was taken out of school in the eighth grade to work on her father’s dairy farm on Polish Hill just above Duquesne, but she was a voracious reader and was always ahead of me on cutting-edge writers. My teachers at Homeville Junior High in West Mifflin demanded perfect grammar as well as clear, concise, coherent paragraphs. “Miss Kelly” (Grace Kelly) was the sister of Gene Kelly and diagrammed sentences as intricately as he danced. When I went to Duquesne High School, older teachers, such as “Ma White,” brought Hamlet to life, while Mr. Mooney (the best poker player in town) taught us to write metrical light verse. A younger teacher, Bob Reid III, fed me Voltaire and Nietzsche, hung out with me and my friends, and coached me though writing a short story for the Atlantic Monthly young writers contest. When my story received an “Honorable Mention,” it was my best graduation present.
Q: What is the best advice you have ever received in terms of writing, and life?
A: There were two great pieces of advice: “Write the kind of book you like to read” and “Write like you talk.” I suppose these both apply to life in some sort of way—know yourself and be true to it? I’m not very philosophical.
Q: What impression do you hope to make with your writing?
A: When I first started writing about these great songs and songwriters in the 1980s, I was afraid they were going to be forgotten I hoped that my writing about them, talking about them in interviews, and writing and narrating musical “tributes” to them with local singers and musicians would keep them alive and kicking. Now, some thirty years later, I am no longer concerned about their staying power. They didn’t need me. They’re heard everywhere—television, movies—and younger singers record them. The wonderful thing about The Great American Songbook is that it is completely democratic—each generation of singers votes with their voices for the songs by Gershwin, Porter, and others that they want to sing.
Sarah Bell is a student at Waynesburg University and plans to live long and prosper.