This Saturday, December 12th, will mark the centenary of the birth of Frank Sinatra. That he was one of the greatest of America’s popular singers—many would say the greatest–is beyond question. The security and the richness of his vibrant baritone, the impeccable diction, his sensitivity and his swagger, his ability to both soar and swing, his unmistakable intelligence as a singer both in his selection of material and phrasing, all mark him as unique.
To properly listen to Frank Sinatra you must extricate the artist from his myths, and must forget about his rat pack chums, the women, the mob, his explosive temper, his boozing, his tough guy affectations, and all the other aspects of his personal life that intruded on the musician. In some ways he is not unlike the other great popular singer born in 1915—my choice, if anyone cares, for the greatest popular singer of the century—Billie Holiday, another singer whose myth sometimes obscures the art. But if Holiday is the myth of the damned artist, self-destructive, hooking up with a series of terrible men, hooked on drugs, whose life’s downward trajectory ended while she was in custody for heroin possession, Sinatra’s myth is the opposite, no scandal, no setback ever got in the way of his relentless ambition to become, in the words of perhaps his most famous song, “king of the hill/top of the heap.” The contrasting myths no doubt reflect what it meant, on the one hand, to be black and female, and on the other, white and male.
Sinatra and Holiday admired one another, and to some extent they influenced each other—Holiday yearned to become a ballad singer like Sinatra, and Sinatra wanted to be able to swing like Holiday, and to a large extent they both succeeded. They had something, or rather, someone else in common, Abel Meeropol. Meeropol wrote the words and music to one of Holiday’s most famous recordings, “Strange Fruit” (1939), the scorching indictment of southern lynching. And he wrote the lyrics to one of Sinatra’s most famous recordings, “The House I Live In” (1945), and it was featured in a ten-minute short feature made the same year, in which Sinatra, playing himself, steps out his recording studio, and sees a gang of children attacking a Jewish boy. He makes them stop, tells them about how people of different backgrounds came together to defeat America’s enemies in the war, and he sings the song, “The House I Live In.” Some object that the short did not focus on discrimination against blacks, and that the lyrics were changed to reflect this. There is something to this, no doubt, but it is worth remembering a time, not so long ago, when American Antisemitism was still a very real concern to American Jews and others. In any event, the song’s impact and meaning is not limited to one class of discrimination, prejudice, and exclusion.
“The House I Live in” had quite a vogue of popularity in the 1940s, but it has faded from the patriotic canon subsequently, no doubt because Meeropol, and Earl Robinson, who wrote the melody, were closely associated with the Communist Party. Too bad, because it is my favorite patriotic song, so much better than the creepily martial “Star Spangled Banner,” and celebrates what truly makes America great—its commitment to pluralism, to the virtues of local communities and families, to recognize and embracing difference, to not giving way to fear. And though I wouldn’t say it’s my favorite Sinatra recording—so many to choose from, in so many moods—it is the one I admire the most. It is a song sung by the child of Italian immigrants, at a time when he was young and idealistic and liberal. And at a time when Donald Trump and others are befouling the house we live in, it is a good time to listen to Sinatra and to “The House I Live In,” a reminder of when American patriotism, at a time that was at least as troubled as our own, could sing odes and paeans to the better angels of our nature.
The House I Live In
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, and the people that I meet
The children in the playground, the faces that I see
All races and religions, that’s America to me
The place I work in, the worker by my side
The little town or city where my people lived and died
The “howdy” and the handshake, the air of feeling free
And the right to speak my mind out, that’s America to me
The things I see about me, the big things and the small
The little corner newsstand and the house a mile tall
The wedding in the churchyard, the laughter and the tears
The dream that’s been a-growin’ for a hundred and fifty years
The town I live in, the street, the house, the room
The pavement of the city, or a garden all in bloom
The church, the school, the clubhouse, the millions lights I see
But especially the people
That’s America to me