The Voice of America: Gary Giddins on the “Living Folklore” of Bing Crosby
By Stuart Mitchner
When I started on Crosby, I was inclined to believe a lot of the terrible things I had read about him,” Gary Giddins admits in a recent interview on jerryjazzmusician.com. “My proposal focused on a performer who personifies warmth to his public but is cold to his intimates. I started to do interviews and got a different sense of him….Crosby was not a saint, and I never wanted to write about a saint. He was a good and valuable man and I enjoyed the time I spent with him. He wasn’t a perfect artist, but when he rose to the occasion, he was a great one.”
In Bing Crosby: Swinging On a Star: The War Years, 1940-1946 (Little Brown), the occasions Crosby rose to were immense. Until he sang “White Christmas,” still the best-selling single in history, the holiday was for all purposes the emotional province of Charles Dickens and A Christmas Carol. At the same time, World War II was so seismically historic you could say that the occasion rose to Crosby, lifted him up, transforming an entertainer into “living folklore.”
As Giddins points out during an account of a grueling stateside USO tour, Crosby was “in the process of remaking himself. No longer the friendly but
remote personality bound up by technology, he now offered a sympathetic,
unassuming presence.” Not yet 40, he was “still young enough to share a pang of disconnection that troubled numberless civilian men who gawked at servicemen on recruitment lines and on trains … So many uniforms, so many casualties — the papers ran daily lists.” While these men who “stirred and inspired him” owed him nothing, he “felt he owed them a great deal….A year ago he was in the grip of malaise, and these men had snapped him out of it. He found himself singing as in earlier days, with pleasure, for the fun of it, before the most appreciative audience in the world.”
“There Wasn’t a Sound”
The central occasion of Swinging On a Star is the chapter titled “Somewhere in France,” words that headed numerous letters soldiers sent home from the front in September of 1944. Giddins quotes one from a medic with the Third Army recalling the “oh’s and ah’s” as Crosby performed songs like “Sweet Leilani” and “Easter Parade.” When he sang “White Christmas,” however, “there wasn’t a sound” and “no one was looking at Crosby, but just at the ground and making a little wish. There was no applause following it, just a ghastly silence, which is the noisiest thing I have ever lived thru. Even Crosby had no answer or explanation: he must have known what was going on.”
A letter from a transport commander mentions Crosby’s “power to soften the heart of the man who so shortly after goes back to shoot down his brother man.” After noting that Bing is “rarely singled out for the emotional tenor of his music,” Giddins suggests that “reserve was at the core of his success with the troops, on the air, at army camps, and in the fields of Europe. To sing to men separated from families and lovers and often starved of sexual companionship, he had to create a particular kind of bond, a zone of emotional safety. A zone has boundaries. … For once, his customary aversion to I-love-you songs flattered the occasion; restraint carried more weight than amorous histrionics.”
A Little Touch of Harry
Giddins’s enthusiasm for his project is stoked by an enlightened passion for jazz, film and literature highlighted in the form of front matter and chapter epigraphs from the likes of Faulkner, Joyce, Keats, Melville, Poe, Hemingway, and Robert Bresson. The chapter titled “A Little Touch of Harry in the Day” shines a Shakespearean light on what Harry Lillis Crosby did for the morale of soldiers in the field as he moved among the troops. A conventional biographer comes armed with an arsenal of allusions you register in passing while Giddins, without quoting the actual passage, evokes it so poignantly throughout the chapter on Bing in France that you find yourself drawn from the war in question to “the weary and all-watched night” before the Battle of Agincourt in Henry V, when the king visits his troops:
“Bids them good morrow with a modest smile
And calls them brothers, friends and countrymen.
Upon his royal face there is no note
How dread an army hath enrounded him;
Nor doth he dedicate one jot of colour
Unto the weary and all-watched night,
But freshly looks and over-bears attaint
With cheerful semblance and sweet majesty;
That every wretch, pining and pale before,
Beholding him, plucks comfort from his looks:
A largess universal like the sun
His liberal eye doth give to every one,
Thawing cold fear, that mean and gentle all,
Behold, as may unworthiness define,
A little touch of Harry in the night.
The White Christmas Phenomenon
There’s no way of knowing how many soldiers listening to Crosby sing Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” in September 1944 saw or even remembered seeing the scene in Holiday Inn, the 1942 hit film wherein its fictional composer, played by Bing, tries it out for the pretty stranger (Marjorie Reynolds) who has just walked into his life. Those who did remember may have reimagined the Christmas trappings around some personal romantic domestic moment of their own, epitomized perhaps by what happens when the girl joins Bing singing the chorus and then takes a verse on her own. Giddins sees it as “a transitional moment for the Crosby persona … subtly altered by a heightened and mature equanimity,” the “Crosby glow” brought out by his position “between the silently roaring fire and a huge Christmas tree.” With characteristic finesse, Giddins blends Bing with the season and home and longing in a way that transcends whether or not soldiers “over there” actually saw or heard it: “In this film and especially in this scene, he personifies a hearth to which anyone might long to return.”
Few saw the looming phenomenon, least of all the film’s producers, who figured the score’s hit was “Be Careful It’s My Heart,” which contains the immortal line,”It’s not my watch you’re holding, it’s my heart.” In England, “White Christmas” was put on the B-side of another loser. Both Crosby and Berlin knew the song was something special. It sold six hundred thousand discs in the closing months of 1942 and two million as of 1944, with sales mounting year after year. By Christmas 1962 sales exceeded 25 million. In 2007 The Guiness Book of World Records updated the number to 50 million.
The Home Front
Of all the passages in Swinging On a Star that stand out in contrast to present-day America, one of the most resonant expands on poet Archibald MacLeish’s definition of “the principal battle ground of this war” as “American opinion.” A successful home front “is a kind of organism, economical
and emotional” in which citizens “are united by the sacraments of popular culture, recollections so powerful that they all but superseded memories of anguish and death, internment camps and homespun bigotry, shortages and rationing, mistrust and loneliness, savagery and vengeance, the newspaper casualty lists, and even a guilty indifference…Entertainment, in this equation, is no mere diversion but a necessity, the oil that keeps the gears turning. And when the rest of the era is dimmed, it lingers on and praises those who were there.”
At this point, Giddins cites the motion picture that brought Crosby the 1945 Best Actor Oscar for his performance as Father O’Malley: few films “epitomized the emotions that the French film writer Jacques Lourcelles would later attribute to Going My Way: “Kindness as permanent catharsis, as providential remedy to all the physical and moral ills of humanity.”
Referring to the intensifying importance of O’Malley’s “priestly liberalism” with victory in sight, Giddins remarks on the way “FDR’s extraordinary use of radio had paralleled Crosby’s since 1932, when those men of very different backgrounds with almost contradictory oratorical gifts represented the triumph of the American vernacular over the highfalutin pretensions embraced by the networks.” Here Giddins refers to FDR’s “consummate performance as preacher-in-chief” on the evening of D-day “when with less than a year to live and in racking pain,” he invited the country to join with him in prayer to guide “our sons” toward the liberation of Europe. The “ten minute incantation drew one hundred million listeners, more than 72 percent of the entire population — the most expansive hearth in American history.”
The day I read this passage began with a New York Times story describing how the “government’s voice to the world” was subject to the “potential for Mr. Trump to impose his own self-interested vision of news,” threatening the Voice of America’s “brand as an objective, trusted source of information in nations where freedom of the press is under attack. Reports by the government network’s 3,500 journalists reach more than 345 million people in 100 countries each week.”
I have to admit that my interest in Bing the golfer and organizer of golf tournaments, the owner of race horses, the rancher, the celebrity and radio and recording star, and even the father and husband, faltered next to my interest in the inspirational figure depicted in the heart of the book. Toward the end, when Swinging On a Star seemed at risk of descending into a desultory inventory of biographical data, Giddins brings the Barsa sisters, Mary and Violet, on stage, and at the same time illuminates the quality in Crosby that made him the perfect Father O’Malley.
In the same interview with jerryjazz
musician.com, Giddins says, “There are two things about the Barsas that readers respond to with a kind of shock: first, that these young women are clearly stalking him… even to the examination of his hotel trash; and second, that he invites them up to his hotel room. Yet he is so above board, treating them like young adults with respect and a genuine interest in their lives. He was not interested in them as fans. It turned out to be a lifelong association, and for me, as a biographer, the diary they kept was a gift from heaven, an amateur surveillance with the ring of truth.”
Giddins has done the research for a third and final volume covering the years 1946-1977, which he expects to write “if there is a demand.” The first volume, Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams: The Early Years, 1903-1940 (Little Brown 2001), won the Ralph J. Gleason Music Book Award.