Master Tunesmiths

Explorations of American songwriting in the pre-WWII Golden Age.

Songwriter Hoagy Carmichael

Hoagy Carmichael, America’s first popular singer-songwriter, composed one of the most frequently recorded songs in history, "Star Dust."

Here author Richard M. Sudhalter discusses Hoagy Carmichael’s contribution in his biography, Stardust Melody (Oxford University Press, 2003):


Hoagy Carmichael and Tommy Dorsey. Photo courtesy Indiana University.

"Hoagy Carmichael's songs can evoke place and time as vividly as the work of Edward Hopper or Sinclair Lewis, the essays of H. L. Mencken, or the humor of Will Rogers. But they're not period pieces. They deal with eternal things: youth and age, life and death, a longing for home. Relatively few of the best known Carmichael songs, in fact, are about love—at least in any explicit, boy-girl, moon-June sense. Hoagy's love songs have their own spin: "I Get Along Without You Very Well," for all its bereavement, remains stoic, never approaching standard-issue "Body and Soul" self-pity. "Skylark" and "Baltimore Oriole" apostrophize birds in the service of amour; "Two Sleepy People" looks back on young romance with wry affection.

"Finally, and above all, there's "Star Dust." Rangy, arpeggiated, structurally unconventional in its ABAC format, it stands alone; outfitted with its Mitchell Parish lyric, it's a song about a song about love. No other song even begins to challenge its unique primacy as a kind of informal American national anthem. Even the resolutely yuppified National Public Radio, selecting its "100 most important American musical works of the twentieth century," found time for a lengthy, affectionate Susan Stamberg ode to "Star Dust.


Hoagy "at liberty" in Palm Beach, 1923. Photo courtesy Indiana University.

"Numerically speaking, Hoagy didn't write many songs—perhaps 650 at a conservative estimate, a mere handful compared to, say, the prolific Irving Berlin. But quantity is at best an unreliable unit of measure: Carmichael's songs are personal statements, most often nourished and reinforced by his own performances. Beyond argument, he's the key precursor of that phenomenon of our own times, the singer-songwriter. Whether Billy Joel or Elton John, Dave Frishberg or Bob Dorough, or the countless others who have made an industry of devising and performing their own material, all share a common ancestor in the wiry little guy at the piano, hat back on his head, often bathed in cigarette smoke as he chides "Lazybones" or "Small Fry," exhorts an "Ole Buttermilk Sky" to be mellow and bright, or extols the fragrant memory of "Memphis in June."

"It's possible to talk of songs as having a “Carmichael flavor." Not that they all sound alike or conform to anyone model: far from it. Overall, in fact, they're a pretty diverse lot. Yet they remain unmistakably his, and, in all but a very few cases, it's hard to imagine them having been written by anyone else."