Frank Sinatra: The House I Live In
The House I Live In (That's America To Me)
Frank Sinatra (vocals)
Frank Sinatra, Volume 2 - "The House I Live In" - Early Encores: 1943-'46 (aka Unheard Frank Sinatra, Vol. 2) (Vintage Jazz Classics VJC-1007-2)
Frank Sinatra (vocals),
unidentified studio orchestra conducted by Axel Stordahl.
Lyrics by Abel Meeropol (as “Lewis Allan”) & music by Earl Robinson.
Recorded: probably New York, 1946
Rating: 90/100 (learn more)
There's more to this than meets the ear …
"A certain word, democracy." That's one answer to the big question "What is America to me?" posed by Frank Sinatra in the 1945 10-minute film The House I Live In. The scrappy kid from New Jersey had been looking to move past the bobbysoxers who adored him, plus he was pretty liberal back then, too. So he was, well, jazzed to appear in a film extolling religious tolerance and ethnic equality, and to protect a scrawny Jewish boy beset by a gang of bullies. Frank dissuaded the little hoodlums by declaiming the title song: "The faces that I see / All races and religions / That's America to me."
Over the next year Frank got lots of favorable press and the film even won a couple of awards. Neverthe- less, the political Right attacked Sinatra relentlessly, hating his liberal beliefs and his gangster pals, while the Left distrusted his pop-centrist success and libertine ways. Plus lyricist Abel Meeropol, who also wrote Billie Holiday's scarifying "Strange Fruit," was angry because the film, and Frank on a 78 and in perfor- mance, omitted the outspoken racial-tolerance lines "My neighbors white and black" and "A home for all God's children."
But the real problem was the Red Scare, about to paralyze Hollywood. Within a few years the film's writer, Albert Maltz, composer Earl Robinson, and to some extent Meeropol—Lefties all—would be experiencing the unspoken blacklist, which rendered many of the lyrics ironic: "The howdy and the handshake / The air of feeling free / And the right to speak your mind out …." Frank too began feeling the HUAC heat, losing label, agent, voice, and much of his popularity until the famous early Fifties comeback.
Still, the song was taken up by Paul Robeson and Josh White, and even Sonny Rollins a decade later, and also kept alive by Sinatra, who revisited it several times over the years, eventually singing it at the White House for a President or two. This early version was recorded live about 1946 during an unidentified radio broadcast and then sent out on an Armed Forces Radio transcription disc. There are some nice touches, quietly patriotic moments in Axel Stordahl's arrangement: a snippet of "America the Beautiful," a brief trumpet fanfare, swirls and waves of strings, then a drum roll at the climax and a final peaceful tag, without words, brotherhood found "from sea to shining sea." Frank sings almost peacefully, with low-key ballad dynamics, offering more nuance and less schmaltz than are found in his lip-synched, slightly hammy film performance and the string-drenched 78. Calm, yet committed, he sounds like a believer.
Looking back, we know that Sinatra, to be perfectly Frank, had to reinvent himself again and again—become a convincing actor, swing through hundreds of recording sessions, cavort with the Rat Pack, slip in and out of bedrooms and, politically, from Left to Right. But the image of the underdog kid stayed with him. And the spirit of jazz, if not the sound and rhythms, fills this all-American "House," which was in the mid-Forties and remains to this day the nation's metaphoric residence. Now that the White House has opened its doors to an African-American President, perhaps the song's 21st-century version could resurrect some other lyrics Frank discarded: "The words of old Abe Lincoln / Of Jefferson and Paine / Of Washington and Jackson / And the tasks that still remain."
Democracy, like Jazz, is a complex gig … whether improvised or arranged.
Reviewer: Ed Leimbacher