It is probable that your grandparents—or if you’re of a certain age, your parents—once danced dreamily to the strains of “Stardust,” the sentimental chestnut composed in 1927 by Howard Hoaglund “Hoagy” Carmichael of Bloomington, Indiana.
Today “Stardust” is something of a dead letter (and Carmichael its dead sender), except as fodder for albums of standards by aging rockers such as Rod Stewart, so you might think it unlikely that the song and its author could retain any residue of hipness at this late date. If so, think again.
Carmichael wrote “Stardust” two years after he graduated from Indiana University, and one year after he graduated from its law school. After flunking the Florida bar exam he returned to Indiana where he passed the bar and got a job, but he found himself spending most of his time “writing tunes,” as he put it.
One of those tunes was “Stardust,” which Carmichael recorded as an instrumental in 1927 for Gennett Records in Richmond, Indiana. Lyrics by Mitchell Parish were added in 1929, and when a version by sweet jazz (the equivalent of today’s “smooth jazz”) bandleader Isham Jones hit the airwaves in 1930, it took off; musicians as different as John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, Willie Nelson, and Bing Crosby have recorded it, and in 1999 it was included in National Public Radio’s list of the 100 most important musical works of the 20th century.
“Stardust” has a melody that meanders delicately, like a cat exploring a room filled with Christmas decorations; it hops upward at first, descends quickly to point lower than where it began, then re-ascends to an even higher point. The effect is dizzying, but lyrical. The lyrics are similarly complex; “Stardust” is a song about a song, and yet the song that is sung about doesn’t exist—it is merely imagined. If Jorge Luis Borges had been a Tin Pan Alley songwriter, he might have written lyrics such as these.
Carmichael was a rare bird; a white songwriter whose melodies appealed both to early jazz musicians, overwhelmingly black, and sophisticated cabaret composers such as Alec Wilder, a scholar of song who also wrote classical works and the definitive book on what has come to be known (for better or worse) as The Great American Songbook, American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, 1900-1950. Wilder wrote of Carmichael that he was the “most talented, inventive, sophisticated, and jazz-oriented” songwriter of the first half of the century.
Carmichael’s bluesy feel may have been the product of real-life tragedy and serendipity. When he was in his late teens the death of his three-year-old sister struck him deeply, and around that time he learned jazz improvisation from Reg DuValle, an older black pianist known as “The Elder Statesman of Indiana Jazz.” Carmichael began to write songs in the jazz mode, including “Riverboat Shuffle,” his first composition and a hit for cornetist Bix Beiderbecke, and “Washboard Blues,” a washerwoman’s lament that was recorded by Paul Whiteman.
Carmichael never became adept at sight-reading or musical notation and struggled to get his ideas down on paper, but his lack of technical skills didn’t hold him back. His music came from his muse, not formal training. As he put it, “You don’t write melodies—you find them. If you find the beginning of a good song, and if your fingers do not stray, the melody should come out of hiding.”
As he grew more famous his homespun personality and anti-crooner voice came to become a valuable brand; he hosted three radio musical variety shows on which he played and sang in a laconic voice. He said it sounded “the way a shaggy dog looks. I have Wabash fog and sycamore twigs in my throat.” Others were more direct: “Your singing is so delightfully awful that it is really funny,” one fan wrote.
In middle age he became an actor as well. He appeared in The Best Years of Our Lives, Young Man With a Horn, and most famously as Cricket in the Howard Hawks screen adaptation of Hemingway’s “To Have and Have Not,” along with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. As he put it, his function was to play the “hound-dog-faced old musical philosopher noodling on the honky-tonk piano” in scenes where men and women come together in bars.
But he will be remembered most of all for “Stardust,” a tune of his youth that is like a Rorschach ink blot that different people interpret in different ways. To your grandmother in her knit sweater and pearls, leaning into your granddad on the dance floor, it was an occasion for dreams. To the black cat on a cramped bandstand in a 52nd Street jazz joint in New York, it was a crucible for his art.