I began reading Gary Giddins’s biography of Bing Crosby – appropriately titled A Pocketful Of Dreams: The Early Years, 1903-1940 – almost three months ago, and finally finished it this past weekend. I’d have to say that although informative, and precisely researched, this biography was no easy read. That’s not to say it isn’t a brilliant book, because it really is, but it’s likely the hardest read I’ve had since… well, likely since some long forgotten book I was assigned to read in college as a course requirement.
The author, Gary Giddins, is perhaps one of the most learned men in his field. He is a Jazz critic, who has won six A.S.C.A.P.–Deems Taylor Awards, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a Peabody Award in Broadcasting, as well as a lifetime achievement award from the Jazz Journalists Association. That being said, Giddins is no casual author, but instead a guru who has spent a lifetime making music and popular culture his area of expertise. I was already familiar with Giddins work, being a self-proclaimed musicologist myself, but I was wholly unprepared with the barrage of names, facts, dates and accounts documented in this book. Essentially, this book kicked my butt, and left me both in awe of the author, and more self-aware of how very little I knew about the origins of popular music and culture, as well as Crosby’s profound and lasting impact upon it.
In Giddins introduction, he points out that in 1999 Newsweek magazine devoted forty-plus pages to “Voices of the Century: America Goes Hollywood”, in which Crosby was not even mentioned. Although I was unaware of this specific article, I was very aware that Crosby is oft forgotten and seldom acknowledged for his immeasurable contributions to popular music and culture, and virtually (and sadly) unknown to an Mtv generation.
Pocketful Of Dreams dispels the modern-day perception of Bing Crosby as a square old man and instead, presents him as the celebrated and innovative artist, who changed, well… everything. The book begins long before Harry Lillis (Bing) Crosby was born, tracing back his lineage to tell a truly American tale from it’s immigrant beginnings. Giddins book enlightens, telling the story of Crosby’s rise to stardom and how – although more like the accidental hero – almost single-handedly invents and embodies the term “Superstar” long before Elvis Presley or The Beatles existed. With each chapter, Giddins narrates a tale of a Bing that seems to effortlessly conquer each emerging technology, from recording and radio, to motion pictures in amazing and flawlessly researched detail. There is a quote by clarinetist and bandleader Artie Shaw which states, “Bing Crosby was the first hip white person born in the United States”, to which Gary Giddins book does an exemplary job of justifying and shining a Hollywood spotlight on the ‘how and why’ of Shaw’s statement.
But be warned, this book is not a page turner, and does not read like historical fiction. Instead, an unprepared reader may find themselves mired down in the unfamiliar, as Giddins book is no light read. Enjoyable, yes, but heavy with facts and impeccably researched information. More than a good book – which Pocketful Of Dreams unquestionably is – it is an important book, to be regarded as historical cannon of popular culture of the twentieth century.
As for Bing, well, he’d probably say Giddins was making much ado about nothing, and excuse himself to the golf course.