A Fine Romance: Jewish Songwriters, American Songs (Jewish Encounters Series)

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9780805242508: A Fine Romance: Jewish Songwriters, American Songs (Jewish Encounters Series)

In A Fine Romance, David Lehman looks at the formation of the American songbook—the timeless numbers that became jazz standards, iconic love songs, and sound tracks to famous movies—and explores the extraordinary fact that this songbook was written almost exclusively by Jews.

An acclaimed poet, editor, and cultural critic, David Lehman hears America singing—with a Yiddish accent. He guides us through America in the golden age of song, when “Embraceable You,” “White Christmas,” “Easter Parade,” “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered,” “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man,” “My Romance,” “Cheek to Cheek,” “Stormy Weather,” and countless others became nothing less than the American sound track. The stories behind these songs, the shows from which many of them came, and the shows from which many of them came, and the composers and lyricists who wrote them give voice to a specifically American saga of love, longing, assimilation, and transformation.

Lehman’s analytical skills, wit, and exuberance infuse this book with an energy and a tone like no other: at once sharply observant, personally searching, and attuned to the songs that all of us love. He helps us understand how natural it should be that Wizard of Oz composer Harold Arlen was the son of a cantor who incorporated “Over the Rainbow” into his Sabbath liturgy, and why Cole Porter—the rare non-Jew in this pantheon of musicians who wrote these classic songs shaped America even as America was shaping them.

(Part of the Jewish Encounter series)

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About the Author:

DAVID LEHMAN is the editor of The Oxford Book of American Poetry, the series editor of The Best American Poetry, and the author of seven books of poems, most recently When a Woman Loves a Man. He lives in New York City.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

PRELUDE—JEWISH GENIUS
 
 
That Old Black Magic
 
Whether you date the genesis to Irving Berlin and “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” in 1911 or to Jerome Kern and “They Didn’t Believe Me” in the first year of the Great War, sooner or later you have to explain what is Jewish about American popular song—apart from the simple fact that a great many of the songwriters were Jews. A lot of it has to do with sound: the minor key, bent notes, altered chords, a melancholy edge. Even happy songs sound a little mournful. Marian McPartland is at the piano playing George Gershwin’s “Love Walked In” as I walk in on her, and though the words say that love has driven all the shadows away, it’s the sound of the shadows and their echoes that I hear, and in my mind, Ira’s tender love lyric is really a tear-filled goodbye, and I think of his brother’s early death and how sad and lonely a man George would have been if he’d had his brother’s introspective nature. Anyone who doubts that there is a distinctively Jewish character to, say, Gershwin’s music of Berlin’s or Harold Arlen’s should listen to “Someone to Watch Over Me” (lyrics Ira Gershwin) and “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” (lyrics Irving Berlin), and “Stormy Weather” (lyrics Ted Koehler), respectively. It’s there in the plaintive undertow, the feeling that yearning is eternal and sorrow not very far from the moment’s joy. You can hear it at the end of the bridge (or “release”) in “Stormy Weather.” The wish to “walk in that sun once more” occurs like a religious epiphany, an exclamatory instant of elation in a bluesy prayer that modulates from complaint to resignation.
 
Or consider the rhymes in Berlin’s invitation to the dance as suavely and persuasively sung by Fred Astaire. “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” begins with a forecast of “trouble ahead.” Soon enough we won’t have the music and moonlight that lead to love and romance. After “the fiddlers have fled,” we’ll have to pay the bill. Tomorrow is scary, “with teardrops to shed,” and our one consolation is today. No dance invitation ever sounded so threatening. It’s time to “face the music” in both senses—to face the facts, no matter how disturbing, and they are plenty disturbing in the Depression year of 1936, and to face your partner and dance, dance defiantly, regardless of the bad news breaking in Germany, Spain, Italy, and the rest of Europe. That double meaning if a grand example of Berlin’s wizardry: He doesn’t avoid clichés, he embraces them and gives them new life. The popular songs that Jewish songwriters wrote were ones that Americans of all ethnicities and every brow level (high, middle, low) could sing along with and dance to.
 
In The House That George Built, his homage to Gershwin, Berlin, Arlen, et al., Wilfrid Sheed used the key phrases “Jewish music” and “Jewish songs.” The nearest he comes to defining either term is when he speaks of “the mystery ingredients of jazzness and bluesness,” which enabled a certain decidedly non-Jewish songwriter of sophistication and élan to surpass himself. In an appreciation of Harold Arlen on the centenary of his birth in 2005, John Lahr makes a similar association. In addition to “crazy jazz,” Lahr writes, Arlen’s sound “incorporated the Jewish wail and the wail of the blues.” This line of thinking goes back to Gershwin, who felt that jazz sprang from “the negro spiritual” and that “the American soul” combines “the wail, the whine and the exultant note of the old mamy [sic] songs of the South. It is black and white. It is all colors and all souls unified in the great melting-pot of the world. Its dominant note is vibrant syncopation.”
 
Let’s begin, then, with the mysterious “bluesness” and “crazy” jazz that links Jewish songwriters tonally and rhythmically with black singers and instrumentalists. Can you hear the wail? It fills the air when the clarinet glissando kicks off Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue. Nor can you miss it in Arlen’s early collaborations with lyricist Ted Koehler: “Let’s Fall in Love” and “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea” and “I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues,” several of them written when Arlen and Koehler were house musicians at the Cotton Club in Harlem. If anything, the Jewishness of Arlen’s songs enhances their appeal for a soulful non-Jewish performer (the white Lee Wiley, the black Billie Holiday), who can insinuate the sound of heartbreak into a declaration of love. The on-again, off-again love affair between Jewish songs and black musicians in particular is not an uncomplicated one. But it’s an important part of the story, evident not only in jazz standards written by Jews and interpreted by blacks (as when Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers play Harold Arlen’s “Come Rain or Come Shine”), but I such landmark theatrical events as Show Boat in 1927 (music Jerome Kern, lyrics Oscar Hammerstein) and Porgy and Bess in 1935 (music George Gershwin, lyrics Ira Gershwin and DeBose Heyward) in which African American characters are, on one level, allegorical representations of Jews.
 
Whenever Show Boat and Porgy and Bess are revived, it is always a noteworthy event and often one that sparks some protest. Some critics resent what they consider the white and specifically Jewish appropriation of the lives of the black of Catfish Row in Porgy and Bess. Others object to the perpetuation of racial stereotypes. The fact that minstrel shows played a vital part in the development of American popular song is a retrospective embarrassment. The sight of Al Jolson in blackface in The Jazz Singer or Fred Astaire in blackface as Bojangles of Harlem in Swing Time requires explanation and apologia. But protests reflect the temper of their age and these misgivings are likely to fade; the excellence of the music and the honor and dignity it confers on performer and audience alike will have trumped all other considerations. When the black male chorus in Show Boat reaches the end of the second verse of “Ol’ Man River”—the part where the singers can envision the river Jordan, the “old stream” that they long to cross—it is a visionary moment, and Kern’s majestic music makes you feel that unreachable heaven looms near as a prayer or a worker’s dream of liberation from “the white man boss.” As Hammerstein’s peroration climbs in keeping with Kern’s music, the human condition is humbly stated. The song ennobles singer and listener not because it acknowledges that failure is our common lot—we are all sick of trying, tired of living, and scared of dying—but because we are moved to sing about it with robust voices and to celebrate something greater than ourselves: the natural wonder of the Mississippi River that just keeps rolling along, powerful and timeless, like a divinity. At such a “moment divine” (to use a Hammerstein phrase from another standard he wrote with Kern), you almost feel that the Jewish songwriters and black performers have achieved a momentary but transcendent fusion of identities.

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