A Fine Romance
Jewish Songwriters, American Songs
By David Lehman
Schocken Books/Nextbook, 2009, 249 pages
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - November 30, 2009
Remarkably, since the first half of the twentieth century, during the golden age of song writing, most of America's best songs – heard on the radio, on records, TV, movies and on the stage, and sung on the streets, at work and at home - were written by Jews. These include the Christian songs "White Christmas" and "Easter Parade," jazz "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man," and the classics "God Bless America," "Embraceable You," "Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered," and many more.
People will be surprised to learn that the pure American songs of the west – such as the effervescent cowboy rhythms of "The Surrey" in Oklahoma – flowed from the imagination New York Jews; that in Lehman's list of the sixteen best Depression era popular songs only two or three were composed by non-Jews; that the words of many of these songs composed by Jews and their melodies reflect the strivings and hopes of new Jewish immigrants.
This volume is part of the well-received and well-written Jewish Encounter series, which intend and succeeds in promoting Jewish literature, history, culture and ideas. All the books in the series are very good, but this volume has the most substance of those that I've read, and it is filled with interesting examples. David Lehman is the editor of The Oxford Book of American Poetry and The Best of American Poetry 2009, among other books, and knows the subject he is writing about.
Lehman helps us hear and understand the mysterious ingredients of jazziness and blueness, the wail, the wine and exultant notes that permeate the songs written by Jewish song writers. Many of the words in the purely American songs of are Jewish origin and many of the melodies recalls what is heard in the synagogue. The book's title reflects the mixture of joy and sadness in the songs, but also the romance of their writers with America.
The non-Jew Cole Porter, looking for a way to write a successful song, said "I'll write Jewish tunes," and it worked.
Lehman intersperses his history and descriptions with anecdotes from his own life that show his and his friends reactions to the songs. These accounts, as well as the history itself, are composed with humor and spice.
Who was the first to write the "classic American popular song" that stimulated others? Scholars differ. Some say Irving Berlin in 1911; others that it was Jerome Kern in 1914. Both were Jewish. Lehman contends it was Kern. Be this as it may, the stories that Lehman tells about these giants and the history of the time is fascinating.
Lehman is a superb writer. Readers will enjoy his language. His writing surges and soars in chapter 6, where he describes the impact of all this upon the Jewishness of the composers and the vile reactions of some anti-Semites.
Unfortunately, this classic age ended around 1965, after only fifty years. It died when ten year olds had enough money to pick the music they wanted to hear.