A conversation with the former dissident and public intellectual, about the ‘Polish mentality,’ anti-Semitism, and ‘wearing Jewish glasses’
An acclaimed poet, anthologist, and cultural critic, David Lehman 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 of Mine”; “My Romance”; “Cheek to Cheek”; and countless others became nothing less than the American sound track. The stories behind these songs and the composers and lyricists who wrote them give voice (one that has a discernible Yiddish accent) 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 tone like no other: at once sharply observant, personally searching, and attuned to the songs that all of us love. Congratulations to David Lehman and Nextbook Press editor Jonathan Rosen for winning the ASCAP 2010 Deems Taylor Award for A Fine Romance! Pictures here.
“I’ll write Jewish tunes.” – Cole Porter
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 keys, 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 lyric is really a tear-filled goodbye, and I think of hid 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 distinctly Jewish character to, say, Gershwin’s music or 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 a 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 is a grand example of Berlin’s wizardry: He doesn’t avoid cliches, 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 uses 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 elan 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 Jewis and interpreted by blacks (as when Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers play Harold Arlen’s “Come Rain or Come Shine”), but in such landmark theatrical events as Show Boat in 1927 (music Jerome Kern, lyrics Oscar Hammerstein) andPorgy and Bess in 1935 (music George Gershwin, lyrics Ira Gershwin and DuBose 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 blacks 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 black face in The Jazz Singer or Fred Astaire in black face 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 the performer and audience alike will have trumped all other considerations. When the black male chorus in Show Boatreaches 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.
The Jewish element in American popular song is property not only of the notes and chords but of the words as well, or, more exactly, the union between words and music. Perennially regarded as secondary partners–the way Lorenz Hart was to Richard Rodgers or Ira Gershwin was to his younger taller genius brother George–the lyricists had their own way of greatness. it could be said that they followed a Jewish imperative in their abundant humor, wit, and cleverness and in their ability to mix sadness and elation and to produce thereby the mysterious tingle of romance. I’m prepared even to argue that the great American standards–such as “Blue Skies,” “The Lady is a Tramp,” “I Got Rhythm,” “The Way You Look Tonight,” “My Funny Valentine,” “Tea for Two,” “Love Me or Leave Me,” “All the Things You Are,” “Over the Rainbow,” and “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”–are in some fundamental way inflected with Judaism even when the composer or the lyricist was neither by birth nor conviction Jewish. (Only one song of the ten I just mentioned was entirely the work of a non-Jew, and he acknowledged he was “writing Jewish.”) Whether performed by Sinatra or Ella, Bing or Peggy Lee, Benny Goodman or Miles Davis, the songs celebrated, bewailed, orchestrated, and maybe even enacted a romance–a fine romance, though one sometimes lacking in kisses or other signs of requital or affection. Some cases merited sarcasm, as in Dorothy Field’s lyric for a delightful Kern tune that Rogers and Astaire sing in Swing Time. No clinches, no pinches; you won’t nestle or wrestle. I never “muss the crease in your blue serge pants,” Rogers laments. It’s a fine romance nevertheless. And what a sexy line that is. Miss Fields got Mr. Kern to swing–not altogether an easy thing.
“I’ll take romance.” “Our romance won’t end on a sorrowful note.” “I know that music leads the way to romance.” “Here’s to my first romance.” “Isn’t it romantic?” “Romance” and “romantic” recur as they do not because “romance” rhymes with “dance” and because so many songs are variations or elaborations of “I love you” but for a third reason combining the other two. The Jewish songwriters, in their lives and works, were conducting a passionate romance with America–from initial attraction to courtship, consummation, joy, disenchantment, despair, and then the whole sequence over again. As in all affairs there were ups and downs. The promised land of America promised more than it could deliver. In “Ten Cents a Dance,” the song that launched Ruth Etting’s singing career, Lorenz Hart cleverly rhymes “hero” with middle syllables of “queer romance.” The song represents the point of view of a dance-hall hostess, whom men–”pansies” as well as “rough guys”–”rent” on a cash basis. If she has a romance with a ticket-buying would-be “hero,” it is going to be “queer” in the sense of odd. In Hart’s own case, both meanings of “queer” apply. As a homosexual at a time when you had to conceal the fact, Hart–self-conscious to begin with because he was barely five feet tall and thought himself ugly–suffered and drank. The romance for him came to a self-destructive end. He died in despair at forty-eight. But the frustration and pain equipped this naturally ebullient punster to write great lyrics that combine sadness with lust. The writer Jerome Lawrence made an astute observation about Richard Rodger’s first writing partner. “You can name many artists who constantly fight their unworthiness, but Larry Hart articulated it more than almost anybody,” Lawrence said. “Because of being a songwriter he had to write love songs, and almost all his love songs said, ‘I stink. Why would you ever love me? Spring is here, I hear, but for other people, not for me.’ He was the poet laureate of masochism.”
Perhaps only a disillusioned enthusiast could produce such effects of anguish without sinking into sentimentality or self-pity. But then, the American romance in popular song exerts its pull because, in Ira Gershwin’s words, the romance “won’t end on a sorrowful note,” though end it must. It would be an illusion to think otherwise, but what’s wrong with that? Art relies on illusion. Illusions, including the illusion of timeless truths and undying love, are a necessary part of any imaginative strategy for dealing with and maybe even redeeming the failures of experience, the insufficiency or inadequacy of actuality. “My Romance,” another Rodgers and Hart song, rises to the defense of illusions. A song is an abbreviated vision or waking dream, a statement of desire and a supposition of its fulfillment. “My Romance,” praises the power to make one’s “most fantastic dreams come true.” All that the romance needs it “you”–that most flexible of pronouns, more intimate than any other, conveniently genderless, masking rather than naming the beloved, and yet so powerfully immediate that the word can stand as easily for an unknown or imaginary personage as for the flesh-and-blood creature with whom you are, right now, dancing in the dark cheek to cheek.
The Jewish songwriter has an extra incentive to participate in this aesthetic adventure: He or she, an outsider, universally despised for reasons racial and religious, was getting to compose the music and words of the insider’s dream. This was America, where almost everybody could feel like an outsider, a newcomer to the inheritance, and where the technological marvels of the modern age–the radio and the telephone, the movies, the microphone, the long-playing record, the television set–welcomed and rewarded originality and enterprise in the popular arts. John Bush Jones wrote a book winningly called The Songs That Fought the Warabout the value of popular music on the home front during World War II. The songs did fight in the ideological battle, the propaganda war; they sold bonds on the one hand and on the other offered consolation to the lonely and daydreams of nights on the town after our boys took Berlin. That was how a lyricist like Frank Loesser (“Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition”) or Sammy Cahn (“It’s Been a Long, Long Time”) contributed to the war effort. But whatever the stated content of the songs, they served as linkages, messages between the solider abroad and the people back home. They conveyed the romance of illusions. And if you heard the strains of “But Beautiful” or “You and the Night and the Music” and there were ladies present and a friendly bartender, people would spontaneously begin to dance as it it were the most natural thing in the world. (Think of all the movies in which this happens.) The songs make people dance. And the dance, the conventional fox trot or old-fashioned waltz, acquired, in Arlene Croce’s phrase, a “special luminosity…as an emblem of sexual union.” In a song, “to dance” is code for something more intimate that could not be stated explicitly when concepts like “mixed company” still had currency. As George Bernard Shaw said about dancing, it’s “a perpendicular expression of horizontal desire.” It could even be argued that the songs that made people dance were the most important role of the whole dating and mating ritual. Oh, it cast a spell on you, this American romance, irressistable as that old black magic that spins you around and makes you feel like you’re in a skyscraper elevator rapidly going down.
“… an appreciative, scholarly study of traditional popular song that goes into considerable and enlightening detail about the intermingling of black and Jewish popular music, primarily from the first half of the 20th century.” Continue reading
“David Lehman’s A Fine Romance wittily explores the enormous contribution of Jewish writers and composers to the American musical scene. Lehman finds Jewish influence, or what he calls ‘a plaintive undertow,’ even in such unlikely upbeat anthems as Gershwin’s ‘Love Walked In.’ His love-struck history is itself a major entertainment.” Continue reading
“Laced with anecdotes about the composers and the singers who made the songs famous, and the unforgettable, brilliant lyrics of the masters, the book can’t help but get you humming, let alone singing out loud your own version of the songs.” Continue reading
While at times confusing, A Fine Romance is thoroughly enjoyable, right down to the short, witty, and informative chronology at the end of the book. Whether one is familiar with this music and wants to rekindle its romance, or unfamiliar and wants to ignite such a passion, this book is just the ticket. Continue reading
"This Midwestern epic, which seemed to capture the country’s most idealized image of itself—this story about cowboys and farmers, with names like Curly and Laurey and Jud—was being created in New York City by two Jews, with names like Hammerstein and Rogazinsky (Anglicized to Rodgers by the composer’s grandfather)." Continue reading
Fresh news is out that Nextbook Press Author David Lehman has won this prestigious award from the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers. Said Lehman in his announcement to the media, “I’ve got a feeling you’re fooling,” I said when the guy from ASCAP called. I was sure he was mouthing little white lies. But True Blue Lou was on the level. My heart stood still, and now I’m sitting on top of the world, which I’ve got on a string." Continue reading
"And as Lehman ably explains in A Fine Romance (Nextbook, 222 pp.), his perceptive history of the influence of Jewish songwriters on the American musical catalog, “the Jewish element in American popular song is a property not only of the notes and chords but of the words as well, or, more exactly, the union between words and music.” Jewish songwriters absorbed and displayed a discerning understanding of American culture." Continue reading
"It is one of the pleasures of A Fine Romance: Jewish Songwriters, American Songs, poet and critic David Lehman’s quirky romp through 20th-century American popular song — a book combining history, anecdote, memoir, poetry, and biography — that we can read stories like this about an enduring part of American culture." Continue reading
Much of what is known as the great American songbook is the result of a group of composers who emerged from a common ethnic background. Several libraries will be celebrating that legacy by presenting a traveling exhibit, “A Fine Romance: Jewish Songwriters, American Songs, 1910‐1965.” Continue reading
DAVID LEHMAN is the editor of The Oxford Book of American Poetry; and the author of seven books of poems, most recently When a Woman Loves a Man. He lives in New York City.
A conversation with the former dissident and public intellectual, about the ‘Polish mentality,’ anti-Semitism, and ‘wearing Jewish glasses’