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Jews and American Songs

Jews and American Songs

A review of A Fine Romance: Jewish Songwriters, American Songs by David Lehman.


By the time Richard Rodgers met Cole Porter — at a 1926 dinner in Noël Coward’s rented palazzo in Venice — Rodgers and his musical partner Lorenz Hart  were already successes on Broadway. Porter was not. After dinner, the composers took turns at the piano, and when Rodgers showed enthusiasm for Porter’s songs, “Porter confided that despite his failures on Broadway, he thought he had finally figured out the secret of writing hits. Rodgers leaned over expectantly.

“‘I’ll write Jewish tunes,’ Porter said.”

Years later Rodgers wrote, “It is surely one of the ironies of the musical theatre that despite the abundance of Jewish composers, the one who has written the most enduring ‘Jewish’ music should be an Episcopalian millionaire who was born on a farm in Peru, Indiana.”

Ironically, the composer who has written the most enduring ‘Jewish’ music is an Episcopalian

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.

“Whether you date the genesis to Irving Berlin and ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band’ in 1900 or to Jerome Kern and ‘They Didn’t Believe Me’ in the first year of the Great War,” Lehman writes, “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.”

Is it a certain sound — “the minor key, bent notes, altered chords, a melancholy edge”? Is it “in the plaintive undertow, the feeling that yearning is eternal and sorrow not very far from the moment’s joy”? Or is it, in critic John Lahr’s words, “crazy jazz” that “incorporated the Jewish wail and the wail of the blues” — a mysterious amalgam that “links Jewish songwriters tonally and rhythmically with black singers and instrumentalists”?

Between 1880 and 1920, 2 million Jewish refugees came to the United States from Eastern Europe, and Lehman speculates on ways their immigrant experience informed their music. “It may sound like the ultimate paradox,” he hypothesizes, “but one distinctively Jewish thing about the authors of the American songbook is [their] determination to escape from their Jewish origins and join the American adventure.” Lehman suggests it was often in their “affirmations of American ideals as they understood them” that Jewish songwriters excelled. Consider, for example, that Irving Berlin, immigrant son of a Jewish cantor, wrote “White Christmas,” “Easter Parade,” and “God Bless America.”

Consider, too, Lehman’s remarks on the exuberant optimism of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! “It is just possible that in the logic of displacement favored by Jewish songwriters,” he writes, “the relation of Oklahoma to the United States as a whole resembles that of the Jewish immigrants to the land that offered them and their kinfolk refuge from the . . . nightmares of Europe.”

Lehman defines the “effervescent heyday” of American popular music as 1914 to 1965, when the songs “fed a nexus of other arts and pastimes,” including jazz, Broadway musicals, Big Band music, movies, nightclubs, and “real or make-believe ballrooms.” He writes knowledgeably about the relations among popular music and jazz, gospel, and opera, and about the complicated relationships between Jewish composers and black musicians. He explores controversies — Jewish musicians being accused of stealing jazz, blues, and spirituals from black musicians; Porgy and Bess disparaged for containing “as many stereotypes” as Uncle Tom’s Cabin. And he reports on Benny Goodman breaking the color barrier in 1935 by hiring Teddy Wilson as pianist for his trio, and on Artie Shaw becoming the first white bandleader to hire a black female singer — Billie Holiday — as full-time vocalist.

Lehman chronicles the story of his own romance with American songs, and attempting to put music he loves in historical and personal contexts, he notes, for example, that in the same month that Oklahoma! opened, his “maternal grandparents were deported to Riga. Men in uniforms met them at the station, drove them to the Rumbula Forest and shot them.” Although such a juxtaposition may seem to have significance, Lehman is less than persuasive in suggesting that the significance lies in the fact that it was “important” for composers to “trumpet [their] patriotism . . . at a time when world Jewry faced the specter of annihilation.”

“It was the songbook to which I responded,” he writes more convincingly, “not the Jewish identity of its authors, though this was a source of pride for me, the son of refugees.” And writing about the songs themselves, he is a delightful guide to facts and tales. Who knew that “Over the Rainbow” was deleted three times from The Wizard of Oz before MGM allowed it to stay? Or that, at 15, Richard Rodgers “saw the Columbia varsity show and decided right then and there that his life’s ambition was to go to Columbia and write the College’s varsity show?”

Best of all, Lehman invites us to reminisce with him — to remember how, when, and where we first fell in love with certain songs, and to notice the ways we associate these songs with particular moments in our lives. He also laments the decline of the popular music he grew up on, and its displacement by new music that, whatever its virtues, “devalued cleverness and irony, not to mention the clarinet and the trombone.”

Porter, our most sophisticated songwriter, was acutely aware that a preponderance of the songs Americans loved were written by Jews. The popular music we think of as quintessentially American was crafted, for the most part, by immigrants and the children of immigrants — men and women who yearned to be thought of not as foreigners, but as Americans, whose identity they were themselves instrumental in creating.

This article was originally published in Columbia Magazine.

September 12, 2010

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The opinions expressed in the comment section are the personal views of the commenters. Comments are moderated, so please keep it civil.

Visitor Comments: 5

(5) Harry J Schuss, June 13, 2017 6:15 PM

Jewish talents have made the world better.

See comment above.

(4) Dave, July 25, 2011 5:07 PM

The decline results from marketing....

Part of the decline comes from a change in how music is marketed. When Berlin, Rodgers, and Loewe were writing, there was such a thing as a general audience. The songs had to be catchy enough to bring in the masses, but subtle and sophisticated enough for the educated. They had to appeal disparate peoples, and thus, helped draw them together, in the spirit of melting-pot America. Then came targeted marketing. Country music had always been aimed at a specifically rural, largely southern, audience. Early rock and roll appealed strictly to the young. Now, we have teen artists, tween artists, children's artists, etc. People have come to expect entertainment designed specifically for their own target group. What caused this change? Some say radio and television, which kept people home and away from the theaters and clubs. This caused producers to focus on younger patrons still willing to go out at night. Others say it's the advertisers, who make more money targeting specific groups, especially younger ones. In any event, entertainment has changed since the days of the great Broadway composers. Instead of bringing us together, it drives us apart into our individual camps. The same thing is happening with other media: we have the Fox News/Limbaugh audience on one side, the PBS/MSNBC audience on the other, and whatever is left for CNN and the big three networks. With the melting pot cracked and broken, we are now a salad bowl of disparate cultures, age groups, and ideologies. Whether entertainment is a cause of this problem or merely a symptom remains to be seen. But, it becomes clear how far we have grown apart as a people. No wonder our representatives cannot agree on anything.

(3) Shirlee Rosenthal, October 13, 2010 2:37 AM


I love music and singing,something I learned from my Mother, we do volunteer work at a nusing home here in Houston, and sing the old favorites. I love the old music esp. from the 40's. One of mine and my Mother's all time favorite musical is Rodger' and Hammerstein's " The Sound of Music". Love it all

(2) Paul Lindemeyer, September 25, 2010 7:44 PM

different time, different music, different meanings

I think these Jewish American artists and creators - along with a lot who weren't Jewish and a few who weren't even American(!) - were on the same path of self-definition and -discovery as the nation as a whole. How they differed from the rest wasn't as important as what they shared. I doubt Americans, let alone any subgroup of us, will ever find quite the same broad commonality again. Even the Songbook itself seems to find its modern audience in a niche of people of a certain age and background.

(1) Lawrence C.Katz, September 13, 2010 9:49 PM

Todays music is WHAT?

Can you tell me where I can go to listen to a big band and dance?.....Whats happened?Repeat the same line over and over again and you are a songwriter.Where are lyrics like "Stardust" or "Night and Day"/Don't even know titles to todays songs.

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