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A Fine Romance

Jewish Songwriters, American Songs


David Lehman (View Bio)
Hardcover: Schocken, 2009.

A Fine Romance

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.

Winner of the 42nd Annual ASCAP Deems Taylor Award for an Outstanding Book on Music

"As part of the publisher's ongoing Jewish Encounters series, Lehman, poet, anthologist (The Oxford Book of American Poetry) and critic (The Last Avant-Garde), melds dreamy personal reflections with impressive archival excavation for a thorough look at the popular early-20th-century songwriters and what made their work quintessentially Jewish. Delving into the iconic hits of Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, the Gershwins, Harold Arlen, Larry Hart, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, among selective others, Lehman ponders how these Ashkenazi Jews, mostly raised speaking Yiddish in New York as cantors' sons, melded their particular wit, melancholy and sophistication with the rhythmic richness of African-American music—a blending of blues and jazz. In their many beloved seminal hits—e.g., Berlin's ‘Alexander's Ragtime Band’ (1911), George Gershwin's ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ (1923), Rodgers and Hammerstein's ‘Oh, What a Beautiful Morning' (1943)—these sons (Dorothy Fields being the female lyricist exception) of refugees from anti-Semitic rumblings in Europe ‘were conducting a passionate romance with America,’ Lehman maintains. The author himself grew up in the Inwood section of New York City, under the warm spell of these songs; by the time he graduated from Stuyvesant High School and attended Columbia, where many of these songwriters had met, rock and roll was supplanting that old-time magic. Digressive, nostalgic and deeply moving, Lehman achieves a fine, lasting tribute to the American songbook." — Publishers Weekly

"What accounts for the fact that the majority of America's leading songwriters, the movers and shapers of our popular musical culture, were Jewish, including such luminaries as Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Richard Rodgers, Harold Arlen, Frank Loesser, Leonard Bernstein, and Stephen Sondheim? Through fact-based analysis and anecdote-rich tribute, David Lehman spiritedly explores this striking phenomenon." — Jewish Book World

"This volume is part of the well-received and well-written Jewish Encounter series, which intends 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 American Poetry, among other books, and knows the subject he is writing about. Lehman helps us hear and understand the mysterious ingredients of jazziness and bluesness, 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…. Lehman is a superb writer. Readers will enjoy his language." — Israel Drazin, The Jewish Eye

"In A FINE ROMANCE: JEWISH SONGWRITERS, AMERICAN SONGS—part history, part memoir, part essay, part musical analysis—author David Lehman finds the deeper meaning in the intersection of this quintessential American art form with Jewish culture just one step removed from the Eastern European shtetl. Lehman describes how both the form and content of so many classic pop standards only subtly masked their Jewish origins. In Gershwin’s 'Swanee' Lehman hears the melody of the Sabbath prayer, 'Hashkivenu.' In Frank Loesser’s lyrics for 'How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,' he sees a direct transcription of Yiddish grammar ('company policy is by me okay'). In the overall theme of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 'Oklahoma,' he finds a metaphor for American nationalism and idealism at the very moment when the ovens of Auschwitz were burning the remains of millions of European Jews. Lehman is a wonderful storyteller, packing his text with historical and personal anecdotes about the songwriters as well as the mostly non-Jewish performers who brought these works to the general public, singers like Fred Astaire, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee, and others. Lehman perceptively analyzes the give-and-take between Jewish songwriters and African-American jazz, and how the two groups together, consciously or otherwise, created a quintessentially American art form that presented a musical mirror to the predominantly white Christian American society of the time while it spread a new kind of musical gospel of America to the world beyond the borders of the United States. In so doing, Lehman shows, blacks and Jews came to define America for Americans and the world." — Seth Rogovoy, Berkshire Jewish Voice

"A poet's witty and ruminative examination of how Jewish songwriters—George and Ira Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, Oscar Hammerstein, Sammy Cahn, and others—used outsider status to gain perspective in forging a canon of sophisticated, quintessentially American songs." — Dan DeLuca, Philadelphia Inquirer

"This compact book is a lucid personal response to a thick and complicated subject; how and why so many standards from the Great American Songbook came from the minds, hearts and pens of Jewish songwriters, from the Gershwins, Jerome Kern and Irving Berlin to Rodgers, Hart and Hammerstein, Frank Loesser, Harold Arlen, and on through Sondheim and Bernstein to Carole King, Bob Dylan and Randy Newman. It’s part researched history, part clarifying criticism, and at times it becomes a phantasmagoria dreamscape in which the author—a poet and storied poetry editor— imagines all of the above are his relatives. Lehman identifies often-bluesy aspects of Jewish liturgical music that influenced these songwriters’ sounds, tendencies toward undercutting the glad with the sad (and vice versa) in their tone, and towards playfulness, irony, romance and gall in their lyrics, as elements shared by these children of immigrants 'who wanted to re-create themselves as Americans and wound up recreating American culture in the process.' The book also sheds light on the nature and strength of our culture’s response to that shared sensibility." — American Songwriter

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