|Buy Now at Amazon.com||Review by Judith Levy|
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Are popular songs bursting from the hands of young Jewish men who formerly were trained or brought up by parents schooled in piety and Talmud? Is the Negro spiritual married with Semitic melodies where the sadness and the hopes of a depression burdened generation took flight? A Fine Romance explores that theory with snippets of lyrics to jog the reader's memory. Clearly a piano player to underscore the lyrics would help, but most songs are so familiar the reader will find the souvenir immediately playing without even the help of a Ta, Da, Ta, Da, Da, Ta.
Lehman notes with ample proof that most of the major popular song writers featured in The American Songbook were Jewish, with perhaps the notable exception of Cole Porter, who was unsuccessful until he revealed to Richard Rogers, a lauded tunesmith of his time, that he had finally figured out the key to writing hits. "I'll write Jewish tunes," Porter said, and he did. The minor key melodies of "Night and Day," "Begin the Beguine," "My Heart Belongs to Daddy," just to name a few, catapulted Cole into the hallowed minyan of Jewish composers, like Jerome Kern, Rogers and Hart, George and Ira Gershwin, Gus Kahn, Yip Harburg, Harold Arlen, Frank Leosser and Irving Berlin, and into the hearts of lovers of popular music.
Klezmer, the music of the shtetl can be heard clearly in many of the melodies that make their home in the American Songbook, and no wonder. Harold Arlen who wrote the music to The Wizard of Oz was the son of a cantor and his tender immortal melodies reached a soaring life in "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" when sung by Judy Garland, who took voice lessons from a cantor. Pass the rugalach, they say when you're in love, the whole world is Jewish.
Al Jolson, of the Jazz Age, who began his career singing in his father's synagogue and is now rated as the top performer of his time, sang a newly penned song named Swanee and it exploded into a major hit, although written by, as David Lehman points out, George Gershwin who it was said had never been further south than 14th Street in New York City.
With mysterious "blueness" and "crazy" jazz, Lehman transports you to Aeolian Hall in midtown Manhattan, asking "Can you hear the wail?" He's speaking of the clarinet glissando that pierces the air to begin the world premiere of George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue," considered a highlight event in the Jazz Age.
Composers of this era not only wrote songs to sing, they wrote songs that made you dance. Lehman tells us that in a song, "to dance" is code for something more intimate. As George Bernard Shaw said about dancing, it's "a perpendicular expression of a horizontal desire." And no one could do it more sensually and artfully than Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. And Fred could sing as well. Although it was said of Astaire after his screen test at RKO, "Can't act, Can't sing. Can dance a little. Balding." Still, Irving Berlin said he'd rather have Fred Astaire sing one of his songs than anyone else, and though he had a limited vocal range, sing he did. There were "Cheek to Cheek," and "Puttin' on the Ritz" in the film Blue Skies (1946), to name a few.
From Tin Pan Alley to Broadway and then onto Hollywood, the air reverberated with songs by mostly Jewish composers. America sang its way past the Great Depression with songs like "Brother Can You Spare a Dime?" by Yip Harburg, and then hopefully, "We're In The Money," by Harry Warren and Al Dubin. In World War Two, songs like Frank Leosser's "Praise The Lord and Pass the Ammunition", had the whole country singing and Sammy Cahn's "It's Been a Long, Long Time," is sung and remembered to this very day.
What made these songs so memorable? David Lehman points out that the formula of sadness and then hope as reflected in "Lets' Face the Music and Dance", which starts out lyrically with "There may be trouble ahead," and goes on to say, "but while there's moonlight and music and love and romance, let's face the music and dance."
The sale of sheet music by song pluggers and the singing on street corners by buskers - Izrael Baline was one before he changed his name to Irving Berlin and rocked the country in 1911 with Alexander's Ragtime Band - was the way melodies caught on and became hits.
Lehman whets your appetite beginning each chapter with catchy lyrics like, "And I brought some corn for popping," by Sammy Cahn, from the hit song "Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow." He tells us that the apartment Cahn shared with Phil Silvers in his salad days was so small, "you had to step outside to change your mind." Fortunately things got better for Cahn, who with Jimmy Van Heusen, wrote hit after hit for Frank Sinatra, including "Saturday Night Is the Loneliest Night in the Week," "Five Minutes More," and "Time After Time."
Several chapters are devoted to biographies of Jerome Kern, Harold Arlen, George and Ira Gershwin and Irving Berlin. The tome also contains a certain amount of author's intrusion, burdening the reader with the author's high school days and the camps he attended. He also managed to tell about Cole Porter's and Lorenz Hart's homosexuality and Judy Garland's affair with Johnny Mercer and her proclivity for oral sex. A good editor should have made those comments hit the wastebasket.
A Fine Romance, is easily readable and the author offers a chronology to make your journey into the world of popular music an easy one. Learning about Dorothy Fields and Jerome Kern's winning the Academy Award in 1936 for the ever popular song "The Way You Look Tonight," and Sammy Cahn with Saul Chaplin writing the English lyrics for "Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen," which by the way came straight from a Yiddish musical on Second Avenue composed by Sholum Secunda. Cahn paid Secunda thirty dollars for the rights to his song and made a fortune when the Andrew Sisters skyrocketed it to the top of the charts. It was said that Hitler loved the song until he found out that Jews had written it. Then he banned it in Germany.
Speaking of Germany, Lehman offers world history along with this delectable medley of songs. He tells of his mother's escape from Nazi-annexed Austria and of Kristallnacht, the Holocaust and its effect on America and Jewish composers, especially the Hollywood versions of their lives. In 1946 MGM's Till the Clouds Roll By, (1946) Jerome Kern is played by clean-cut Robert Walker with no Bar-Mitzvah in sight, which is the way Kern lived his life anyway, and in Night and Day George Gershwin played by Robert Alda has a fictionalized bachelor's life and no one ever mentions the word "Jew." His father is portrayed by Morris Carnofsky and that's supposed to get the point across. Gus Kahn's bio in I'll See You In My Dreams is similarly sanitized. Clearly Hollywood was run by Jews but no mention was made of it, certainly not in their films. Lehman writes that actors like Julius Garfinkle, Bernie Schwartz and David Kaminsky became John Garfield, Tony Curtis and Danny Kaye, definitely deemed more palatable to an America that loved their talent but eschewed their heritage.
Many composers wanted their songs sung just as they had written them without any change in tempo or arrangements. It was their signature alone that needed to shine through. In fact Frank Leosser smacked his leading lady, Isabel Bigley, right in the face during a rehearsal of Guys and Dolls because she didn't sing his song the way he wanted it sung. Richard Rodgers, upon hearing Peggy Lee's version of "Lover," which was a waltz, said, according to the author, "I don't know why Peggy picked on me when she could have f-ked up 'Silent Night.' .So much for prima donnas.
Replete with anecdotes and information, A Fine Romance offers a fresh view of musical territory - with some matzah balls floating between the notes. Clearly, Showboat by Jerome Kern and Oklahoma! By Rodgers and Hammerstein changed Broadway and were show stoppers with a profusion of hit songs that people sing to this very day. Bringing powerful stories to the musical stage, like miscegenation in Show Boat and the song "You've Got To Be Taught," in South Pacific showed a determination to make the world equal with justice for all, which in those years took courage. West Side Story with music by Leonard Bernstein also urged tolerance, using Romeo and Juliet as a theme. All these examples point to a truly Jewish point of view finding a home in the score of composers who wanted to make the world a better place.
But as the author points out, most music after World War Two changed. Composers like Irving Berlin, Richard Rodgers and Johnny Mercer(who the author said was an honorary Jew having written the lyric to Ziggy Elman's klezmer tune "And The Angels Sing,"), found they didn't understand and couldn't write the music of this new era. . Some refused to call it music and just referred to it as noise. The new sound of rock and roll was anathema to them. When they turned on the radio they didn't hear "Stormy Weather," "Paper Moon," or "Come Fly With Me," what they heard sounded like labor pains with a beat and Harold Arlen died saddened that the music, the sentimental journey of his life was over. Bring in the clowns.
Irving Berlin's patriotism made him pen "God Bless America," which became a hit when Kate Smith sang it on her radio show on November 11, 1938, just after Kristallnacht in Germany with its butchery and orgy of lawlessness against its Jewish citizens. Michael Finestein said in his program, The Great American Songbook, broadcast on national television, that chances are "God Bless America," would have been chosen as this country's national anthem except for anti-Semitism. I find it strange when I see red-necks standing up to sing White Christmas, Easter Parade and God Bless America all written by Irving Berlin, a Jew, who gave all of the royalties of this valentine to his adopted country to the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts of America. When Irving Berlin died at the age of 101 crowds came to stand in the street at his home on Sutton Place in New York City and sing "God Bless America." Years ago when Jerome Kern was asked what Irving Berlin's place in American music was, he said, "Irving Berlin has no place in American Music. He is American Music."
Frank Leosser said in his hit show Guys and Dolls, for which he wrote both the music and the lyrics, "Sit Down You're Rocking the Boat". The boat never had such a smooth ride as when Jewish composers gave us a cornucopia of beautiful and memorable songs that lifted a nation's spirits and will bring joy to generation after generation "Always."
David Lehman's A Fine Romance is entertaining and readable.
|Buy Now at Amazon.com||Review by Judith Levy|