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A Fine Romance: Jewish Songwriters, American Songs

Overview

Part of the Jewish Encounter series

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.

An acclaimed poet, editor, and cultural critic, David Lehman hears America singing—with a Yiddish ...

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Fine Romance: Jewish Songwriters, American Songs

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Overview

Part of the Jewish Encounter series

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.

An acclaimed poet, editor, and cultural critic, David Lehman hears America singing—with a Yiddish accent. He 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,” “My Romance,” “Cheek to Cheek,” “Stormy Weather,” and countless others became nothing less than the American sound track. The stories behind these songs, the shows from which many of them came, and the shows from which many of them came, and the composers and lyricists who wrote them give voice 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 a tone like no other: at once sharply observant, personally searching, and attuned to the songs that all of us love. He helps us understand how natural it should be that Wizard of Oz composer Harold Arlen was the son of a cantor who incorporated “Over the Rainbow” into his Sabbath liturgy, and why Cole Porter—the rare non-Jew in this pantheon of musicians who wrote these classic songs shaped America even as America was shaping them.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Digressive, nostalgic and deeply moving, Lehman achieves a fine, lasting tribute to the American songbook."
--Publishers Weekly

"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." 
-- John Ashbery, author of Three Poems

"David Lehman's A Fine Romance is a spirited account and reminiscence of a time when Jewish plaintiveness and wit combined with Negro blues to give our American culture its way of singing. Everyone who hums the great old tunes will delight in this book and its wondrous lore."
--Richard Wilbur, author of Things of This World

"With brio and encyclopedic knowledge, David Lehman has penned a lovely valentine to the American songbook. Along the way, hard questions are asked, contradictions confronted and shrewd insights offered. The result is pure delight."
--Phillip Lopate, author of Two Marriages

"A wonderfully compelling and poetic analysis that re-envisions the American songbook." –Craig Morgan Teicher, Publisher's Weekly

“What a lovely book this is…Lehman is a fine writer, in full command of his subject.” –writerscast.com

“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.” –Rain Taxi Review of Books

“Though there’s lots of learning here, there’s no heavy-handedness: this is a chrestomathy of loved tunes and musical moments, evoked casually, but with wide authority and tact…song is for pleasure after all, if I can quote some non-Jewish jazz royalty in Duke Ellington, ‘it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.’ Lehman has that swing.” –Tikkun

Publishers Weekly
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 Mornin' ” (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. (Oct.)
Library Journal
Established poet Lehman investigates the lasting impact of 20th-century Jewish popular songwriters in America, ranging from Irving Berlin's and Jerome Kern's early efforts in the 1910s through George Gershwin, Harold Arlen, Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart, and Oscar Hammerstein II to Leonard Bernstein and the early 1960s. In fluid prose and expert foreshadowing and summations, the author conveys the personality of each musician or writer and recommends selected versions of his favorite songs. Historical sections about the plight of the Jews in Europe and a chronology help ground the descriptions in context and evoke the atmosphere of when the songs were first performed. It is hard to determine Lehman's audience as he careens from scholarly pages with footnotes to personal fantasies about meeting some of the long-gone figures to poetry excerpts, some his own and some by others. VERDICT This is likely to appeal to adventurous readers who find a straightforward approach mundane. For a more dispassionate treatment, readers should look to, e.g., Will Friedwald's Stardust Melodies, Philip Furia's America's Songs, or William Zinsser's Easy To Remember.—Barry Zaslow, Miami Univ. Libs., Oxford, OH
The Barnes & Noble Review
Anyone who doubts that there is a distinctively Jewish character to, say, Gershwin's music or Berlin's or Harold Arlen's should listen to 'Someone to Watch Over Me'...and 'Let's Face the Music and Dance' ...and 'Stormy Weather.'...It's there in the plaintive undertow, the feeling that yearning is eternal and sorrow not very far from the moment's joy, writes David Lehman in this touching and thought-provoking book, about how almost all of the great American songs (made famous by such non-Jews as Fred Astaire, Bing Crosby, and Frank Sinatra) were written by Jews. He helps us understand how natural it should be that The Wizard of Oz composer Harold Arlen was the son of a cantor who incorporated "Over the Rainbow" into his Sabbath liturgy.

But not everyone liked their efforts, Lehman tells us. "Virgil Thomson, the composer and music critic for the New York Herald Tribune, dismissed George Gershwin's music for Porgy and Bess as 'gefilitefish scoring.' Whether you you regard the comment as a slur or just a colorful way to register a criticism, it makes it plain that Thomson's educated ear picked up the synagogue rather than the indigenous Gullah sound of Charleston..." Lehman is the editor of The Oxford Book of American Poetry, the series editor of The Best American Poetry, and the author of seven books of poems, including When a Woman Loves a Man. He obviously loves Jewish music (as my mother used to say, "What's not to like?") and includes this telling footnote: "To me," said Lenny Bruce, "if you live in New York or any other big city, you are Jewish..." --Dick Adler

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780805242508
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 10/6/2009
  • Pages: 249
  • Sales rank: 1,237,093
  • Product dimensions: 5.30 (w) x 7.82 (h) x 1.06 (d)

Meet the Author

DAVID LEHMAN is the editor of The Oxford Book of American Poetry, the series editor of The Best American Poetry, and the author of seven books of poems, most recently When a Woman Loves a Man. He lives in New York City.
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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Posted March 9, 2012

    An essential account for anyone interested in the classical American songbook.

    An indispensable and eye-opening history of American songwriting in the first half of the 20th century and its indelible roots in Jewish culture and liturgy.

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