By David Lehman

Guest Columnist

New York, NY, USA


[Two Excerpts from A Fine Romance: Jewish Songwriters, American Songs]


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 key, bent notes, altered chords, a melancholy edge. Even happy songs sound a little mournful. There, in a plaintive undertow, is the feeling that yearning is eternal and sorrow not very far from the moment’s joy. You can hear it at the end of the bridge (or “release”) in “Stormy Weather” (music by Harold Arlen, lyrics by Ted Koehler). 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 clichés, 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 élan to surpass himself.[1] 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.”[2] 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.”[3]


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 the 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 Jews 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) and Porgy 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 sometimes 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 performer and audience alike will have trumped all other considerations. When the black male chorus in Show Boat reaches 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 a 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 to his younger taller genius brother George -- the lyricists had their own order 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.[4]


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?[5] Romance and romantic recur as they do in classic American popular songs not only 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.  They had had an extra incentive to participate in this aesthetic adventure: they, the outsiders, immigrants or the children of immigrants, universally despised for reasons racial and religious, were getting to compose the music and words of the insider’s dream. The songs made people dance. And the dance, the conventional fox trot, old-fashioned waltz, or jazzed-up polka, acquired, in Arlene Croce’s phrase, a “special luminosity . . . as an emblem of sexual union.”[6]


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 a horizontal desire.”[7]



The Secret of Writing Hits


An anecdote in Richard Rodgers's autobiography advances the thesis that the Jewish quality of American popular song is so fundamental – and so unrelated to the actual religion – that you will find it even in the work of the corn-fed Hoosiers (Hoagy Carmichael, Cole Porter) and Savannah songbirds (Johnny Mercer) among the many other white musicians not of the faith (Harry Warren, Vincent Youmans, Walter Donaldson, and James Van Heusen, for starters) who kept up with the Gershwins, the Berlins, and the Kerns.

David Lehman

It was in Venice in 1926 that Rodgers met Cole Porter, then unknown to him. But Porter knew who Rodgers was. Rodgers and Hart had made it on Broadway. “Manhattan” was the toast of the town. Porter in contrast had written the scores of several shows, none of which had, well, scored. According to Rodgers, who often complained about Hart’s penchant for disappearing, no sooner did he and his partner reach Venice than the lyricist ditched the composer and headed for the nearest bar. When Dick went for a stroll alone on the Lido, whom should he run into but his old friend Noel Coward, and Noel had a friend in a nearby cabana and there stood Porter, a “slight, delicate-featured man with soft saucer eyes and a wide, friendly grin.”


That evening Rodgers and Hart dined with Coward and the Porters, Cole and his wife Linda, in the Palazzo Rezzonico, the grand palace in which Robert Browning had died. Coward had rented it for the season. All through dinner Porter peppered Rodgers with questions. After they ate, they took turns at the piano. When Porter played “Let’s Do It” and “Let’s Misbehave,” Rodgers knew that here was a major talent. He conveyed his enthusiasm and 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. Rodgers laughed at the time, but looking back he realized that Porter was serious and had been right.  “Just hum the melody that goes with `Only you beneath the moon and under the sun’ from ‘Night and Day,’ or any of ‘Begin the Beguine,’ or ‘Love for Sale,’ or ‘My Heart Belongs to Daddy,’ or ‘I Love Paris.’  These minor-key melodies are unmistakably eastern Mediterranean,” Rodgers writes in Musical Stages. “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.”[8]


Though Rodgers doesn’t spell it out, it is easy enough to understand that Porter, the gay Yalie, may have had more than one thing in common with the New York Jewish boys who went to Columbia. Do what Dick Rodgers suggested. Listen to Mary Martin sing My Heart Belongs to Daddy – to that part of the song where she says Da and repeats the syllable eight times. What you get is a patter of baby talk, or fake baby talk, and a pun on Dada. But if you slow down the tempo you also hear the sound of davening:  da da da, da da da, da da da. Can you hear it? Can you hear the Klezmer sound in “I Love Paris”?[9]


You didn’t have to be Jewish to write “Jewish tunes.” As a composer you just needed an ear for it. The cantor’s sons and other temple-goers had a natural advantage, of course. They could rely on the praises and lamentations from the liturgy that were buried in their brains. A few years ago I saw a revival of Porgy and Bess and realized where I had previously heard the musical phrase for the words “It Ain’t Necessarily So. It was at the bima on Shabbos, when a congregant is summoned to recite a blessing over the Torah. Borchu es adoshem hamvoroch[10]


As a lyricist of “Jewish tunes,” you needed to modify your melancholy with the wit of insubordination or the gleeful double entendre. You needed cheek as well as cheek-to-cheek, and you needed the ability to sound glad and unhappy at the same time. And of course it didn’t hurt if you had a fund of Yiddish words at your disposal. When the chorus in Animal Crackers (1930) sings “Hooray for Captain Spaulding, the African Explorer,” Groucho Marx, the object of adulation, comments, “Did someone call me schnorer?”[11] Nor is a footnote needed when Sammy Cahn writes the phrase “the whole megillah” in the title song of the movie version of Neil Simon’s first play, Come Blow Your Horn (1963).


No one’s lyrics sounded more Jewish than Frank Loesser’s in select moments in Guys and Dolls (1950) and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1961)for both of which Loesser wrote the music as well as the words. In the former, there is the moment when Nathan Detroit, more committed to his “permanent floating crap game” than to Miss Adelaide, the burlesque dancer to whom he has been engaged for a record number of years, is on his knees begging her forgiveness for some minor betrayal or other.


Alright already, I'm just a nogoodnik.

Alright already, it's true, so nu?


The incomparable nu – which functions somewhat like “well” in English or alors in French but with much surplus meaning – is there for the rhyme but not only for the rhyme. [12] It makes these lines impossible to speak or sing without a New York Jewish intonation. Playing Nathan Detroit in the movie, Sinatra never sounded more Jewish.


You could argue that the most Jewish element of the lyrics written for classic American popular songs is the wit that informs them, whether jubilant or downhearted, buoyantly clever or wryly ironic. Consider Ira Gershwin’s couplet in the verse for “Nice Work If You Can Get It”:


The only work that really brings enjoyment

Is the kind that is for girl and boy meant.


The inversion of the word order in the second line, which would disqualify it as poetry, accounts for its greatness as a lyric, for it combines the romantic vision of bliss with the spirit of the comic vernacular. The rhyme of “enjoyment” and “and boy meant” is Jewish genius.


The polysyllabic rhyme gives the lyricist the chance to show off his virtuosic powers, as Ira does in retelling bible stories for “It Ain’t Necessarily So. Here in two lines is the crux of the story of Jonah:


            He made his home in

            That fish’s abdomen.


It is hard to outdo Lorenz Hart in this department. “Mountain Greenery, the pastoral counterpart to “Manhattan,” is full of astounding examples:


            While you love your lover let

            Blue skies be your coverlet.



(From A Fine Romance: Jewish Songwriters by David Lehman (Schocken, 2009). Copyright © 2009 by David Lehman. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of the author.)



[1] The non-Jewish songwriter is Cole Porter: “The more ‘Jewish’ he got, the better his music.” Wilfrid Sheed, The House that George Built (Random House, 2007), p. 153.

[2] John Lahr, “Come Rain or Come Shine: The Bittersweet Life of Harold Arlen” in The New Yorker, September 19, 2005, p. 89.

[3] Howard Pollack, George Gershwin: His Life and Work (Berekeley: U of California Press, 2006), p. 171.

[4] Carolyn Leigh’s lyric for “How Little We Know (How Little It Matters)” contains this working definition of “romance.” It’s what happens “when two tingles intermingle.”  The Bronx-born Leigh (nee Rosenthal) wrote the words for “Young at Heart” and “Hey, Look Me Over” as well as the songs for Mary Martin’s Peter Pan. (1954).

[5] The lyricists responsible for the songs referred to here are, in order, Oscar Hammerstein, Ira Gershwin, Dorothy Fields, Leo Robin, and Lorenz Hart. “Our romance won’t end on a sorrowful note” is the first line of the verse of “They Can’t That Away from Me.” “I know that music leads the way to romance” is from “I Won’t Dance.”

[6] Arlene Croce, “Notes on La Belle, La Perfectly Swell Romance,” in Robert Gottlieb, ed., Reading Dance, (New York: Pantheon, 2008), p. 64.

[7]  Shaw, The New Statesman, March 23, 1962.

[8]  Richard Rodgers, Musical Stages  (1975, rpt. Da Capo Press, 2002), p.88.

[9]  Of the six major composers – Arlen, Berlin, Gershwin, Kern, Cole Porter, and Richard Rodgers – three of the four whose music sounds most “Jewish” to my ears (Arlen, Berlin, and Gershwin) were from Eastern European families who fled from Russia to escape the murderous pogroms, the persecution, and such punitive laws as the mandatory twenty-five year hitch in the military, all of which followed the assassination of a liberal Czar in 1881.

[10] Borchu es adoshem hamvoroch: Praise the Lord who deserves out praise. Bima: the elevated platform on which the Torah rest when the week’s portion is recited.

[11]  Music and lyris by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby. Schnorer: beggar or freeloader. Megillah: literally a scroll; figuratively a long story.

[12]  One can translate nu, depending on context, as “so” (declarative or interrogative), “so what,” “all right,” and even “let’s do it.” See William Grimes, “Language of Variety (and Oy, the Insults!)” in The New York Times, October 17, 2007. Review of Just Say NuYiddish for Every Occasion (When English Just Won’t Do) by Michael Wex (St. Martin’s Press).  A Yiddish translation of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” translated back into English, begins, “Nu, come on, me and you.”


David Lehman is the founding editor of The Best American Poetry series and is one of American’s foremost editors, poetry anthologists, literary critics and poets. 

All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.