What Makes a Song Jewish?

David Lehman looks at that amazing generation of songwriters who collectively turned out what we know as the 'American Song Book.' American, yes, but what gave their creations a Jewish identity?

A Fine Romance

Jewish Songwriters, American Songs, by David Lehman Schocken / Nextbook (Jewish Encounters series), 272 pages, $23

David Lehman is passionate about what is commonly called the "American Song Book." The term refers to all those popular songs from the 1920s up through the 1960s, many of them written originally for the stage, that people in America and around the world continue to hum - the "standards." Both the melodies and the lyrics comprise the soundtrack of the lives of millions, including Lehman, who integrates snatches of quotes from many into the text of his book, which only makes the reading that much more enjoyable.

Lehman, who is himself a poet and editor, is Jewish, as were so many of the composers and lyricists who contributed to the American Song Book over the years, writing mainly for Broadway and Hollywood: George M. Cohan, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, Frank Loesser, Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart, Oscar Hammerstein II, Harold Arlen, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim and many others.

There was only one non-Jewish songwriter of the caliber of those mentioned above, namely Cole Porter. And he is the one credited with the saying that constitutes the backbone of this book, and the reason it is part of the Schocken / Nextbook Jewish Encounters series. In 1926, Richard Rodgers, at the time already an established name on Broadway (for his work with lyricist Lorenz Hart) met Porter, then an ambitious but still struggling composer and lyricist for the theater. Rodgers recognized a fellow talent, and Porter confided that after all his failures on Broadway, he felt he had finally figured out the secret of writing hits: "I'll write Jewish tunes," he said.

Lehman tries to decipher and explain just what a "Jewish tune" is, which is to say, to understand in what way the Jewishness of these songwriters contributed to their success. Some of the answers offered may sound obvious - a few were sons of cantors (Berlin, Arlen) - but others seem a little far-fetched.

There may, for example, be some resemblance between the melody of the first line of George Gershwin's "Swanee" - "I've been away from you a long time" (words by Irving Caesar) - with the Sabbath prayer "Hashivenu." One may hear melodic overtones from the blessing over the Torah - "Borchu et ado?i hamevorakh" - with the Gershwin brothers' "It Ain't Necessarily So" (whose subject is Biblical anyway). As with etymologies of similar-sounding words from different languages, though, one needs to be careful in identifying snatches of melodies here and there. Resemblances don't necessarily mean a thing, even if they've got that swing.

There is no doubt, however, that one can point to some common and pretty general qualities that many of the popular songs written by the composers mentioned above share: the minor key, bent notes, altered chords and a melancholy edge. Most of them are also witty, clever, skillfully rhymed, and full of humor, self-irony and unabashed sentimentality - qualities that could arguably also be labeled as Jewish.

You can find many Yiddishisms in the lyrics ("Alright, I'm just a no-goodnik / Alright already, it's true / So nu / So, sue me, sue me"' - "Sue Me," from "Guys and Dolls"), or "Yiddish syntax," which often means "bending" the sentence structure to fit the melody, which was very often written first (which is why Ira Gershwin claimed that any resemblance between lyrics and poetry is purely coincidental, though I dare to think he was being overly modest). But, as we all know now, the non-Jew Cole Porter could also write a song about "Hothouse Rose," whose name is Rosenbaum, and who when she buys some perfume, "now ... smells like a rose'n'bloom." So again, incorporation of a "Jewish" element does not necessarily make it a Jewish song.

Jewish words and expressions made it into English long before Jewish songwriters got on the bandwagon: "Chutzpah," for instance, is dated by Merriam-Webster back to 1883. I'm not sure that word was ever used in one of those popular songs, but who knows.

Best song ever

Did the Jewish songwriters have chutzpah? Some did, and some didn't. Irving Berlin told his right-hand man Helmy Kresa (who transcribed and orchestrated his songs for him, as Berlin never learned to read or write music, and played the piano only in the key of F) sometime in mid-1942: "I want you to take down a song I wrote over the weekend. Not only is it the best song I ever wrote, it's the best song anybody ever wrote." The song was "White Christmas." (Such a claim, made before the composition was even on sheet meusic, took some chutzpah, even if "White Christmas" did turn out to be a huge hit.) On the other hand, Lorenz Hart was plagued with insecurities. Despite the many hits he had to his name, he did not see himself fit to cooperate with his long-time partner Richard Rodgers on "Oklahoma!" a decision that was instrumental in creating another successful duo, of Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II (who until then had collaborated a lot with Jerome Kern).

With all their ego, most of those songwriters were still able to be generous with one another: Berlin looked up to Kern, Gershwin wanted to be Berlin's secretary, Rodgers helped Porter and produced the music of others in addition to writing his own. They may have been competitors in a field where popularity and sales are the name of the game, but they were also always ready to admit a new talent into their fold and recognize his - or her, let's not forget Dorothy Fields, one of the very few females in the book - talent. Lehman points out that some of the great successes of the American musical occurred when the Jewish musical-lyrical idiom met the African-American: The Gershwins' "Porgy and Bess" (1935), Kern and Hammerstein's "Show Boat" (in 1927, with "Ol' Man River"), and perhaps most significantly, "The Jazz Singer"(1927). The latter was the first motion picture with sound, the real-life story of a cantor's son (Al Jolson) who leaves his Orthodox Jewish family to sing jazz, decked out minstrel-style in blackface, and still makes it in time from shul, where he chants the "Kol Nidrei" prayer, in place of his dying father, uptown to the musical stage, where he wows them all, his mother included, with "April Follies."

Lehman paints a vivid picture of the times, starting with World War I (Kern wrote, "And when I told them how beautiful you are they didn't believe me," and Porter, who was entertaining the troops in Europe with a portable piano on his back changed the lyrics to "And when I told them how dangerous it was they didn't believe me" - "They Didn't Believe Me"); the carefree times before the crash; the Depression years ("Brother, Can You Spare a Dime," lyrics by Yip Harburg); and then the years leading to World War II and after. He juxtaposes some dates: Berlin's "God Bless America" was first performed on the radio, by Kate Smith, a day after Kristallnacht, in 1938; crematorium II in Auschwitz began to operate on March 31, 1943, the same day "Oklahoma!" opened on Broadway. He sees the Jewish (mostly) songwriters as expressing with their art the spirit of America.

Not overtly Jewish

But with all the anecdotes and quotes he provides - some of them presented as fictional meetings with Uncle Jerry (Kern) or Uncle Harold (Arlen), or equally fictional interviews with Ira Gershwin or Sammy Cahn − the thesis about the meaning of Jewishness in the American Song Book falls short, due to the very simple fact that most of those songwriters didn't live an overtly Jewish life, nor did they make too much of their own Jewishness, even privately. Rodgers wrote about himself that he identified as a Jew "for socio-ethnic reasons rather than because of any deep religious conviction." None of them was a regular guest in synagogue on Friday night. All of them were hardworking artists and artisans providing material for another opening, another show.

The popular songs written by all the Jewish artists mentioned above shared many qualities with other popular songs of that era. If they were - and are - unique, it is due less to any particular Jewishness than it is to the individual talents of the composers and lyricists. The question "What does it mean to be Jewish in America?" is very much in fashion these days, but the biographies and works of all those songwriters does not help to clarify the issue. Still, raising the issue, even if it is impossible to answer it in a satisfying way, presents a great opportunity to wallow in the stories of their life - quoting lyrics, retelling entertainment lore, remembering songs and having as much fun as possible, which Lehman clearly has, even writing a few pastiches as tributes to particular composers or lyricists, one of them wholly made up of phrases from well-known lyrics.

Part of the charm of this book is that under the pretext of exploring the Jewishness of the American Song Book, one comes across some wonderful gems. One I will share with readers is Lehman's explanation of how it is that we usually know, and sing, only the refrain of the song, as popularized by recording artists, omitting the verse which leads to it, which was usually performed when the song was part of a show.The Gershwin brothers? "The Man I Love," for instance, starts with a long preamble, actually a kind of recitative that is a beautiful piece of music (and lyrics) in itself: "When the mellow moon begins to beam / Ev'ry night I dream a little dream / And of course Prince Charming is the theme: The he for me. / Although I realize as well as you / It is seldom that a dream comes true / To me it's clear / That he'll appear." Only then comes "Someday he'll come along / The man I love."

Sammy Cahn explains that, "The verse is just the preface to the chorus. For every verse there ever was, you can substitute one phrase: 'And that's why I say.'" By the way, "The Man I Love" was written to be part of one musical, but was scrapped during tryouts; then another musical was written especially to include it (the producer liked the tune), was dropped during tryouts, was published (not recorded - that's how songs were sold then, as sheets) only when the Gershwin brothers agreed to cut their royalties, and then was dropped from yet another musical, until it finally made it on its own.

There is little that Lehman does not know about his subject, so one can wonder if it's really right to ask for anything more. Still, I would like to point out two names I missed from the story. One is Kurt Weill, who, though he emigrated from Germany only at age 35, contributed gems like "September Song" and "Saga of Jenny" to the American Song Book. The other is Stephen Sondheim. Both are mentioned in the timeline the author provides at the end of the book: Weill for the opening of "Threepenny Opera" in 1928, in Berlin; and Sondheim, with his date of birth in 1930, and his lyrics for "West Side Story" in 1957.

But there is no further word about Sondheim's significant and innovative contribution to American popular music, which continues to this day, though I agree that it is difficult to pinpoint its Jewishness. And incidentally, Lehman notes that the line "Who could ask for anything more" is a key line in two Gershwin songs: "Nice Work If You Can Get It?" and "I Got Rhythm." It is also a key line in Sondheim's "More," as performed by Madonna in the movie "Dick Tracy" (1990). And the whole song is a tribute to the American popular song culture: "Once upon a time I had plenty of nothing / Which was fine with me / Because I had rhythm, music, love / The sun, the stars and the moon above / Had the clear blue sky and the deep blue sea / That was when the best things in life were free. / Then time went by and now I got plenty of plenty / Which is fine with me / "Cause I still got love, I still got rhythm / But look at what I got to go with 'em / "Who could ask for anything more?" / I hear you query / Who could ask for anything more? / Well, let me tell you, dearie."