Let's All Be Americans Nowby Jay Neugeboren
By the time Richard Rodgers met Cole Porter — at a 1926 dinner in Noël Coward’s rented palazzo in Venice — Rodgers ’23CC and his musical partner Lorenz Hart ’16JRN were already successes on Broadway. Porter was not. After dinner, the composers took turns at the piano, and when Rodgers showed enthusiasm for Porter’s songs, “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.”
Years later Rodgers wrote, “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.”
It is one of the pleasures of A Fine Romance: Jewish Songwriters, American Songs, poet and critic David Lehman’s quirky romp through 20th-century American popular song — a book combining history, anecdote, memoir, poetry, and biography — that we can read stories like this about an enduring part of American culture.
“Whether you date the genesis to Irving Berlin and ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band’ in 1900 or to Jerome Kern and ‘They Didn’t Believe Me’ in the first year of the Great War,” Lehman ’70CC, ’78GSAS writes, “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.”
Is it a certain sound — “the minor key, bent notes, altered chords, a melancholy edge”? Is it “in the plaintive undertow, the feeling that yearning is eternal and sorrow not very far from the moment’s joy”? Or is it, in critic John Lahr’s words, “crazy jazz” that “incorporated the Jewish wail and the wail of the blues” — a mysterious amalgam that “links Jewish songwriters tonally and rhythmically with black singers and instrumentalists”?
Between 1880 and 1920, 2 million Jewish refugees came to the United States from Eastern Europe, and Lehman speculates on ways their immigrant experience informed their music. “It may sound like the ultimate paradox,” he hypothesizes, “but one distinctively Jewish thing about the authors of the American songbook is [their] determination to escape from their Jewish origins and join the American adventure.” Lehman suggests it was often in their “affirmations of American ideals as they understood them” that Jewish songwriters excelled. Consider, for example, that Irving Berlin, immigrant son of a Jewish cantor, wrote “White Christmas,” “Easter Parade,” and “God Bless America.”
Consider, too, Lehman’s remarks on the exuberant optimism of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! “It is just possible that in the logic of displacement favored by Jewish songwriters,” he writes, “the relation of Oklahoma to the United States as a whole resembles that of the Jewish immigrants to the land that offered them and their kinfolk refuge from the . . . nightmares of Europe.”