A FINE ROMANCE: Jewish Songwriters, American Songs

David Lehman
Schocken ($23)

by Douglas A. Smith

It’s not until the last chapter of David Lehman’s book A Fine Romance: Jewish Songwriters, American Songwriters that the author recounts to a friend, “I’m writing the book in a way that intermingles fact and fantasy even though it is technically a nonfiction book.” It would have been helpful to know that from the start, because the intermingling of scholarly information with chatty news and gossip is confusing. The first half of the fourth chapter, for example, is a mile-a-minute existential romp with multiple characters, an almost surrealist pastiche of real and imagined conversations between Lehman and those musicians and lyricists he loves. In the second half of the chapter, he bemoans the change of pop music from jazz to rock to rap and explains that this is what got him started on this project. In a way, this is where the book really begins.

Lehman, a poet and editor, uses language wonderfully, artfully extracting lyrics from the songs he loves even when he doesn’t tell us he is doing so; many of his phrases tickle the back of one’s mind with familiarity. This is truly his romance with the music—he has written a love poem in prose format, sprinkled with New York Jewish patois and rhymes. He tries to seduce us into this romance and often succeeds, even though his reader may be much less familiar with the songs and vehicles in which they appeared. To do this, he literally stops his narrative to put on an album, choosing the musicians carefully to create the mood, and then floors us with knowledge both intimate and monumental about his topic. One can read the endnotes for added scholarly information and wit, but it isn’t necessary as the text contains plenty of both: hometown gossip to keep us smiling while we wait, on the edge of our seats, for more factual information about the songs and the writers.

Lehman steals a line from Robert Alter in a 1965 Commentary to describe these Jewish songwriters, saying they were “culturally American in all important respects and only peripherally or vestigially Jewish.” Yet he makes the point that, for the most part, they came to America from Europe as very young children, spoke Yiddish, were exposed to Old World religion and customs, and that these things defined them as a group. Certainly something had to, as otherwise teams of Jewish songwriters and lyricists who had never left New York City might have had no shared experiences on which to base their songs about the Dust Bowl or the hope for snow on Christmas.

One wonders why Lehman waits over 180 pages to discuss the intersection, collision, and collaboration of African American music, i.e., jazz and blues, with the Jewish songwriters of Tin Pan Alley. He states one obvious answer: the subject is “conducive to controversy and misunderstanding.” Another is that it would require a separate book to do it justice. In his penultimate chapter, Lehman gets rather academic about this subject, spending a little time on Porgy and Bess and Showboat, and a whole lot of time on the multiple layers of meaning and psychology within The Jazz Singer. Unfortunately, readers won’t emerge that much more enlightened about the mixture of musical forms by the two groups.

While at times confusing, 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.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010