Jewish Songwriters, American Songs

Poet David Lehman talks about the brilliant Jewish composers and lyricists whose work largely comprises the great American songbook

Irving Berlin singing at the dedication of the Los Angeles City Hall. (Bettmann / Corbis)

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To me there's something explicitly or implicitly Judaic about many of the songs. Musically there seems to be a lot of writing in the minor key, for one thing. And then there are instances in which lines of songs closely resemble musical phrases in the liturgy. For example, the opening verse of Gershwin’s "Swanee" seems to come out of the Sabbath prayers. "It Ain't Necessarily So" echoes the haftorah blessing. It's no coincidence that some of the top songwriters, including Harold Arlen and Irving Berlin, were the sons of cantors. There are also other particularities about the music, bent notes and altered chords, that link this music to the Judaic tradition on the one hand, and to African-American forms of musical expression on the other. At the same time, the lyric writers set store by their wit and ingenuity, and one could argue that a particular kind of cleverness and humor is part of the Jewish cultural inheritance. It may well be that people will argue this point, and there are people who know a great deal more than I do about music. You have to trust your instincts and your judgment. But I don't think it's a hanging offense if you're wrong. And I think it's a good idea to be a little provocative and stimulate a conversation about such matters.

As a poet, how do you regard the artistry of the great lyricists?

The best song lyrics seem to me so artful, so brilliant, so warm and humorous, with both passion and wit, that my admiration is matched only by my envy. I think what songwriters like Ira Gershwin, Johnny Mercer and Larry Hart did is probably more difficult than writing poetry. Following the modernist revolution, with T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, we shed all sorts of accoutrements that had been thought indispensable to verse, like rhyme and meter and stanzaic forms. But these lyricists needed to work within boundaries, to get complicated emotions across and fit the lyrics to the music, and to the mood thereof. That takes genius.

Take "Nice Work If You Can Get It" by George and Ira Gershwin. There’s a moment in the verse where it goes: The only work that really brings enjoyment / Is the kind that is for girl and boy meant. Now, I think that's a fantastic rhyme. Just a brilliant couplet. I love it. Or take "Love Me or Leave Me," from 1928, with lyrics by Gus Kahn and music by Walter Donaldson: Love me or leave me and let me be lonely / You won’t believe me but I love you only / I’d rather be lonely than happy with somebody else. That is very good writing, with lovely internal rhymes. And you're limited to very few words; it's like writing haiku. But they rhyme and can be sung. Well, I say that's pretty good.


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