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A Fine Romance: Jewish Songwriters, American Songs (Jewish Encounters Series) Hardcover – October 6, 2009

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

As part of the publisher's ongoing Jewish Encounters series, Lehman, poet, anthologist (The Oxford Book of American Poetry) and critic (The Last Avant-Garde), melds dreamy personal reflections with impressive archival excavation for a thorough look at the popular early-20th-century songwriters and what made their work quintessentially Jewish. Delving into the iconic hits of Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, the Gershwins, Harold Arlen, Larry Hart, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, among selective others, Lehman ponders how these Ashkenazi Jews, mostly raised speaking Yiddish in New York as cantors' sons, melded their particular wit, melancholy and sophistication with the rhythmic richness of African-American music—a blending of blues and jazz. In their many beloved seminal hits—e.g., Berlin's Alexander's Ragtime Band (1911), George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue (1923), Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin' (1943)—these sons (Dorothy Fields being the female lyricist exception) of refugees from anti-Semitic rumblings in Europe were conducting a passionate romance with America, Lehman maintains. The author himself grew up in the Inwood section of New York City, under the warm spell of these songs; by the time he graduated from Stuyvesant High School and attended Columbia, where many of these songwriters had met, rock and roll was supplanting that old-time magic. Digressive, nostalgic and deeply moving, Lehman achieves a fine, lasting tribute to the American songbook. (Oct.)
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"Digressive, nostalgic and deeply moving, Lehman achieves a fine, lasting tribute to the American songbook."
--Publishers Weekly

"David Lehman's A Fine Romance wittily explores the enormous contribution of Jewish writers and composers to the American musical scene. Lehman finds Jewish influence, or what he calls 'a plaintive undertow,' even in such unlikely upbeat anthems as Gershwin's 'Love Walked In.' His love-struck history is itself a major entertainment." 
-- John Ashbery, author of Three Poems

"David Lehman's A Fine Romance is a spirited account and reminiscence of a time when Jewish plaintiveness and wit combined with Negro blues to give our American culture its way of singing. Everyone who hums the great old tunes will delight in this book and its wondrous lore."
--Richard Wilbur, author of Things of This World

"With brio and encyclopedic knowledge, David Lehman has penned a lovely valentine to the American songbook. Along the way, hard questions are asked, contradictions confronted and shrewd insights offered. The result is pure delight."
--Phillip Lopate, author of Two Marriages

"A wonderfully compelling and poetic analysis that re-envisions the American songbook." –Craig Morgan Teicher, Publisher's Weekly

“What a lovely book this is…Lehman is a fine writer, in full command of his subject.” –

“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.” –Rain Taxi Review of Books

“Though there’s lots of learning here, there’s no heavy-handedness: this is a chrestomathy of loved tunes and musical moments, evoked casually, but with wide authority and tact…song is for pleasure after all, if I can quote some non-Jewish jazz royalty in Duke Ellington, ‘it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.’ Lehman has that swing.” –Tikkun


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Product Details

  • Series: Jewish Encounters Series
  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Schocken; 1 edition (October 6, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0805242503
  • ISBN-13: 978-0805242508
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 1.1 x 7.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.5 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (17 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #699,991 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

18 of 18 people found the following review helpful By Israel Drazin TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on November 29, 2009
Format: Hardcover
Remarkably, since the first half of the twentieth century, during the golden age of song writing, most of America's best songs - heard on the radio, on records, TV, movies and on the stage, and sung on the streets, at work and at home - were written by Jews. These include the Christian songs "White Christmas" and "Easter Parade," jazz "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man," and the classics "God Bless America," "Embraceable You," "Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered," and many more.

People will be surprised to learn that the pure American songs of the west - such as the effervescent cowboy rhythms of "The Surrey" in Oklahoma - flowed from the imagination New York Jews; that in Lehman's list of the sixteen best Depression era popular songs only two or three were composed by non-Jews; that the words of many of these songs composed by Jews and their melodies reflect the strivings and hopes of new Jewish immigrants.

This volume is part of the well-received and well-written Jewish Encounter series, which intend and succeeds in promoting Jewish literature, history, culture and ideas. All the books in the series are very good, but this volume has the most substance of those that I read, and it is filled with interesting examples. David Lehman is the editor of The Oxford Book of American Poetry and The Best of American Poetry, among other books, and knows the subject he is writing about.

Lehman helps us hear and understand the mysterious ingredients of jazziness and blueness, the wail, the wine and exultant notes that permeate the songs written by Jewish song writers. Many of the words in the purely American songs of are Jewish origin and many of the melodies recalls what is heard in the synagogue.
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17 of 17 people found the following review helpful By Lawrence J. Epstein VINE VOICE on October 8, 2009
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
In this very well-written, humorous, and affectionate homage to the American Songbook, David Lehman hears the Jewish sounds in much of America's greatest popular music. All the great characters are here--Kern, the Gershwins, Berlin, Arlen, and so many others. I found the story of Larry Hart to be especially moving. Lehman seeks their appeal by examining the story of his own interest in the music, bringing us along by using enthusiasm and knowledge. I knew the book was so good because at the end I wanted to go hear the music. Indeed, the book's charms work so well you can hear the strains of some of the great songs in the rhythm of Lehman's extraordinary prose.
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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Shalom Freedman HALL OF FAME on November 15, 2009
Format: Hardcover
This book is not an academic or scholarly analysis of the Jewish contribution to American popular song. Rather it is American poet David Lehman's personal `riff' on the subject. From Irving Berlin's 'Alexander's Rag- Time Band' in 1911 to Lenny Bernstein's `West Side Story' he tells the story of the Jewish contribution to American song in his own way, anecdotally and personally. Having grown up in a shul in which two of the greats Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg were members, he regales us with story after story about the whole panoply of Jewish - American composers, not simply Berlin and Bernstein but also Jerome Kern, George and Ira Gershwin, Richard Rogers and Larry Hart, Oscar Hammerstein, Dorothy Fields,Vernon Duke,Ted Koehler, Frank Loesser,Arthur Schwartz,Betty Comden and Adolph Green, Sammy Cahn,Julie Styne, Howard Dietz, Steven Sondheim,even getting to those with a distinctively different sound, Carole King and Bob Dylan. He in the course of this tells us about their lives and characters, their relations with each other, the general family and social background. He argues that they by and large created an image and dream of America, a largely optimistic dream of America as a land of tremendous hope and energy, one in which love was always just around the corner and in which you could always in one way or another cross over to the sunny side of the street. But he sees them too reflecting other sides of the American reality, as for instance Harburg's producing the great Depression anthem 'Brother Can You Spare a Dime?' Lehman often skats along, combining lines from the songs and making that kind of composition a central part of his text.Read more ›
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Lewis R. Saul on December 31, 2009
Format: Hardcover
What a masterpiece!

Did you ever consider that George Gershwin thought up "It Ain't Necessarily So" with the Torah blessing as earworm? (They are identical, although Gershwin adds several different chromatic intervals into the motif.)

Such are the delicious details of this "fine" book -- and David's writing will keep you spellbound as you join him through a nostalgic trip of our parents' generation of music.

A great read, packed with David's wonderful personal anecdotes about family and the Jewish community in which he grew up -- combined with a compelling, rollicking narrative which certainly kept me -- a classically-trained musician -- stoked with stories and details which I had never known before!

I wish he had gone into the actual music part of these genuises a bit more, but that would probably preclude many non-musician readers from enjoying it as much. After all, these guys used the same 12 notes that Bach, Mozart and Beethoven used. There's a book in there somewhere, methinx ... what are the musical reasons behind the power of these great songsters to achieve such satisfactory results in a profession where yesterday's hit is quickly forgotten? Does the lyric make the song great, even if the music isn't quite as brilliant as something else?

Again -- a fantastic read! Enjoy!

Lewis Saul
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