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"A Fine Romance: Jewish Songwriters, American Songs"

By Rich Fisher


Tulsa, Oklahoma – On today's show, we're talking about that vast, glorious body of music often called the American Popular Songbook --- the classic pop songs and show tunes that were crafted by such 20th-century masters as Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, George and Ira Gershwin, Harold Arlen, Richard Rodgers, Larry Hart, et al. Interestingly, nearly all of these masterful songwriters and lyricists were Jewish, and this fact is the foundation for an enjoyable, often fascinating book by the noted poet, critic, and scholar David Lehman. The book is "A Fine Romance: Jewish Songwriters, American Songs" --- it came out in 2009, and it's also the basis for a traveling exhibition (which was curated by Lehman, and which has the same title as his book) currently on view at the Tulsa City-County Library's Central Branch (at 4th and Denver, in downtown Tulsa). Here's most of a glowing review of Lehman's book that appeared in Publishers Weekly: "Lehman . . . 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." And if you'd like to know more about the corresponding "Fine Romance" exhibit on view at the TCCL's Central Library, please visit tulsalibrary.org.