Saturday, March 27, 2010


[I reread this post and realize that all the caveats I've thrown in might make someone think I didn't like this book. But I do. I love the topic, I love the author's great taste and insights, and I totally enjoyed reading it and recommend it to anyone who loves "the American songbook" or just good writing.]

The subtitle to poet David Lehman's book, A FINE ROMANCE, says it all: "Jewish Songwriters, American Songs." Lehman makes the case for not only the obvious, that a lot of the great American songbook was created by Jewish lyricists and composers during the first half of the 20th Century (and beyond, as he points out in some perceptive comments about "Jewish songwriter" Bob Dylan), but also that popular American music from Irving Berlin to Bob Dylan incorporates a lot of not just Jewish musical traditions, but Jewish-American DNA that makes the popular American music created by non-Jewish composers and lyricists "Jewish" in many essential ways as well.

I would have liked to have seen more about the contribution of other ethnicities—my take on rock'n'roll is that it comes out of African rhythms and Irish melodic traditions, but that's another argument—including the Irish and Italians and others. But except for a nod to the obvious influence of African musical traditions and the enormous impact of later generations of African-American music inventiveness on American popular music (though many scholars on that subject would object to Lehman's talking about "bent notes" and the "lament" nature of a lot of "American" music coming from the Jewish tradition saying it's an African influence that created that bluesy sound, but the more Lehman explained his perspective the more sense it made to me as being a pretty good case for at least equal influence melodically) this is mostly a record of the contributions of a lot of the greatest songwriters of what Lehman and a many others (including me to some extent) see as the most successful sustained period for "pop" music as far as original and sophisticated uses of melody and lyrics goes.

The book itself is a mixture of personal anecdote and taste, along with historical information, a lot of which I was familiar with but some of which was news to me, and enlightening and engaging news at that. But it's also a mix of approaches, that contributes to some weakness in the format. For maybe the first third of the book, at least it seemed that long if not longer, Lehman uses the conceit that the famous lyricists and composers are his "Jewish uncles" who he saw in synagogue etc. as a boy, even though many of them were dead by then.

So there's a little too much of imaginary conversations with dead folks for my taste. I love the passion Lehman has for this music, his defense of its importance and significance and excellence, the anecdotes he's researched and tells refreshingly clearly and concisely, as well as his arguments for the Jewish influence. He cites songs and lyrics and puts them together with the history of the times and the Jewish and Jewish-American influences in ways that are original and convincing.

I appreciate too the personal aspects of the book, the parts of his life as a poet and New Yorker and lover of this music that fits in with so much of what these songwriters were about. I just didn't dig the made up parts, the conversations with the dead and the conceit that he knew people he never met or who were dead before he was born. It was a distraction, to me, from the promise of the opening paragraph of a book that eventually fulfills that promise but not without a lot of sidetracking imaginary stuff that delays, or at least delayed my, ultimate satisfaction with this reading experience.

{PS: The good news for me is that I'm back into reading more than one book at a time and enjoying the pleasures reading has always given me and was only, it would seem, removed from me for a few months after the brain surgery but has recently returned full blown to what it was before, if altered some by the new ways my mind works to derive that reading pleasure.}


Elisabeth said...

A terrific review here, Michael and as I read through it I thought to myself this is fine writing, with no sign of the oddities of brain surgery, not that there were many signs from when I first started to read your posts, other than those you yourself described and most often corrected.

It's interesting that you preferred the non-fiction of Lehman's book to the clearly fictional, the business of imagining conversations with the dead. It takes a real skill I think to bring certain genres together.

Butch in Waukegan said...

I imagine there's a fair amount about Lorenz Hart, a favorite of mine.

His tragedy was the contrast between his witty and sophisticated lyrics, often about love and romance, and the reality of his life. It's hard to make sense of the demon's that torment another person, but maybe he felt he didn't fit into the world he created in song.

[Writing this prompted me to play Dinah Washington singing Hart's Manhattan. Wow!]