Chester Design Associates, Chicago
“We must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.” When Barack Obama made this statement in his inaugural address of January 20, 2009, he was paraphrasing the lyric Dorothy Fields wrote for a Jerome Kern song that Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers joyously dance to in the 1936 movie Swing Time: “Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, start all over again.”
Americans have always responded to the optimism, no less than the wit and sophistication, passion and verve, of the jazz standards, ballads, torch songs, anthems, up-tempo dance numbers, and showstoppers that make up the American songbook. Like Hollywood movies, with which they have a symbiotic relationship, the songs beguiled multitudes and prove, in their enduring appeal, that the goals of popular culture and high artistic achievement can happily coincide.
The best songwriters combined a genius for melody, ingenuity at fitting the right words to it, and the ability to connect with a wide audience. A remarkably high percentage of them were Jewish by birth and heritage. Some (Jerome Kern, Richard Rodgers) came from relatively prosperous families with the foresight to immigrate in the 1860s or earlier. Others were children of refugees from Eastern Europe, who risked everything to escape pogroms and persecution in the years just before and after the turn of the century.
Following the assassination of a liberal Czar in 1881, cruel anti-Semitic decrees made life miserable for Russian Jews—just as depicted in the 1964 musical Fiddler on the Roof (music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick). And so it happened that Israel Baline, Yakov Gershowitz, and Chaim Arluck became Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, and Harold Arlen, and together they made musical history in the country that gave them the chance.
Panel photo captions:
The land beyond the rainbow, Courtesy of Photofest. Though the Munchkins get more credit on the poster, Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg contributed the matchless musical score of The Wizard of Oz.
Topal as Tevye in the movie version of Fiddler on the Roof, Courtesy of United Artists/Photofest ©United Artists. Many songwriters came from Jewish refugee families escaping from persecution in Eastern Europe–the plight memorialized in Fiddler on the Roof, the musical based on the short stories of Sholom Aleichem. Here Tevye the milkman and neighbors lament Anatevka, the little Russian village they will have to leave.
America offered its newcomers not only a safe haven from anti-Semitic terror but also the promise of a fresh start, with upward mobility, and men and women of creative talent seized the chance to create the words and music of the American dream. The sky was the limit, or so it felt, to young people with big imaginations at a time when exciting new technologies—the radio, the microphone, the talking movie, the long-playing record—gave popular culture a huge assist as the twentieth century got off the ground.
What is the American songbook? You won’t find it in your local branch of the public library, or even in the Library of Congress, because it exists not as a physical book in multiple volumes but as a term for a remarkable era of songs—songs that achieved enormous popularity when first introduced and that have since become the American classics, or “standards,” that jazz musicians play and cabaret chanteurs sing.
“Body and Soul,” “Night and Day,” “It Had To to Be You,” “Love for Sale,” “The Blue Room,” “I Guess I’ll Have to Change My Plan,”“Always,” “Tangerine,” “Among My Souvenirs,” “Stormy Weather," “Thou Swell,” “That Old Black Magic,” “My Heart Stood Still”: You can make a superb compact disc out of just the background songs in black-and-white Hollywood movies when the “studio system” was in its heyday, and MGM, Warner Brothers, Universal, Paramount, and Columbia were the main centers of activity.
The soundtrack of the American romance—as heard on the car radio and seen on the silver screen in the 1930s and 40s—was largely the product of a Jewish imagination. Would Casablanca be the same without Herman Hupfeld’s “As Time Goes By” played on the piano and sung by Dooley Wilson? Would the progress of Dorothy and her friends toward the merry old land of Oz enchant half as much without “Over the Rainbow,” “If I Only Had a Brain,” “Ding- Dong! The Witch is Is Dead,” and the rest of the score by Harold Arlen (music) and Yip Harburg (lyrics)?
Panel photo captions:
Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg cavorting with the cast of The Wizard of Oz, Courtesy of Photofest. This exhibition is based on David Lehman’s book A Fine Romance: Jewish Songwriters, American Songs, published by Nextbook/Schocken in 2009.
Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire in Swing Time, Courtesy of RKO Radio Pictures/Photofest ©RKO Radio Pictures. Swing Time may be the finest of the Astaire-Rogers movies. From the score by Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields, “The Way You Look Tonight” won the Academy Award for best song of 1936, beating out Cole Porter’s “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.”
Dooley Wilson at the piano, Humphrey Bogart, and Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca, Courtesy of Warner Bros./Photofest. Rick, the owner of the gin joint, says, “You played it for her, you can play it for me. Play it, Sam.” And the piano player sighs and obligingly plays “As Time Goes By.”
Fields, Dorothy, 1905-1974, Kern, Jerome, 1885-1945, Rodgers, Richard, 1902-1979, Berlin, Irving, 1888-1989, Gershwin, George, 1898-1937, Arlen, Harold, 1905-1986, Harburg, E. Y. (Edgar Yipsel), Porter, Cole, 1891-1964