Chester Design Associates, Chicago
Jerome Kern (1885–1945) wrote “They Didn’t Believe Me” for a Broadway show called The Girl from Utah in 1914. The song consisted of sixteen bars, half the length of the standards to come. But Kern’s melody and its harmonic and rhythmical possibilities made it the prototype of the modern ballad. “No one had begun writing real songs in this style yet—until suddenly here it was: a perfect loosey-goosey, syncopate-me-if-you-care, a relaxed and smiling American asterisk-jazz song,” as author and critic Wilfrid Sheed has written.
Born on January 27—Mozart’s birthday—Jerome David Kern became the dean of American songwriters. Adapting the European operetta tradition (Offenbach in Paris, Strauss in Vienna) to American idioms, settings, and pace, he had a decisive influence on the teenage Richard Rodgers, a self-described “Kern worshiper,” and on George Gershwin, who signed on as a rehearsal pianist for two Kern shows.
For a composer who thought theatrically, Kern wrote music that lends itself equally to the requirements of opera and jazz. He composed the soaring melodies of some of our greatest love songs: “All the Things You Are” and “The Song Is You” (lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein), “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” (Otto Harbach), “The Way You Look Tonight” (Dorothy Fields). Fields brought out the playful side of Kern in the sarcastic love song, “A Fine Romance.”
Jerry Kern collected rare books when he lived in the East and went to the track when Hollywood beckoned. He was an unusually lucky man. Because an alarm clock failed to ring, he did not wake in time to accompany the producer Charles Frohman on an Atlantic crossing on May 1, 1915. That ship turned out to be the Lusitania, which a German submarine sank on May 7, killing a majority of the passengers aboard.
Panel photo caption:
Poster for Swing Time, Courtesy of RKO Radio Pictures Inc./Photofest ©RKO Radio Pictures Inc., Photographer: John Miehle. Dance critic Arlene Croce wrote that Swing Time “stands among the greatest of all screen romances. In no other Astaire-Rogers film is there anything like so exact, so tender, and so magical a sense of the spirit of romantic love.”
Kern wrote the music and Hammerstein the lyrics for Show Boat, a Broadway classic from the evening it opened on December 27, 1927. Unlike most musicals of its time, Show Boat was not just a miscellany of songs linked by a skeleton plot. Based on Edna Ferber’s novel, it was an “integrated” musical: the songs served the telling of an emotionally complex story. This was a major advance. The show was “integrated” in a second sense as well. When Julie, the leading lady of the show boat troupe, is revealed to have Negro blood, the consequences are nasty, and neither her marriage nor her vocation can survive the injustice. This was grown-up stuff— proclaiming love at first sight, vows of eternal fealty, and the efficacy of fantasy in such a song as “Make Believe,” and then proceeding to debunk these central tenets of the Broadway musical romance.
The score of Show Boat includes “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man,” and “Bill.” But the Mississippi River is the true hero of the work, and there is nothing more majestic in the American musical theater than “Ol’ Man River.” As the black male chorus envisions the river Jordan, the “old stream” that they long to cross, Kern’s music makes you feel that unreachable heaven looms as near as a prayer or a worker’s dream of liberation from “the white man boss.” The song ennobles singer and listener not because it acknowledges that failure is our common lot—we are all sick of trying, tired of living, and scared of dying—but because we are moved to sing about it with gusto and to celebrate something greater than ourselves: the natural wonder of the Mississippi, that keeps rolling along, powerful and timeless, like a divinity.
Panel photo captions:
Dorothy Fields and Jerome Kern, Courtesy of the Library of Congress. Kern and Fields wrote “Lovely to Look At,” “I Won’t Dance,” “You Couldn’t Be Cuter,” and the song that gives this exhibit its title, “A Fine Romance.” Kern had always been the master of the soaring melody. Fields’ sassy lyrics got Kern to swing in dance numbers written for “the nimble tread / of the feet of Fred” Astaire (in Cole Porter’s phrase).
Paul Robeson singing “Ol’ Man River”, Courtesy of Universal Pictures/Photofest ©Universal Pictures. Jerome Kern had never seen the Mississippi River when he wrote the stirring music that conjures its power. Oscar Hammerstein credited a Tennyson poem, “The Brook,” with the inspiration for his lyric. Tennyson’s poem ends, “For men may come and men may go, / But I go on for ever.”
George Gershwin (left) and Jerome Kern, Courtesy of the Library of Congress. The young Gershwin admired Kern’s “They Didn’t Believe Me” so much he volunteered to serve as Kern’s rehearsal pianist for two Broadway shows.
Helen Morgan as Julie, singing “Bill” in the original cast of Show Boat, Courtesy of Universal Pictures/Photofest ©Universal Pictures. “Bill” was originally written by Kern with lyrics by P. G. Wodehouse for the 1918 show Oh, Lady! Lady!! Dropped from the show before it reached Broadway, the song sat on the shelf until Show Boat came along in 1927. Oscar Hammerstein revised Wodehouse’s lyric, and Helen Morgan stopped the show with it nightly.
Kern, Jerome, 1885-1945, Rodgers, Richard, 1902-1979, Gershwin, George, 1898-1937, Hammerstein, Oscar, 1846-1919, Fields, Dorothy, 1905-1974