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A Fine Romance: Jewish Songwriters, American Songs by David Lehman

Updated on February 12, 2018

A Fine Romance: Jewish Songwriters, American Songs

David Lehman's book, A Fine Romance: Jewish Songwriters, American Songs, examines the history of Jewish songwriters in twentieth century America, pointing out that White Christmas, perhaps America's favorite Christmas carol was written by Irving Berlin, and countless hit songs from musicals of the thirties, forties and fifties such as Someone to Watch Over Me, Easter Parade, Come Rain Come Shine, were written by legendary Jewish-American popular songwriters--from George and Ira Gershwin, Harold Arlen, Richard Rodgers, Leonard Bernstein to more recent composers such as Bob Dylan, Stephen Sondheim, Carole King, Billy Joel, Burt Bacharach, Herbie Mann, Neil Sedaka, Mel Torme, Neil Diamond and many others.

Lehman suggests that one reason why there have been so many all star Jewish songwriters, especially compared to all star baseball players is that many prosperous Jewish homes had a grand piano and or a violin. Several of the songwriters' fathers were cantors, and he points to what he believes to be Jewish influence or DNA in their music, for example, the sound of the shofar in the music of Bernstein and the phrasing of some of Ira Gershwin's lyrics. .

Although anti-Semitism was rife in the days of Gershwin, Berlin and Arlen, they didn't experience a lot of criticism for appropriating jazz or blues from the black musical tradition or for appropriating or secularizing Christian traditions in their popular Christmas or Easter songs. Lehman points out that White Christmas was written during World War II when Americans of all faiths were in European trenches, far from home. Moreover, most of the songwriters grew up in families which celebrated Christmas and Hannukah. He points out that the songs of Gershwin, Arlen, Jerome Kern and others were made popular by black singers who benefited from their collaboration with the songwriters of Tin Pan Alley.. Lehman points out that Gershwin insisted on an all black cast for Porgy and Bess. Lehman characterizes the relationship between the Gershwins, Kern, Arlen and African American entertainers as a collaboration which benefited both the Tin Pan Alley songwriters and the African-American singers and musicians.

Cole Porter was the one WASP exception to the domination of Tin Pan Alley by Jewish songwriters. He once remarked to his friend Irving Berlin that he would be a better songwriter if he were Jewish. They don't get much better than his "Night and Day," however, in my opinion.

Billie Holiday
Billie Holiday
Irving Berlin
Irving Berlin
George Gershwin
George Gershwin
Ella Fitzgerald
Ella Fitzgerald
Jerome Kern
Jerome Kern
Harold Arlen
Harold Arlen

Come Rain or Come Shine, Dinah Washington


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    • Albert Diner profile image

      Albert Diner 

      12 months ago

      i find it amazing that as jewish composers adopted jazz rythms, many Black vocalists recorded yiddish songs. I can recall Paul Robeson, Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Jackie Wilson, etc recording yiddish jewish melodies. Of course its not surprising if their managers were jewish. Johnny Mathis recorded a moving version of the yom kippur prayer KOL NIDRE.

      The jews always remember that they were slaves in biblical egypt under the Pharaoh. Not surprising that jews were very much a part of the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

    • Ralph Deeds profile imageAUTHOR

      Ralph Deeds 

      8 years ago from Birmingham, Michigan

      Thanks for your comment. I enjoyed pulling this hub together.

    • toknowinfo profile image


      8 years ago

      Great hub. You did a great job of putting all the information together and making it so interesting to read and learn from. Rated up and awesome. Thanks for sharing.

    • FCEtier profile image


      9 years ago from Cold Mountain

      One of my favorite songs originally from Billie Holiday was a cover by Blood, Sweat, & Tears, "Good Bless the Child". That cover and album turned me onto jazz!

    • Ralph Deeds profile imageAUTHOR

      Ralph Deeds 

      9 years ago from Birmingham, Michigan

      Thanks for your comment. Good luck in your performances. My granddaughter's other grandmother is Jewish. When the time comes we'll have you play at her wedding! (If we're both around, that is. She's only 19 months old!)

    • profile image

      JEwish Music 

      9 years ago

      Great Post! As a Jewish performer I really appreciated it.

    • William F. Torpey profile image

      William F Torpey 

      9 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

      You've got a sure winner with this hub, Ralph. How can you beat Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Irving Berlin, Lena Horne, George Gershwin, Gerome Kern, Harold Arlen and Dinah Washington? There's only one way you can do better: Add a Billie Holiday video! Thanks.

    • ethel smith profile image

      Ethel Smith 

      9 years ago from Kingston-Upon-Hull

      I still listen to and love the music of Billie Holiday

    • Ralph Deeds profile imageAUTHOR

      Ralph Deeds 

      9 years ago from Birmingham, Michigan

      Tnx. I enjoyed doing the Hub. I once heard Dina Washington live in Detroit.

    • Coolmon2009 profile image


      9 years ago from Texas, USA

      Nice work I enjoyed reading this article(very educational); I enjoyed the video Someone to Watch Over Me and Stormy weather(I have that Lena Horne CD) the pictures are nice too - Thanks for sharing

    • breakfastpop profile image


      9 years ago

      Great hub, Ralph. What a nice change of pace for you and for me!


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