In this fascinating new book, David Lehman looks at the formation of the American Songbook—the timeless numbers that became jazz standards, iconic love songs, and sound tracks to famous movies—and ponders the extraordinary fact that this songbook was written almost exclusively by Jews.
An acclaimed poet, anthologist, and cultural critic, David Lehman hears America singing—with a Yiddish accent. He guides us through America in the golden age of song, when “Embraceable You”;
“White Christmas”; “Easter Parade”; “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered”; “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat
Man of Mine”; “My Romance”; “Cheek to Cheek”; and countless others became nothing less than the
American sound track. The stories behind these songs, the shows from which many of them came, and the composers and lyricists who wrote them give voice to a specifically American saga of love, longing, assimilation, and transformation.
Lehman’s analytical skills, wit, and exuberance infuse this book with an energy and tone like no other: at once sharply observant, personally searching, and attuned to the songs he so passionately loves. He helps the reader understand how natural it should be that The Wizard of Oz composer Harold Arlen was the son of a cantor who incorporated “Over the Rainbow” into his Sabbath liturgy, and why Cole Porter—the rare non-Jew in this pantheon of music greats—said that in order to be successful, he was going to have to write “Jewish songs.” Lehman has produced an indispensable book that looks at classic songs, the musicians who wrote them, and how those musicians shaped America even as America was shaping them.
DAVID LEHMAN is the editor of The Oxford Book of American Poetry; the series editor of The Best American Poetry; and the author of seven books of poems, most recently When a Woman Loves a Man. He lives in New York City.
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