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A Fine Romance

An expert picks his top ten favorites from the Jewish-written American songbook

David Lehman
October 08, 2009
Library of Congress
Richard Rodgers, Irving Berlin, and Oscar Hammerstein II at the St. James Theater.Library of Congress
Library of Congress
Richard Rodgers, Irving Berlin, and Oscar Hammerstein II at the St. James Theater.Library of Congress

A Fine Romance: Jewish Songwriters, American Songs, published this month by Nextbook Press, is an appreciation of the national songbook as the work of Jewish composers and lyricists. Author David Lehman picked his top ten favorite standards for Tablet Magazine. Here’s his playlist:

“The Lady is a Tramp,” music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Lorenz Hart. It’s probably my favorite Rodgers and Hart song—though there’s a lot of competition, and it’s fierce. “The Lady is a Tramp” is a perfect example of Hart’s wit on the one side and Rodgers’s gift for up-tempo melodies on the other. Hart’s irony is such that not everyone who loves this great song presumes to understand it, so here’s a quick primer: the song defies the classy “lady” by listing some of the ways she defies convention and stereotype—and thus is a “tramp” in the eyes of fakes and phonies. She is a down-home gal, happy with common things—the rowing in Central Park lake, the beach at Coney Island—who disdains slumming and idle gossip: “Won’t go to Harlem in ermine and pearls, / Won’t dish the dirt with the rest of the girls.” The Frank Sinatra version from his 1957 record A Swingin’ Affair (or from the soundtrack of the 1957 movie Pal Joey) is the preferred choice here.

“Nice Work If You Can Get It,” music by George Gershwin, lyrics by Ira Gershwin. One of two joyous Gershwin and Gershwin songs that punctuate their celebration of love with the same rhetorical question: “Who can ask for anything more?” (The other song is “I Got Rhythm.”) I have a particular affection for Mel Torme’s version, which he recorded with the Marty Paich “Dek-Tette” in November 1956. Torme sings the verse—usually given at the start of the song—in the middle, as a second bridge. It contains Ira Gershwin’s immortal couplet: “The only work that really bring enjoyment / Is the kind that is for girl and boy meant.”

“All the Things You Are,” music by Jerome Kern, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein. There are so many fine renditions it’s hard to know which to recommend: Helen Forrest’s voice mingling sexily with Artie Shaw’s clarinet in 1939; Sinatra reaching vocal heights on a V-disc in 1944; Beverly Sills pouring forth like Keats’s nightingale in 1973; the late John McGlinn giving it the full operatic treatment on his Broadway Showstoppers album of 1993. “Popular songs are subject to constant interpretation,” as Mel Torme has noted, and “All the Things You Are” works as a big-band tune, a pretext for bop improvisation, a ballad, an aria, or a big chorus number developing out a duet. Many consider it the all-time greatest love song. What makes it such? The soaring melody, the harmonic complexities and daring shifts of key, the marriage of the music and the words, the lyrics that express longing and epitomize the ode in praise of one’s sought-for partner. Hammerstein wasn’t very proud of “that moment divine” toward the end: “Someday I’ll know that moment divine / When all the things you are, / Are mine.” The need to rhyme forced the inversion of usual word order. Yet somehow even this poetical outburst enhances the sublime effect.

“Stormy Weather,” music by Harold Arlen, lyrics by Ted Koehler. When Arlen and Koehler wrote and played their songs as house musicians for the Cotton Club in Harlem, they created such standards as “Get Happy,” “I’ve Got the World on a String,” “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea.” In “Stormy Weather,” they came up with the signature songs of two great singers, Lena Horne and Ethel Waters. It is a lament for a lost love, but it has an unusual spiritual quality. “All I do is pray / The Lord above will let me / Walk in that sun once more.” The music manages to make you feel the sadness of the moment and the promise of that moment redeemed. “Stormy Weather” is at or near the top of meteorological love songs, a surprisingly populous category.

“Let’s Face the Music and Dance,” music and lyrics by Irving Berlin. Every time you think that you can sum up Irving Berlin—with his “simplicity” and his “common touch” and his unabashed sentimentality—along comes a song of such melodic complexity and melancholy mood that makes you understand why George Gershwin likened Berlin to Franz Schubert. “Let’s Face the Music and Dance,” from 1936, is a song very much of its moment: dark days of bankruptcy and unemployment, with threatening signals of strife to come in Europe. The song is both an invitation to the dance and a variant on the theme of carpe diem: “There may be trouble ahead, / But while there’s music and moonlight and love and romance,” what else can we do but “face the music”—in a double sense—“and dance.” Fred Astaire sings it to Ginger Rogers in Follow the Fleet (1936).

“Over the Rainbow,” music by Harold Arlen, lyrics by Yip Harburg. “Over the Rainbow” as sung by the teenage Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz (1939) tops most all-time lists of favorite songs in Hollywood movies. The Technicolor vision of Oz that commences after Garland sings the song in black-and-white occurs not only as a magical answer to her vast yearning prayer but as an allegorical representation of the fantasized end of the Depression. If, following the song from the soundtrack, you listen to Judy sing “Over the Rainbow” in her famous Carnegie Hall concert of April 23, 1961, you’ll enrich your experience of this most famous of Arlen’s songs.

“There’s No Business Like Show Business,” music and lyrics by Irving Berlin. Originally, Jerome Kern was commissioned to write Annie Get Your Gun. When Kern died in 1945, the producers turned to Irving Berlin, who wrote a major score in half the usual time. A peerless mix of humor and sentiment, its anthem, “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” quickly became the ultimate Broadway anthem. (Its most formidable competition is “That’s Entertainment” by Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz.) Berlin’s song will always be associated with Ethel Merman, queen of the ladies who can belt to the back row without no need of artificial magnification. There’s a 1954 Hollywood movie called There’s No Business Like Show Business starring Merman, Donald O’Connor, Marilyn Monroe, Mitzi Gaynor, Johnny Ray, and Dan Dailey: all Berlin songs, and when everyone assembles to do the title number, you’ll want to sing along.

“A Fine Romance,” music by Jerome Kern, lyrics by Dorothy Fields. Ginger Rogers sings it to Fred Astaire, but the version I fell in love with is Billie Holiday’s from the 1930s. It’s a sarcastic love song. We may be used to the genre of the lover’s complaint, but it usually comes from the man, and this one is from the female point of view and has a top-drawer Dorothy Fields lyric, “You’re calmer than the seals in the Arctic Ocean. / At least they flap their fins to express emotion.”

“Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Leo Robin. Carol Channing performed this song from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes superbly on stage, and Channing’s remains the definitive version, though Marilyn Monroe’s seductive delivery in the movie leaves little to be desired. Jule Styne is a master of the big brassy Broadway number and Leo Robin’s lyrics are unbeatably witty and smart. The triple rhymes come at you fast: a guy may think you’re “awful nice/ but get that ‘ice’ or else no dice.” Never has the adult male aptitude for irresponsible philandering been stated with such melodious gusto: “He’s your guy / When stocks are high, / But beware when they start to descend. / It’s then that those louses / Go back to their spouses.”

“I Can’t Get Started,” music by Vernon Duke, lyrics by Ira Gershwin. It’s that evergreen story: I have conquered worlds but not, alas, your heart. The music is marvelous, and the lyric is an outstanding instance of the inventory as a lyrical form, listing the singer’s diverse accomplishments yet ruefully concluding that he (or she) is downhearted for the simple reason that “I can’t get started with you.” Ira Gershwin’s gift for polysyllabic rhyme is on heroic display: “Oh, tell me why / Am I no kick to you? / I, / Who’d always stick to you? / Fly / Through thin and thick to you? / Tell me why I’m taboo!” Frank Sinatra’s cover on the 1959 album No One Cares) wins my vote for capturing the song’s melancholy. But you might prefer the jovial duet of Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney under Billy May’s direction in August 1958.

On November 10, David Lehman will speak at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan. To purchase tickets for this event, click here.

David Lehman is a poet and writer whose books include New and Selected Poems and A Fine Romance: Jewish Songwriters, American Songs. He is the editor of The Oxford Book of American Poetry and series editor of The Best American Poetry.