Heritage Florida Jewish News - Central Florida's Independent Jewish Voice

'Star Trek' and Great American Songbook meet the Jews


(Jewniverse via JTA)—What happened to the classic songs of the 1930s and ’40s? The standards of the Great American Songbook crooned by Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee or Ella Fitzgerald (and later made unforgettable by Data of “Star Trek”)?

“The B-Side” by Ben Yagoda, which was published this year, reads like a detective story sniffing out a homicide, and the deceased is Tin Pan Alley, New York’s epicenter of songwriting and music publishing for decades. A surprising number of its authors and composers— George and Ira Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Richard Rodgers, Harold Arlen —were Jewish. In fact, Yagoda points out, they were almost all the same age, raised in middle-class New York families and attended Columbia University.

The golden era of songwriting ended as Columbia Records hit maker Mitch Miller and other A&R men released crowd-pleasing fluff like “The Doggie in the Window” and “Mambo Italiano.” Replacing the witty sophistication of Cole Porter’s “Night and Day” and Sinatra’s “I Get a Kick Out of You,” Yagoda laments, were “novelty numbers, lachrymose ballads, simplistic jingles, hillbilly hokum.”

Even Cole Porter, one of the few non-Jewish composers, recognized what was at the heart of Tin Pan Alley. When he met Rodgers, he confessed that the “secret of writing hits” was “to write Jewish tunes.” By fusing Yiddish songs with ragtime and jazz, a new music was born.

Avishay Artsy is a news reporter and producer at the Southern California public radio station KCRW, and a contributing writer for the Jewish Journal, where he writes about arts and culture through a Jewish lens. Follow him at @heyavishay.

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