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Jewish songwriters, American songs exhibit to visit Columbus library


Jan Swoope



Americans have always responded to the wit, passion and sophistication of the ballads, dance tunes, jazz numbers and showstoppers that make up the great "American Songbook." Songs such as "As Time Goes By," "It Had to Be You," and "Over the Rainbow" have captivated generations of audiences and remain beloved musical icons of American popular culture. 


A colorful new traveling exhibit opening at the Columbus-Lowndes Public Library Thursday, July 14, celebrates American popular song during the period 1910-1965.  


The best musical artists of the time combined a genius for melody, a talent for pairing melody with the perfect words, and an ability to connect with a wide audience. A remarkably high percentage of them were Jewish, from families that had immigrated to America in the 1800s or fled pogroms and persecution in Europe at the turn of the century.  


"A Fine Romance: Jewish Songwriters, American Songs, 1910-1965" tells their story, using lively and striking images from Broadway musicals, classic films, posters and personal collections. 




Enduring classics 


The first half of the 20th century saw the invention of the radio receiver, the broadcasting microphone, the talking movie, and the long-playing record, devices that helped artists and performers reach mass audiences. During their heyday between 1910 and 1965, songs from the great American songbook were essential to the success of Broadway musicals, Hollywood films, the jazz scene, Big Bands, popular vocalists, and night clubs.  


Songwriters who could craft tunes that appealed to the masses were able to make musical history in a country that offered them that chance. The sky was the limit for talented young people with big imaginations -- young people such as Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein, and George Gershwin. 


Berlin, a cantor''s son, had no formal music training and could play piano in only one key, but he was one of the few composers who were talented at writing both music and lyrics. Berlin''s "God Bless America," "White Christmas" and "Easter Parade" have become American anthems.  


Kern composed the melodies for some of the world''s most revered love songs -- "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes," "The Way You Look Tonight," and the saucy "A Fine Romance."  


"The King and I," "Oklahoma," and "South Pacific" are only a few of the enduring American musicals created by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein.  


George Gershwin wrote jazz-inflected orchestral pieces that bridged the gap between classical and popular music. His "Rhapsody in Blue" and "An American in Paris" are still breathtaking to hear.  




The exhibit 


"A Fine Romance" is visiting 55 sites throughout the U.S. in 2011-2012. It was curated by David Lehman and developed by Nextbook, Inc., a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting Jewish literature, culture, and ideas, and the American Library Association Public Programs Office. 


The national tour has been made possible by the Charles H. Revson Foundation, the Righteous Persons Foundation, the David Berg Foundation, an anonymous donor, and Tablet: A New Read on Jewish Life. "A Fine Romance: Jewish Songwriters, American Songs" is also a book by David Lehman, published by Nextbook/Schocken.  


"We are pleased the Columbus-Lowndes Public Library was chosen as a site for this exhibit about a fascinating period of American popular music history," said Director Alice Shands. "The many Jewish composers who helped to create the great American Songbook will never be forgotten.  


"Their compositions are a chronicle of American culture and history, and their musical genius has made them immortal. We hope the whole community will be able to see the exhibit and attend some of the programs we have planned to celebrate and enjoy their lives and their songs."  


The library will sponsor a number of free programs and other events for the public in connection with the exhibit, which will remain up until Aug. 25. Contact 662-329-5304, [email protected], or visit for more information.


Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.


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