The Gersh­wins and Me

Michael Fein­stein
  • Review
By – October 11, 2012

In addi­tion to being an extra­or­di­nar­i­ly tal­ent­ed per­former, Michael Fein­stein is prob­a­bly today’s lead­ing guardian and pro­po­nent of the Great Amer­i­can Song­book, the cor­pus of stan­dards writ­ten by such song­writ­ers as Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers, and Irv­ing Berlin from the 1920s through the advent of rock and roll in the 1950s.

In The Gersh­wins and Me, Fein­stein focus­es on the careers of com­pos­er George Gersh­win and his lyri­cist broth­er, Ira, whom Fein­stein clear­ly regards as the bright­est stars in that con­stel­la­tion. Fein­stein brings an unusu­al advan­tage to this endeav­or. Even before he turned 10, Fein­stein had become a Gersh­win devo­tee, and at the improb­a­ble age of 20 he went to work for the aging Ira Gersh­win, first as a cat­a­loguer of his musi­cal archive, lat­er as a gen­er­al fac­to­tum and boon com­pan­ion. As a result of his assid­u­ous efforts both before and after he met Ira, Fein­stein came to know more about the Gershwins’s oeu­vre than they ever knew about it them­selves.

That knowl­edge is on ample dis­play in this vol­ume, which is both rich­ly illus­trat­ed and accom­pa­nied by a CD of twelve Gersh­win songs per­formed by the author. Each of the book’s twelve chap­ters focus­es on a song on the CD. Fein­stein pro­vides ample back­ground infor­ma­tion on the gen­e­sis of each song, places it in the con­text of the Gersh­win oeu­vre as a whole, and aims to define what makes each song great.

Only two flaws stand out: First, Fein­stein too often allows his awe for his sub­jects to over­shad­ow his con­sid­er­able abil­i­ty to ana­lyze musi­cal and lyri­cal struc­ture. It’s rel­a­tive­ly easy to assert that hear­ing the Gershwins’s music for the first time can be a life-chang­ing expe­ri­ence, as Fein­stein often does; it’s far more dif­fi­cult, but also more inter­est­ing, to define how and why such seem­ing­ly sim­ple songs can have such an effect, a task he tends to shy away from.

Sec­ond is Feinstein’s unstint­ing con­dem­na­tion of the decline of Amer­i­can cul­ture since the 1960s. He takes only grudg­ing notice of the fact that the Gershwins’s music is still an essen­tial ele­ment in the Amer­i­can peri­od­ic table. To cite just a few exam­ples: Thanks to Unit­ed Air­lines (and its ad agency), Rhap­sody in Blue” is a worm in everyone’s ear; Sum­mer­time” was a land­mark in the career of Janis Joplin; Gersh­win songs have fig­ured promi­nent­ly in the sound­tracks of such pop­u­lar films as When Har­ry Met Sal­ly and Woody Allen’s Man­hat­tan; at a Tony Ben­nett con­cert I recent­ly attend­ed, the set list includ­ed at least half a dozen Gersh­win tunes that received thun­der­ous ova­tions from an audi­ence span­ning sev­er­al gen­er­a­tions. Feinstein’s jere­mi­ads notwith­stand­ing, the Gershwins’s music seems to be alive and well.

Michael Fein­stein Per­forms Gersh­win Medley

Addi­tion­al Reading

Bill Bren­nan is an inde­pen­dent schol­ar and enter­tain­er based in Las Vegas. Bren­nan has taught lit­er­a­ture and the human­i­ties at Prince­ton and The Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go. He holds degrees from Yale, Prince­ton, and Northwestern.

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