Dorothy Fields, arguably the greatest American songwriter and lyricist of the 20th century, was born this day on July 15, 1904. While her name may no longer be familiar, the songs that she wrote with composers like Jimmy McHugh and Jerome Kern—tunes like "I Can't Give You Anything But Love" or "I’m in the Mood for Love"—became the foundation of the Great American Songbook, jazz standards, and would be familiar to anyone who has visited a bar or lounge anywhere in the world over the past seventy-five years. President Obama's inaugural address in 2009 included the phrase "Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America"—words taken directly from “Pick Yourself Up,” the song Fields wrote with Jerome Kern for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in the 1936 movie Swingtime.
Dorothy Fields was born into a prominent show business family. Her father, Lew Fields, was a Jewish immigrant from a shtetl in Poland who as a teenager started a hugely successful vaudeville comedy act with Joe Weber known as Weber and Fields. He went on to become an actor, writer, and big-time producer of Broadway shows; in addition to Dorothy, two other Fields siblings, Herb and Joe, made substantial careers in show business. Dorothy grew up in the febrile artistic environment of Broadway during the teens and twenties, and then decamped (with much of her family) to Hollywood in the following decade after the Great Depression as the rise of film undermined the Broadway business model. Her childhood friends and mentors included Oscar Hammerstein II, Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart, Lillian Russell, and Bert Lahr, and she would eventually come to know and work with virtually every big Broadway and Hollywood star up until her death in 1974.
Dorothy Fields' first great collaboration was with songwriter Jimmy McHugh. Her lyrics were typically witty, colloquially American, and romantic rather than sexual:
Gee, I'd like to see you looking swell, baby
Diamond bracelets Woolworth’s doesn't sell, baby
Till that lucky day you know darn well, baby
I can't give you anything but love
I had always thought that this was the perfect Depression-era song, with the boyfriend lamenting the fact that he was broke, but it was actually written before the stock market crash, in 1927. The diction is from an earlier era—no one uses words like “gee” or “swell” any more, and I imagine few people under the age of 40 have ever heard of Woolworth’s. But that’s what it means to write popular music: you are embedded in the popular culture, and in tune with what ordinary people are thinking and feeling. The boyfriend scheming and dreaming of a day when he might be rich expressed an American optimism that runs through many of Fields’ other songs, like “I Feel a Song Coming On” or “On the Sunny Side of the Street.”
Many of Fields’ best-known songs were the ones she wrote with Jerome Kern for a series of Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movies, like “The Way You Look Tonight” from Swingtime, or “I Won’t Dance” from Roberta.
See the more recent version with Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga:
In my view, Swingtime was the greatest of the Astaire-Rogers collaborations, but I wonder whether it will ever be shown again in a theater, since it contains “Bojangles of Harlem,” a Jerome Kern tribute to the African-American performer Bill Robinson, which Astaire dances in blackface.
In this moment when immigration and American identity have become such fraught populist issues, we might consider how popular music has contributed to that identity in the 20th century. Much has been written about how quintessentially American musical forms like the blues, jazz, rock and roll, and hip-hop were largely the creations of African-Americans that were culturally appropriated by white musicians from Elvis Presley to Eric Clapton.
The Great American Songbook, however, that covered the period from the teens through the 1940s, was indelibly influenced by second generation children of Jewish immigrants like Dorothy Fields. There were Protestant Midwestern songwriters, of course, like Cole Porter and Hoagy Carmichael (both of whom hailed from Indiana), but the great majority of artists were Jews: George and Ira Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart, Oscar Hammerstein II, and on and on. One of the most popular songs of the 1930s was “Bei Mir Bist Du Shein,” a tune taken from a Yiddish production written by Jacob Jacobs and Sholom Secunda. Here it is in a contemporary performance by the Hot Sardines:
These writers and artists began incorporating America’s African-American experience into the story, as well as the experiences of the many ethnicities that had arrived in the first great immigration wave brought to an end by the 1924 Reed-Johnson Act. Compared to the straight-laced Protestant sensibility that characterized a lot of American popular music in the 19th century (a sensibility that brought the country Prohibition in 1920), these artists assimilated a more diverse experience regarding sexuality, drinking, drugs, and race to American society, thereby deepening and, in subsequent years, universalizing it.
National identity is built around formal institutions like constitutions, laws, flags, anthems, and the like. But it is also built around shared memories and traditions. Popular music has always been one of the defining features of American life, exported around the world and indelibly linked with Americanness. In this respect, Dorothy Fields was one of the great architects of what it means to be American.
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