Jazz took barely a decade to get from the South to Broadway, where composers like Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, Ray Henderson and especially George Gershwin jumped on the beat and gave it an elegant snazz. The complex syncopation of Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm” was sold by his brother Ira’s vivacious, seemingly simple lyrics: “I got rhythm/ I got music/ I got my man/ Who could ask for anything more?” In an era of meticulous musical craftsmanship, Ira not only chose the slangy “I got” over “I’ve got” but dared to write a chorus that contained no rhymes.
Part of an immortal score (“But Not for Me,” “Bidin’ My Time” and “Embraceable You”) for the 1930 show Girl Crazy, “I Got Rhythm” was introduced by the 21-year-old Ethel Merman, who would serve as a sassy muse for Cole Porter (Anything Goes), Berlin (Annie Get Your Gun) and Jule Styne–Stephen Sondheim (Gypsy). With a clarion contralto that could shatter glass and shoo away the blues, Merman made the number a get-happy alternative to the fatalistic “Ol’ Man River” and a perky spirit rouser in the first year of the Great Depression. The song’s bridge (which does rhyme) both acknowledged the dour national mood and tried to exorcise it: “Old man trouble/ I don’t mind him/ You won’t find him/ round my door.”
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