Generally Eclectic Review

Reviews of book on music - all sorts. Feel free to share your comments, criticisms, and replies with my readers!

Location: Fredonia, New York, United States

Feel free to contact me at mason2042 at gmail dot com

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

“The Song Is Not The Same: Jews And American Popular Music”, edited by Bruce Zuckerman and Josh Kun (Purdue University Press)

This collection of essays is Volume 8 of an “Annual Review” (what might be thought of as an academic journal in book form) called “The Jewish Role In American Life”, published under the guidance of the USC Casden Institiute for the Study of the Jewish Role in American Life.

I have to confess it is not the sort of book I was expecting when I took it off the pile of books to be reviewed. The title would seem (to me at least) to promise some sort of comprehensive survey of the roles played by Jewish artists in the popular music of the United States, rather than a collection of unrelated essays. Beyond that, I was hoping it would be something more along the lines of the Jewish composers of Tin Pan Alley, with perhaps a glimpse of klezmer music thrown in as well. But while there is a famous mainstream American songwriter profiled here, it is not Jerome Kern or George Gershwin, but Bob Dylan. And while klezmer music is likewise covered here, it’s by the very contemporary Naftule’s Dream, not the very traditional Naftule Brandwein.

But books deserve to be read, studied, and reviewed for what they are, rather than for what they are not. After a rather shaky first essay, this is a collection of thoughtful, well-written and often fascinating essays on topics not encountered as often as they might be. That first essay, which strikes me as more a preliminary sketch for an essay which needs to be far more comprehensively researched than this brief memoir, is a reminiscence by Gayle Wald, about being Jewish and listening to Michael Jackson as a young girl during the 1970’s. I should state right offhand that I am not Jewish, but even so I cannot fathom that Jewish-Americans listen to commercial pop music any differently from the way Gentiles do, or - taking the opposite point of view - that all young people, whatever their backgrounds, listen to all music in the same way. Essentially, all Wald tells us is that her ethnic background and, as a consequence, her family background were very different from that of a typical Michael Jackson fan, and thus she reacted to him in her own special way. Indeed, despite the essay’s title, “Dreaming Of Michael Jackson: Notes On Jewish Listening”, the essay is as much about Wald’s reaction to Michael Jackson, the stage presence, and Michael Jackson, the pop-culture phenomenon, as it is about actually listening to his music. But there may be a kernel of an idea here which is worth pursuing - do people of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds living in the United States listen to the same music as their fellow Americans in a way that is different from their neighbors? I think most people would say that African-Americans listen differently - or for different things - than white Americans, but the evidence is strictly anecdotal. But do Jewish-Americans listen differently from Italian-Americans, for example? Take a step in another direction - do Republicans listen differently from Democrats? The possibilities would be limitless, and potentially lucrative to certain industry types. My gut feeling tells me this is a concept which might be worth looking into, but a more serious study is needed.

The second essay is also somewhat more of a preliminary sketch than a full-blown examination. But in this case, pictures tell the story as well as words can, so the result is more successful. Jody Rosen discusses and illustrates early 20th-century sheet-music covers, primarily of Tin Pan Alley comic songs with Jewish themes (some of them written by Jewish Tin Pan Alley songwriters, including Irving Berlin). The subject is not so much the stereotypes in the lyrics, but the stereotypical portrayal of Jews in the front-cover pictures, whether drawn or photographed. The images on these sheets may not be as consistently damaging as those on “coon song” sheet-music covers, but they tend to be insultingly racist, nonetheless. One of the worst offenders is reproduced right on the cover of this book - “When Mose With His Nose Leads The Band”, featuring a cartoon-style drawing of a musical quintet being conducted by a director whose nose is said to be so prominent that he can conduct with his nose instead of a baton. Amazing what trash our ancestors could come up with, isn’t it?

The third essay, by Peter LaChapelle, is an examination of the much more insidious racism of the then-powerful industrialist Henry Ford, as typified by his attempts to establish country-dance music among right-thinking (i.e., Caucasian Gentile) Americans of the 1920’s, to overthrow the invasion of Jazz and jazz-rooted popular music and popular dancing, a scourge promulgated by blacks and Jews. I don’t think there’s a great deal of disagreement anymore over the extent of Ford’s racism, but I do question the author’s lumping together of Ford’s country-dance movement with the growing popularity of Southern country music in the 1920’s. The Appalachian string bands of that period were not playing the older dance forms favored by Ford, but breakdowns and long-regionally-established fiddle tunes, slanted toward a very different audience than the urban, Northern listeners Ford seemed to be aiming for. Ford’s favorite fiddlers were Northerners such as Mellie Dunham and Jep Bisbee, whose popularity on records paled beside that of Gid Tanner’s Skillet Lickers or the North Carolina Ramblers. Other than that, this is an interesting glimpse of a once beloved, now more often reviled American icon and the near-Hitlerian society he envisioned for America.

Jonathan Z. S. Pollack offers an entertaining look at the use of Yiddish words and phrases in scat-singing, the influence of cantorial singing on Cab Calloway’s style - and now that he mentions it, I can tell it’s there, I simply never thought about it - and in the oddball jazz songs of singer-songwriter Slim Gaillard, who was known to occasionally write lyrics consisting entirely of names of Jewish foodstuffs. He also takes a very brief side trip into minstrelsy, looking at the role it played in the development of artists such as Al Jolson.

Much more arcane is Josh Kun’s look into the world of Jewish comediennes who appeared in nightclubs and on LP’s doing “blue” (that is, naughty) material for the middle-aged, middle-class “party records” crowd. Though they were primarily comics, they spiced their act with songs as well. As Kun points out, performers such as Belle Barth and Pearl Williams (the two he specifically concentrates on) have pretty much been excised from the histories of both comedy and music. So while I must confess that I have always considered this to be a low form of comedy and a mediocre variety of music, it’s worthy of documentation like any other entertainment phenomenon.

David Kaufman examines the Jewishness of Bob Dylan, who changed his name from Zimmerman, wrote songs that did not overtly address Jewish concerns. professed to be a born-again Christian at one point in his career, and in general could be interpreted as ignoring, if not necessarily outright denying his Jewishness. Having read this essay a day or two before seeing the clip of Dylan on a Hassidic telethon in the “Bob Dylan: Revealed” DVD, I’m inclined to say that to Dylan, his Jewishness was to him largely a non-issue rather than a denial. But while this is a topic that has been broached in the past, Kaufman’s essay is an interesting read.

The final essay, by Jeff Janeczko, looks at a handful of albums on John Zorn’s Tzadik Records, from the “Radical Jewish Culture” series, specifically from the viewpoint of musical hybridity, I have to confess I have heard none of the records being discussed, which as the author points out, is essential to a full understanding of his discussion. But while he claims samples of these recordings may be found on the web, I was unable to find them. (Other performances by the artists can be found on Youtube, which helps considerably.) Even so, his discussions about and excerpts of interviews with four diverse artists - Ben Perowsky, Wolf Krakowski, Koby Israelite, and Naftule’s Dream - are quite interesting. What’s more, the discussion of the various types of hybridity is most enlightening. So even without hearing the specific records Janeczko talks about, I feel I gleaned more from this essay than any of the others.

In sum, this is, like so many collections of essays by various authors on a diversity of topics, inconsistent. Of course, you may find those segments I’ve downplayed to be much more to your liking, which is likewise pretty much the nature of books of this sort. If the subject matter looks promising to you, I would suggest that you seek it out to find out more.

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Blogger Reform said...

Hi Tom!

We have been in touch before and when I read this review the connection between early Klezmer bands and Dixieland bands. Isn't the instrumentation quite the same in both? Could you recommend a book about this or enlighten me on the subject?

Jesper Bergman

2:51 PM  
Blogger InternationalVelvel said...

Dear Tom:
Tzadik CDs are distributed world-wide and are available all over the Web;
try or the Tzadik Records site.

Best wishes,

Wolf Krakowski
Kame'a Media:

1:02 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Dear Tom,

Appreciate the kind comments about my article. Just so you know, the recording samples can be accessed at

Though I experienced a minor issue with the quicktime plugin everything eventually played just fine. There's also a nice slideshow of the sheet music covers discussed in Rosen's essay.

Best wishes,
Jeff Janeczko

8:04 AM  

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