If It Wasn’t for the Irish and the Jews.  Mick Moloney. Compass Records, 2009.

Reviewed by Stephen WattIf it Wasn't for the Irish and the Jews

I first enjoyed Mick Moloney and The Green Fields of America some twenty years ago at a national meeting of the American Conference for Irish Studies.  Moloney, a talented musician-singer and folklorist who is also a Professor of Music and Irish Studies at New York University, formed the group in the later 1970s and, at least in my memory of the evening, offered a program in which traditional reels, jigs, and step dancing predominated.  In the past few years, however, Moloney’s considerable energies have been directed more specifically at America’s Tin Pan Alley era, a time in which Irish and Jewish songwriters—separately and collaboratively—created a popular music expressive of some of the moment’s most pervasive social issues: the struggles of newly arrived immigrants, their often tense internal negotiations between assimilation and nostalgia, and the specter of World War I.  Moloney’s earlier album McNally’s Row of Flats (Compass, 2006) treats the highly successful collaboration of Edward Harrigan and David Braham; thus, If It Wasn’t for the Irish and the Jews might be regarded as a further iteration of Moloney’s fascination with American popular music between 1880 and 1920.

This fascination expresses itself in both aesthetic and scholarly ways on the album, the latter through informative liner notes.  Of these, arguably the most significant accompanies the 1912 title song written by William Jerome and Jean Schwartz, which serves to introduce the thirteen songs that follow.  Moloney commends “If It Wasn’t for the Irish and the Jews” as a “finely crafted song” with “clever and topical lyrics that celebrated Irish/Jewish collaborations in just about every aspect of American social and political and cultural life.” [1] These partnerships, as Moloney notes, were especially important to the success of vaudeville and that variety of popular music described as originating in Tin Pan Alley.  Not surprisingly, Moloney’s notes feature sections on Irish-American songwriter George M. Cohan and the Harrigan-Hart partnership, but these writers of enduring reputation merely represent a small part of the Irish-Jewish predominance of New York culture at the time.  As a curious shared similarity between some of these figures, Moloney notes that many listeners believed that Cohan was Jewish, given his surname (a re-spelling of the Irish “Keohane”).  He adds that William Jerome, co-writer of “If It Wasn’t for the Irish and the Jews” and son of an Irish immigrant from County Mayo, actually changed his surname from Flannery to Jerome because he believed popular songwriting to be an increasingly Jewish industry.  And this re-nomination process worked in reverse in other cultural realms.  For example, in a nostalgic essay recounting his adolescence, Mike Gold, author of the proletarian novel Jews Without Money (1930), recalls his youthful ambition to be a boxer, his father’s disdain for the idea, and his time sparring in a gymnasium built in the basement of a neighborhood Catholic Church with a lanky young man called Kid O’Reilly, whose real name was Aaron Cohen. [2] Moloney’s liner notes form an essay dedicated to unpacking these kinds of Irish-Jewish partnerships and interactions.

If It Wasn’t for the Irish and the Jews contains fourteen popular American songs, all of which are aptly described by the album’s sub-title: “Irish American Songs from Vaudeville and Early Tin Pan Alley.” Several of these, “’Twas Only an Irishman’s Dream” (1916) and “Along the Rocky Road to Dublin” (1915) for instance, reveal the nostalgia inherent to many vaudeville tunes aimed at ethnic immigrant populations, as in the latter song: “My thoughts of dear old Dublin seem to carry me back to a rickety shack/How I long to be back home again.”  Others like “There’s a Typical Tipperary Over Here” (1920) optimistically describe the immigrant’s reinvention of a homeland in America.  The late-nineteenth century song “When McGuinness gets a Job” chronicles the efforts of a hapless protagonist to land the construction job promised him by unethical politicians, and the chorus includes a sense of the competition occasioned by unemployment between new arrivals to America: “Bad luck to those Italians, why don’t they stay at home?”  As often occurs in such tunes, however, a sense of optimism eventually emerges in the final verse: “Springtime is coming, there’ll surely be some work/McGuinness will go back to his trade again, he’ll make a handsome buck.”  Perhaps most intriguing, three songs confront the issue of America’s involvement in World War I from opposing perspectives.  Analogous to the pacifistic sentiments of Sean O’Casey’s matriarch in Juno and the Paycock (1924), the speaker of “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to be a Soldier” (1915), most famously recorded by Morton Harvey, laments the fact that “Ten million soldiers to the war have gone/Who may never return again.”  Each of these brave young men has a mother, whose heart will surely break if the worst occurs, for “What victory can cheer a mother’s heart/When she looks at her blighted home?”  This fear is countered by George M. Cohan’s “When You Come Back and You Will Come Back” (1917), which promises the returning veteran, “There’s a whole world waiting for you.”

Throughout, Moloney serves as lead vocalist supported by an accomplished roster of singers, musicians, and—on occasion—an Irish step dancer who provides syncopation.  On several songs, Moloney also plays tenor banjo and mandolin, supported by a tin whistle, guitar, and fiddle; for others, he is joined by Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks, who add percussion, woodwinds, and brass.  The result is a wonderful look back on American popular music and the immigrant experience from the fin de siècle through the years of World War I: though some readers of Musica Judaica Online Reviews may be disappointed that the immigrant experience portrayed through the music is almost exclusively Irish, with Jewish life in early twentieth-century New York represented only in the album’s title song.

[1] Liner Notes, If It Wasn’t for the Irish and the Jews.

[2] Mike Gold, “A Jewish Childhood in the New York Slums,” Mike Gold: A Literary Anthology, ed. Michael Folsom. New York: International Publishers, 1972: 301.

Stephen Watt, Department of English, Indiana University