The Song is Not the Same: Jews and American Popular Music. Josh Kun, ed. Vol. 8 of The Jewish Role in American Life: An Annual Review, Bruce Zuckerman and Lisa Ansell, eds. ISBN 978-1-5575-3586-3.
Reviewed by Gabriel Solis
Volume eight of the annual review The Jewish Role in American Life, published by the Casden Institute for the Study of the Jewish Role in American Life at the University of Southern California, is a welcome addition to the general literature on music and Jewish identity. It presents seven short articles collected by guest editor Josh Kun, all relating broadly to the topic of “Jews and American popular music.” The song is not the same, as the title of the volume says. Most readers who will turn to this little collection will approach it already feeling they have some handle on the topic of Jews and popular music, whether that means the cadre of Jewish songwriters from Irving Berlin to Stephen Sondheim who wrote nearly the entire “Great American Songbook,” singer-songwriters like Carole King and Paul Simon who more or less made music in the 1960s what it was, or the Jewish hipsters from Mezz Mezrow to Lieber and Stoller to the Beastie Boys who made more than incidental contributions to black musical genres from early jazz to hip hop. Though these sorts of high points and familiar names provide points of reference throughout the essays, most readers will likely come away seeing things differently than they had. The great strength of the volume is in Kun’s editorial vision, having solicited a set of articles on topics that move beyond received expectations for the area of the Jewish contribution to American music. If there is a weakness, it may also be seen in Kun’s approach to editing the volume: there is a level of unevenness common to edited collections, and this one is no exception.
The articles in this collection are primarily historical in method, though one is ethnomusicological in orientation and one enacts a kind of autoethnography. Gayle Wald opens with a reading of what Michael Jackson meant to a Jewish girl “work[ing] out our incipient desires” in early 1970s suburban Philadelphia (3). As she says, “there is an immensely complicated story to be told here—about Jewish-American assimilationist desires, Jewish-American articulations of racial discourse in the United States, gendered narratives of Jewish-American success, and racialized expressions of gendered desire” (5). The significant focus on gendered and racialized elements of Jewish-American desire as mediated in music, whether in bedrooms or backrooms, ties a number of articles in the volume together, and thus makes Wald’s article a good starting point. Kun picks up both the theme of racially and sexually transgressive women’s performance in an article on singer-comedians Belle Barth and Pearl Williams, both of whom “worked blue” in after-hours rooms of the Jewish-American archipelago of New York, L.A. and South Florida in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. This is crucial material, though it has been “left as a barely-acknowledged footnote” in histories of music and comedy. As Kun says, “The choice…for Jewish girls with Jewish noses, for Jewish women who are forty or fifty, not thirty or twenty, who speak with accents and use Yiddish…the choice was not between being a housewife or a Broadway star, between expressing Jewishness and repressing Jewishness, between expressing sexuality and repressing sexuality. There was a third way…” (108).
The theme of racial crossing—or, put more plainly, the symbolic trifecta of blackness, whiteness and Jewishness—is part of Jody Rosen’s piece on “Jewface” sheet music illustration, Peter La Chapelle’s discussion of anti-black and antisemitic elements of Henry Ford’s support of old-time music and dance, Jonathan Pollack’s investigation of Yiddish in jazz songs, and David Kaufman’s essay on the “anxiety of Jewish influence” in Bob Dylan’s music. Rosen reminds us that while the imagery that typifies such song sheets as “Get a Girl with Lots of Money, Abie,” or “It’s Tough When Izzy Rosenstein Loves Genevieve Malone” was so broadly stereotyped that it could very nearly have been picked up by Nazi propagandists a scant couple of decades later, “as genuine depictions of Jews—no joking!” they were a special case in the history of racial stereotype in American popular music: “the popular song trade was dominated by Jews, and Jewface music was, accordingly, largely a Jewish enterprise: songs by, of, and for Jews” (12-13). La Chapelle, by contrast, looks at one of the most straight-forward, and most regrettable, cases of anti-Semitism in the history of American popular music. Henry Ford’s support of old-time music and dance—the fiddle tunes, string bands, and contradancing that represented, to him and many others at the turn of the twentieth century, the pure Anglo-Saxon heritage of “real” Americans—was a way to stem the tide of black-cum-Jewish (or perhaps Jewish-cum-black) degeneration of America spreading, virus-like, through jazz. Pollack tells a more positive story in his essay “‘Ouvoutie Slanguage is Absolutely Kosher’: Yiddish in Scat-Singing, Jazz Jargon, and Black Music” which flips the script on a normative narrative of black-Jewish interactions in jazz. Rather than looking at Jewish adoptions and adaptations of black musical styles, he focuses on the numerous examples of African American performers’ uses of Yiddish in jazz songs. Sholom Secunda’s 1932 “Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen” figures prominently here, but Pollack goes beyond it to find multiple examples of Yiddish as part of hip slang, “employed as a secret code, for those ‘in the know’ to deploy in the presence of unknowing ‘squares’” (72). While the article’s title is not strictly accurate (nowhere does Pollack actually show an example of a jazz musician incorporating Yiddish into scat-singing), it is an engaging look at the double-edged quality of the language as a way for black musicians to signify “both parody and tribute to the multiple expressions of Jewish-black relations in the interwar and World War II years” (73).
The collection’s high points are truly excellent. La Chapelle’s article is immensely well-researched, and is a valuable intervention into an ongoing conversation about the nature of pre-World War II antisemitism in America, as much as into the limited question of whether Henry Ford was driven by antisemitism in particular arts patronage decisions (he was). The key question, and one that resonates over a range of American cultural consumption, is whether Ford’s and his close associates’ antisemitism matters in understanding the folk revival. La Chapelle’s answer, drawing on letters to Ford from fans of the music and on the larger history of the outcome of the revival, is complex and thought-provoking. Jeff Janeczko’s article on musical hybridity in the Avant-Klez music of the Lower East Side Radical Jewish Culture series is likewise a beautifully layered, thought-provoking work. Working with musical analysis and interviews with a number of the participants of this musical scene, Janeczko is able to tease out the radical implications, but also the status quo embodied in self-consciously hybrid musical projects that sometimes mediate the filters of race and genre, and sometimes highlight and reinforce them (162).
None of the articles in the volume really reaches the kind of level that Kun hits in his own contribution, however. Kun is a true virtuoso, and it shows, here as elsewhere, in both the breadth of his research, depth of his conceptualization of the topic, and sophistication of his writing. When he says that Barth and Williams were “working-class architects of the piano bar grotesque and yet also the unacknowledged queens of the cabaret carnivalesque, who translated the classic comic grotesque realism of ‘the lower stratum of the body, the life of the belly and reproductive organs’ into the domestic lexicons and relationship dramas of post-World War II Jewish life,” it is hard not to be impressed (94).
Unfortunately, this unevenness also throws into relief the moments when articles in the volume do not hit their marks. This is perhaps most clear in David Kaufman’s article on Dylan, precisely because Kun himself has published on Dylan’s “Talkin’ Havah Nagilah Blues.” The problem of Dylan’s Jewishness, which Kaufman quite rightly traces largely as a problem with his critics’ hamfisted attempts to read Jewishness as though it weren’t a complex thing for a popular musician in America, is, as Kun suggests, summed up brilliantly by Dylan in the “foreign song [he] learned in Utah.” “‘Talkin’ Havah Nagilah Blues’ [is] a song about not singing ‘Havah Nagilah,’ a performance about the refusal to perform” (Kun 2007, 66, quoted in this volume, 128). Kaufman adds a useful summary of the critical response to questions of Dylan’s Jewishness, but on the central question of Dylan’s performances he goes no further than Kun’s previous analysis.
Rosen and Wald’s articles do not go as far as one would hope they might. Rosen has trod similar ground elsewhere, and while it is great to have reproductions of the song sheets he writes about collected in one place, ultimately I, at least, would have liked a stronger analysis. He claims, “if…the depictions on these song-sheets may seem at best politically incorrect and at worse [sic] a self-inflicted wound by Jews on Jews, it is useful to recall that a century or so ago it tweren’t [sic] necessarily so”; but while that must be true, it would be very helpful to know in more nuanced detail what they were to Jews a century or so ago (13). Likewise, Wald offers a framework, and the beginnings of what seems like a profoundly significant history of intimate listening, but her article is very short, and as she says, she “only gestures toward” the complexity the topic requires (5).
Ultimately this collection is bound to be quite useful to scholars from across a number of disciplines. Its greatest strength is certainly in the questions it raises, and in the breadth of interests it addresses. Clearly the essays speak to core questions in Jewish-American music scholarship; but beyond this, any scholar interested in American music should find much to learn here. Likewise, any scholar interested in music and gender will find a great deal to think about. The song is not the same. We may think we knew this history well, but we know it better for this volume.
Kun, Josh. 2007. “Abie the Fishman: On Masks, Birthmarks, and Hunchbacks.” Listen Again: A Momentary History of Pop Music, ed. Eric Weisbard. Durham, NC: Duke University Press: 50-68.
Gabriel Solis, Associate Professor of Music, African American Studies and Anthropology, University of Illinois