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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.
Jews, Race and Popular Music. Jon Stratton. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2009. 238 pp. ISBN 978-0-7546-6804-6
In Jews, Race and Popular Music, Jon Stratton attempts to stage an intervention at the fulcrum of the peculiar relationship between Jews and popular music. The historical coincidence of Jewish people and African American musical styles—from Al Jolson to Amy Winehouse—has become something of a cottage industry both in and beyond the university (Stratton includes a comprehensive listing of titles in his introduction). In this work, Stratton is trying to reframe this well-documented yet still vexing area of research through the lenses of race and performance. The trouble is that he offers an argument that tries so hard to deconstruct Jewishness that he ends up reifying it.