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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.
To Broadway, To Life! The Musical Theater of Bock and Harnick. Philip Lambert. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. ISBN 978-0-1953-9007-0
Jews on Broadway: An Historical Survey of Performers, Playwrights, Composers, Lyricists and Producers. Stewart F. Lane. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2011. ISBN 978-0-7864-5917-9
Reviewed by Alisa Solomon
Like those Broadway musicals that are driven by deep emotion and a social conscience, intellectual books about Broadway musicals face a dilemma: how to be serious and popular. Indeed, books may have a harder time. From Showboat to Rent, musicals have managed to challenge audiences with questions about such issues as racism and AIDS even as they have filled the coffers of investors. But to whom is a book on Broadway addressed—to academic specialists or to die-hard show fans? Not that these categories are mutually exclusive (the best scholarship is typically driven by passion, after all), but they can represent vastly different cultures and interests. As publishers increasingly look for “crossover” projects—and as the academic study of musical theater expands—the clashing expectations of these disparate audiences can put some authors in a bind. Read the rest of this entry »
If It Wasn’t for the Irish and the Jews. Mick Moloney. Compass Records, 2009.
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. Read the rest of this entry »
Playing Across a Divide: Israeli-Palestinian Musical Encounters. Benjamin Brinner. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. 360 pp. ISBN 978-0-1953-9594-5
Some time in the late 1980s, at the height of the first Palestinian intifada, Israeli poet/lyricist/author/publicist Jonathan Geffen devoted one of his regular newspaper columns to Israeli music. Geffen, renowned as an eloquent cynic in his often dour critique of Israeli society, began his piece by articulating the general sense of shock and depression that had taken over much of Israeli cultural and intellectual life in that period, particularly among those identified with the country’s left-of-center political camp, for which Geffen was a spokesperson. Depressing though the situation was, Geffen wrote, there was one bright spot: In a country so small and crisis-ridden, the extent and range of musical creativity was to him a small piece of veritable redemption. Read the rest of this entry »
Mediterranean Israeli Music and the Politics of the Aesthetic. Amy Horowitz. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2010. xvii+251 pp. (+ 19 songs on CD). ISBN 978-0-8143-3465-2
Musiqa mizrahit, aka Israeli Mediterranean Music, is a category of popular music mostly known for its strong Middle Eastern and Greek tinges. It has been at the center of Israeli public discourse on popular music since the late 1970s. By 2010, the leading theme of this discourse is the “triumph” of the genre in the field of Israeli popular music. With prominent performers such as Sarit Hadad, Eyal Golan, Kobi Peretz, Moshe Peretz, Shlomi Shabat, Lior Narkis and others filling up the largest music venues in Israel, leading the sale charts and ruling the radio airwaves, Israeli Mediterranean Music is by 2010 the “mainstream” of Israeli popular music. Throughout its history, speakers for Israeli Mediterranean Music have insisted, against their marginalization, that this genre is the “true” Israeli authentic popular music, the one that should be at center stage of Israeli culture. Given the genre’s success in the 1990s and the 2000s, Edwin Seroussi and myself concluded some years ago that “the nationalist impetus that underlined musiqa mizrahit for decades has achieved its own self-declared goal of both bringing musiqa mizrahit into the mainstream of Israeli popular music and of affecting the sounds of all popular music in Israel.” Read the rest of this entry »
Jewish Music and Modernity. Philip V. Bohlman. New York: Oxford University Press/AMS Studies in Music, 2008. xxxiii + 280 pp. ISBN 978-0-1951-7832-6
Discourse about “Jewish music” has traditionally raised complex questions about the identity of “Jewishness” in music. The ontology of “Jewish music” in modern Jewish history is as elusive as the nature of music itself. The reason for this, as Philip Bohlman argues in Jewish Music and Modernity, is that Jewish music in modernity exists not within a definable space or time, but rather at moments of disjuncture – in between regions, amid moments of transition and transformation, and at the border of ethnic, religious, and social boundaries. Jewish music, as an aesthetically autonomous object in Jewish society, was conceived of for the first time at the modernist moment, when Jews entered the public sphere of modern European society, broadening the purely ritualized devotional function that music formerly served. But the structural transformation that modernity brought about in musical culture had the paradoxical effect of confounding the very notion of “Jewish” music. Exposed to modern musical practices and genres in the non-Jewish public sphere during a period of political and aesthetic transformation, Jewish music became “Jewish” precisely in its confrontation with non-Jewish genres, forms, languages, and performers. Bohlman demonstrates that Jewish music, in responding to the political and aesthetic challenges of modernity, is inherently hybrid, unstable, and dynamic. It represents a dynamic site where national, ethnic, and gender identities are constructed and contested. Thus, borders between Jewish and non-Jewish became permeable, so that “musical repertories that for some were entirely Jewish—say, cabaret at the turn of the twentieth century—were not the least bit Jewish for others” (xvii). In other words, music participated in the transformation of modern Jewish identity itself.
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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.