Abstracts are in order of presentation.
“Every Time I Try To Play black, It Comes Out Sounding Jewish”:
Jewish Jazz Musicians and Racial Identity
Charles Hersch, Cleveland State University
This paper explores the ongoing constructions of racial identity of Jewish jazz musicians who have identified with African Americans. Contrary to what I call the “affinity narrative,” which sees Jews as natural interpreters of jazz due to a shared history of suffering between Jews and African Americans, I argue that post-World War II Jewish jazz musicians constructed racially complex identities in response to their social context. In the 1940s and 1950s, the ongoing negotiations of racial identity by “Mezz” Mezzrow, disc jockey “Symphony Sid” Torin, jazz trumpeter Red Rodney, and others emerged from both the history of Jewish racial ambiguity in America and the specific mixture of antisemitism and pressure to assimilate that they faced. Many Jewish jazz musicians of the postwar era engaged with black music in order to avoid “melting” into an American mainstream they considered bland and intolerant, and to “re-minoritize” Jewishness. However, even if they initially “became black,” these musicians often came to blackness through Jewishness and ultimately struggled with a never-fully-buried Jewish identity. The ways in which Jews in jazz actively and creatively played with racial identity can be seen by the ways in which they talked, thought, and felt, as recorded in memoirs and interviews.
The “Strange Fruit” of American Pop
Katherine Turner, University of Houston
Rarely in history have Baptist women from the south, northern urban Catholics, Communists, Jim Crowed blacks and Jews agreed on anything. And then “Strange Fruit” became the sonic exhibition of their coalition. Often considered Billie Holiday’s protest song, the truth of this forceful denouncement against lynching is much more nuanced and complicated – and decidedly tied to Jewish-American cultural values.
The poem “Bitter Fruit” was written by Abel Meeropol, AKA Lewis Allan, who then set it to music in the late 1930s. It perhaps would have remained a disturbing art song reflecting the depths of human degradation had it not hit the popular music scene – both dividing and unifying diverse audiences. A Jewish teacher in the Bronx, active in the local arts scene, and with the Communist Party, he was a social activist with an abiding belief in justice. He told the NYT “I wrote “Strange Fruit” because I hate lynching and I hate injustice and I hate the people who perpetuate it.”
Meeropol’s response to the flood of reports, pictures and exhibitions of racial violence and intolerance was not just as a concerned citizen, or as a matter of artistic release. What he wrote, why he set it to music, where it was performed and how he negotiated its ramifications came from a place deeply rooted in his Jewish heritage. This paper seeks to explore Meeropol’s actions and reactions as part of a Jewish aesthetic within America’s racial upheaval, social cacophony, increasing anti-Semitism, and the rise of protest in popular music.
“My Yiddishe Mama” as Performative Jewishness
Devora Geller, City University of New York
The stereotype of the ethnic mother is a staple of turn-of-the-century American immigrant culture. Immortalized in verse and song, she represents the Old Country within a nostalgically imagined past. While many such songs exist across different immigrant cultures, one ‘mother song’ has risen to become the ‘mother song’ of them all: “My Yiddishe Mama,” written by Jack Yellen and Lew Pollack in the mid-1920s, and made famous by Sophie Tucker. Though “My Yiddishe Mama” is part of a substantial repertory of Yiddish songs about Jewish mothers that was popularized in the halls where Yiddish theater was performed, its legacy is far more complex: the song, which exists in both Yiddish and English versions, not only immortalizes the Jewish mother, but also paradoxically reaffirms a representation of a cultural identity from which American Jews were trying to distance themselves. Further complicating its reception, the cadre of notable performances of this song has not been limited to Jewish performers; some of the best-known and most prominent renditions of “My Yiddishe Mame” have been sung by the likes of Billie Holiday, Connie Francis, Tom Jones, and Ray Charles—none of whom is Jewish! This paper explores these notable performances in order to contend that “My Yiddishe Mama’s” widespread and lasting appeal stems from its ability to function as an affirmative cultural space for a Jewish in-crowd, and as a performative emblem of Jewish identity (and hence an inroad to the in-crowd) for non-Jewish Others.
Secunda, Gershwin, and Weill as Jewish Stage Music Composers
Susan Filler, Independent Scholar
Sholom Secunda, George Gershwin and Kurt Weill were Jewish composers born during the last decade before the turn of the twentieth century, when Jewish nationalist music was a priority in many countries. While composing music in a wide range of forms, they were heirs of the nineteenth century European operatic tradition, and in turn they contributed significantly to the development of American stage and film music. In this presentation, my purpose is to add a new dimension to historical continuity studies, by comparison and contrast between the music of these composers. Although they apparently had little in common with each other in terms of cultural background, education and language, they followed parallel musical paths and shared professional and personal contacts.
Secunda emigrated to the United States from the shtetls in the Ukraine, unlike Gershwin (who was born in New York to immigrant parents) and Weill, an assimilated German Jew who escaped from the Nazi regime. In spite of these differences, they were all directly or indirectly influenced by jazz, Ashkenazi liturgical music, and Yiddish theater, and in the first half of the twentieth century they established their careers in New York and, later, Hollywood. We should consider Secunda, Gershwin and Weill cultural comrades.
The Negotiation of Jewishness through “Fiddler on the Roof”: Balancing Broadway, Tradition, and Assimilation
Emily Joy Rothchild, University of Pennsylvania
The Broadway musical Fiddler on the Roof opened in 1964 and achieved great success, winning nine Tony Awards and outrunning its contemporaries with a record-breaking 3,242 performances over seven years. Recounting the Sholem Aleichem tales of Tevye— the milkman—and his family, the show stages the 1905 traditions of the Yiddish- speaking Jewish community in Anatevka, a fictional village in the Pale Settlement of tsarist Russia. The first Broadway musical specifically focused on Jews, Fiddler offered a nostalgic journey into the pasts of Americans with Yiddish heritage. Nonetheless, due to the show’s inception during a time of increased assimilation for Jews, the Jewish American production team had to balance the pressures of tradition versus assimilation, deciding “how Jewish” to make the music, dialogue, and dancing. In this paper, I demonstrate how Fiddler’s production process and the musical’s treatment of topical themes, including Yidishkayt, religious adherence, gender roles, and social activism, serve as examples of the negotiation of Jewishness in the 1960s. Furthermore, I bring forward voices of mid-century scholars and contemporary Philadelphia Jews to show how Fiddler acted as a cultural medium through which Jewish Americans could reflect on what constitutes and defines Jewishness.
Down to Business: Herman Lubinsky and the Postwar Music Industry
Robert Cherry, Brooklyn College
Jennifer Griffith, City University of New York
The historical record has emphasized how black performers were treated unfairly by the Jewish record company owners who dominated the postwar music industry. The criticism was in gradations where those who appreciated the music were the least criticized, including Milt Gabler and Norman Granz. The next tier were entrepreneurs, like Syd Nathan and Leonard Chess, who eventually came to appreciate the music and the betterment of race relations. At the bottom were those owners, like Herman Lubinsky who never had an appreciation of the music they produced nor the black artists that they recorded.
Our article assesses the claims of exploitation leveled against Herman Lubinsky and his Savoy Records. We argue that what distinguished Lubinsky from Granz was not primarily the difference in their appreciation of the music or concern for civil rights but the different economic environment each faced. Granz and Gabler made their names in the record business when jazz popularity was at its peak. By contrast, Lubinsky faced a highly competitive economic climate just as the commercial popularity of jazz waned. We use the examples of George Wein and Bobby Weinstock to demonstrate that even when the appreciation of the music was present, the changing economic climate force compromises that neither Ganz nor Gabler had to make. By focusing solely on record companies that became successful, and treating favorably those with noticeable appreciation for the music and musicians, historians have mischaracterized owners, like Lubinsky, who had to survive in a competitive, declining industry.
Brokering a Rock ‘n’ Roll International: Jewish Record Men In the U.S. and U.K., 1945-65
Jonathan Karp, Binghamton University, SUNY
Although recent years have seen a spate of studies treating Jewish entrepreneurship in the American popular music business, especially the indie labels of Rhythm and Blues and Rock ‘n’ Roll era, there has been little discussion of contemporaneous Jewish involvement in the British pop music scene, where Anglo-Jews played a vital role in such fields as music publishing, booking agencies and artist management in the 1950s and 1960s.
This paper has two distinct but related goals. The first is to employ a comparative analysis of Jews’ activity in the music businesses in both the post-war United States and Britain as a means of identifying commonalities in economic behaviors between the two Jewish populations. The broad social and economic circumstances in these different locales created different opportunities and constraints; nevertheless, what is striking is the rough similarity of the Jewish brokerage role in both countries. The second goal is to show how the parallel experiences of Jewish popular music brokers in the US and UK eventually intersected – and indeed exerted powerful mutual influences that helped determine the evolution of the music business as a global industry. The rock music of the 1960s became both a fusion of British and American musical styles and a commercial amalgamation of businesses that had hitherto largely evolved independently.
Put otherwise, the first goal is to understand the economic character of Jews operating in the music business in the US and UK; the second is to gauge their historical impact on it through the mid-1960s.