Cover image for A right to sing the blues : African Americans, Jews, and American popular song
A right to sing the blues : African Americans, Jews, and American popular song
Melnick, Jeffrey Paul.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press, 1999.
Physical Description:
ix, 277 pages ; 25 cm
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ML3477 .M45 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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All too often an incident or accident, such as the eruption in Crown Heights with its legacy of bitterness and recrimination, thrusts Black-Jewish relations into the news. A volley of discussion follows, but little in the way of progress or enlightenment results--and this is how things will remain until we radically revise the way we think about the complex interactions between African Americans and Jews. A Right to Sing the Blues offers just such a revision. "Black-Jewish relations," Jeffrey Melnick argues, has mostly been a way for American Jews to talk about their ambivalent racial status, a narrative collectively constructed at critical moments, when particular conflicts demand an explanation. Remarkably flexible, this narrative can organize diffuse materials into a coherent story that has a powerful hold on our imagination. Melnick elaborates this idea through an in-depth look at Jewish songwriters, composers, and perfomers who made "Black" music in the first few decades of this century. He shows how Jews such as George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Al Jolson, and others were able to portray their "natural" affinity for producing "Black" music as a product of their Jewishness while simultaneously depicting Jewishness as a stable white identity. Melnick also contends that this cultural activity competed directly with Harlem Renaissance attempts to define Blackness. Moving beyond the narrow focus of advocacy group politics, this book complicates and enriches our understanding of the cultural terrain shared by African Americans and Jews.

Author Notes

Jeffrey Melnick is Assistant Professor of American Studies at Babson College.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Melnick uses popular American music as the lens through which to examine black-Jewish relationships with a dispassionate and critical eye. He explores several musical periods--vaudeville, ragtime, Tin Pan Alley, early jazz--and Jewish sensitivity to charges of exploitation because of their traditional roles as middlemen and brokers. Melnick lays the groundwork to justify such claims, but his focus is more acute. He postulates that Jews embraced the blackface masks and popular song of minstrel shows--the style, language, nuance of black culture--as a means of establishing their own status as whites. He sites George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Sophie Tucker, Eddie Cantor, and others as examples of Jewish artists who were able to embrace and imitate black culture while keeping blacks at a respectable distance in terms of social interaction and credit for their own music. Whatever closeness might be implied from a common history of oppression was negated by the privileged positions Jews gained by "interpreting" black music and moving it into the mainstream. Although the relationship was clearly exploitative, it was also mutually beneficial in that it provided wider exposure for black music. This is fascinating reading for those interested in music history, relationships between blacks and Jews, and American popular culture. --Vernon Ford

Library Journal Review

The relationship between Jews and African Americans has been one of the most complex for sociologists and cultural anthropologists to understand. The suffering that both groups have endured is similar in many ways, yet there is antipathy between the two that dates back at least to the immigration of European Jews in the first part of the 20th century. Melnick (American studies, Babson Coll.) uses the music industry to examine closely the nature of this ambivalent relationship. Focusing on Jewish Tin Pan Alley song writers and performers such as George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, and Al Jolson, Melnick explores how they balanced an affinity for black music with the conscious effort to show how they were transforming what was seen as a lower form of culture into something more palatable for mass white audiences. The extensive notes and scholarly approach make this more appropriate for sociology collections than popular music collections.√ĄDan Bogey, Clearfield Cty. P.L. Federation, Curwensville, PA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

Melnick's well-researched book explores Black-Jewish relations through the lens of US popular music in the "age of ragtime and jazz," when Jews became consummate minstrel and vaudeville interpreters, Tin Pan Alley songsmiths, and song publishers. Melnick analyzes various theories advanced over the years to explain Jewish involvement in black cultural forms, focusing on paradigmatic works such as "Alexander's Ragtime Band," Porgy and Bess, and The Jazz Singer, and on artists such as Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Artie Shaw, Fannie Bryce, Sophie Tucker, and "white Negroes" like clarinettist Milton "Mezz" Mezzrow. Melnick argues that Jews used their putative closeness to African Americans to package black musical forms for popular consumption and in the process to "reorganize Jewishness as a species of whiteness." This volume joins a growing literature on Jews in American popular culture, including Michael Rogin's Blackface, White Noise: Jewish Immigrants in the Hollywood Melting Pot (CH, Nov'96). Falling short only in its timid approach to musical sound, it is a welcome addition to recent histories of Tin Pan Alley and blackface minstrelsy. Upper-division undergraduates through professionals. G. Averill; New York University

Table of Contents

Acknowledgmentsp. vii
Introduction: The Languages of Black-Jewish Relationsp. 1
1 "Yiddle on Your Fiddle": The Culture of Black-Jewish Relationsp. 16
2 "I Used to Be Color Blind": The Racialness of Jewish Menp. 60
3 "Swanee Ripples": From Blackface to White Negrop. 95
4 "Lift Ev'ry Voice": African American Music and the Nationp. 141
5 "Melancholy Blues": Making Jews Sacred in African American Musicp. 165
Epilogue: The Lasting Power of Black-Jewish Relationsp. 197
Notesp. 209
Indexp. 267