Review article by Les Back (2002)
Michael Billig Rock’n’roll Jews (Five Leaves, 2000)
Jeffrey Melnick A Right to Sing the Blues: African Americans, Jews and American Popular Song (Harvard University Press, 2001)
The cheroot smoking ‘fat cat’ businessman, raking in cash on the backs of gifted jazz, blues and soul musicians is the dominant stereotype of Jewish involvement in music. This portrait can be found in an alarmingly diverse range of settings: from beer commercials to the movies of Spike Lee. Implicit in this is the charge that Jewish media moguls merely profitted from the creativity of others and in particular that of African Americans. The thought that Jews contributed to the making of the music itself is viewed as almost laughable. Michael Billig begins his beautiful new book Rock’n’Roll Jews by recalling a scene in the spoof movie Airplane. A passenger asks for some light reading and is given ‘The Complete Guide to Jewish Sporting Stars.’ Every page in the book is blank. Billig comments that “one can imagine the joke being applied to Jewish rock’n’roll stars” (p. 3).
Beneath such stereotypes is a hidden history of fraught alliances and enduring divisions – a story of creativity and exploitation. It is the complexities in this history that Michael Billig and Jeffrey Melnick seek to explicate. Melnick’s book A Right to Sing the Blues focuses on the first decades of the twentieth century, particularly the involvement of Jewish composers and publishers in popular music and jazz. His prime concern is the relationship between figures like George Gershwin and Irving Berlin and African American performers and artists. He is interested not only to seek evidence about the quality of ‘Black-Jewish relations’, but also to examine critically the narrative construction of this discrepant association.
For Melnick what is crucial is the work that the talk about Black-Jewish affinity does. In this field of representation hopes are licensed, aspirations expressed and racial alignments defined. For him, the ambivalent racial status of Jews in America was navigated through their role as intermediaries within culture and music. He argues that Jewish composers like Gershwin and Berlin and singers like Al Jolson were able to portray their gift for writing and performing ‘black music’ as a product of their Jewishness. Paradoxically, it was their skill as intercessionary figures, adept in black forms, that provided them with a passport to whiteness. As cultural intermediaries, Jews could figure themselves in a privileged position to preside over the blending of the American cultural ‘melting pot.’ Gershwin told his first biographer that he aspired to “write an opera of the melting pot, of New York City itself, which is symbolic and the actual blend of native and immingrant strains” (p.77). Irving Berlin, who was less confortable with his nascent Americanness than Gershwin, wrote the enduring patriotic homage God Bless America. The prize was that Jews became central in the work of nation building and Jewishness itself could be cast as a stable white identity. The power of Melnick’s insight here is considerable, indeed this is the main contribution of his book.
Prominent African American figures like writer James Weldon Johnson spoke positively of Jewish involvement in jazz. In Melnick’s view there was mutual interest at play here because Johnson’s support of Jewish musicians furthered the cause of the music and meant that African American culture was taken seriously as an art form. However, the down side of this was that Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess competed directly with the black artists of the Harlem Renaissance over the definition of Blackness and the African American experience.
This powerful line of critique is picked up by Michael Billig in Rock’n’ Roll Jews. For those Jews who made America their refuge, the impulse was strong to show that they belonged to this new land and it’s dominant Christian culture. As a result some of America’s key seasonal hymns were written by Jews. Irving Berlin penned ‘White Christmas’ and Jewish songwriting team Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller wrote ‘Santa Claus is Back in Town’ for Elvis Presley. The high point in this assimilationist irony was in 1963 when Phil Spector recorded an entire album of yuletide hits called A Christmas Gift for You. Billig draws a parallel between the Christmas music written by Jews in America and a comment made by Walter Benjamin on the public festivity made by the Jewish bourgeoisie in pre-Nazi Germany. Benjamin, a German Jewish Philosopher who committed suicide after failing to escape the Nazis, complained that affluent Jews in Germany not only had Christmas tree but also bought large visible ones as effigies of their assimilation. Billig, making a direct connection between Benjamin’s observation and Jewish dreams of belonging to America, concluded that “A Christmas Gift for You was Spector’s enormous, public Christmas tree” (p. 107).
There is more to the story of the involvement of Jews in American twentieth century popular music than assimilation and compromise. Melnick’s moral commitment to argue that Jews manipulated ‘black sounds’ for their own ends, blinds him to some of the ambivalences in the lives of those who followed Gershwin and Berlin. In particular, he treates Jewish jazz musicians like Mezz Mezzrow and Artie Shaw as sociopaths. He reduces them to little more than absurd ‘white Negroes’ recalling Norman Mailer’s famous phrase. There is little attempt to understand how the complicated lives of Mezzrow and Shaw challenged assumptions about race and culture. They breached the colour-line in a time when to do so posed serious risks. Melnick has little time for these acts of transgression and reduces them to ‘authenticity mongering’ and cultural ‘one-upmanship.’ It is perhaps easy to dismiss the likes of Mezzrow and Shaw as such now, but this kind of presentism misses the palpable dangers involved and there is something close to bad faith in Melnick’s denuciation.
He foregrounds Mezzrow’s comment that he felt he came to look “physically black” in his autobiography… continue reading Rocknroll Jews