Much of the academic writing about Jews and popular music (of which there is nowhere near enough) places Jews as intermediaries between black and white cultures. Jewish songwriters have taken black musical forms and re-written them for white audiences (Carole King, Leiber and Stoller); Jewish producers have taken black artists and sold them to white audiences (Phil Spector, the Chess brothers); Jewish artists have repackaged black musical styles for white audiences (the Beastie Boys, Amy Winehouse). In an earlier post, I followed this line when talking about hair and popular music, claiming that the Jewfro provides a link between black and white styles. I wheeled into service a quote from Jon Stratton, who states that ‘being positioned between the ideologically driven binary of black and white, Jews have mediated between African-American culture and the hegemonic white American culture’.
Stratton’s work is focused on post-World War II popular music and like many popular music historians he gives precedence to black musical styles. However, if we trace history back further, Jewish musicians and writers cannot be cast as go-betweens, their input is central to the popular music form.
Michael Kantor’s film Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy redresses the balance. It begins with Eric Idle’s song ‘You Won’t Succeed on Broadway (If You Don’t Have Any Jews)’ and then provides evidence of the Jewish dominance of American musical theatre. Even Cole Porter, the one notable non-Jew amongst early Broadway writers, stated that he could only achieve success by composing ‘Jewish tunes’.
The film acknowledges the fit between black and Jewish musical forms, demonstrating an over-lapping use of minor scales. It also notes the influence of jazz on Broadway songwriters, while at the same time insisting that the Jewish influence shines through. For example, as well as examining the jazz inflections in Rhapsody in Blue, the film points out that Gershwin employed a klezmer clarinet for its famous opening. Elsewhere, there is illustration of the extent to which Broadway songwriters wove Jewish religious motifs into their tunes, most interestingly in the case of ‘It Ain’t Necessarily So’, which uses a melody from a Jewish prayer to help explode the myths of the bible. It transpires that the Great American Songbook is also the Great Yiddish Hymnbook.
The film has an incisive take on the themes of Broadway musicals. Some writers focused on African-Americans (Show Boat, Porgy and Bess), while others explored inter-racial subjects (South Pacific). It is suggested, however, that these musicals were really about Jews. Josh Kun states that:
One of the ways that Jewish songwriters on Broadway wrote about the experience of being Jewish is by writing about other outsiders: ‘I’m not going to tell you the story of Jews in America, but I am going to tell you the story of an African-American on a riverboat, I’m going to use somebody’s else’s story to tell you mine’. The more the Jews are not writing about Jews, I think you could argue is when they are actually writing the most about Jews.
If he’s right we should perhaps revisit Jon Stratton’s statement. In the history of American popular music the hegemonic whites are still observers, but what they are watching is Jews and African-American artists speaking amongst themselves.