LET’S FACE THE MUSIC AND DANCE:
AFRICAN AMERICANS, JEWS, AND THE CREATION OF MODERN POPULAR MUSIC
Dr. Harold Brackman
The Simon Wiesenthal Center
From slave spirituals, to blues and jazz, and beyond, African Americans have created a great popular music that has become America’s gift to the world. Yet even during the worst days of racial subordination, black music transcended the color line. Slaves created spirituals and work songs by fusing their African heritage of drums, banjos, dances, and complex rhythms with stories of freedom’s ultimate triumph drawn from the Hebrew Bible’s narrative of Moses and Joshua leading their people into the Promised Land.
After the Civil War, as ragtime, the blues, and urban jazz developed, black music continued to change by incorporating European melodies and piano orchestrations. Along the way, black composers and performers entered Tin Pan Alley and on to the Broadway stage. They became professionals even as they struggled against hurtful stereotypes rooted in the minstrel tradition of whites, including some Jewish performers, “blacking up” to caricature African Americans.
Though racist practices undercut their bargaining power inside as well as outside show business, black musicians nevertheless collaborated for the first time with a melting pot of Tin Pan Alley and Broadway composers and performers that included many Jewish immigrants and the children of immigrants. From this creative interaction emerged Jewish composers Irving Berlin and George Gershwin, Jewish performers Al Jolson and Fanny Bryce, and African Americans musical greats Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, Billie Holiday, and Ella Fitzgerald. This illustrious list is greatly expanded.
In the history of Black-Jewish relations in the popular music realm, friendship counterbalanced frictions, and African Americans and Jews shared the experience—as Louis Amstrong put it—of cats of any color grooving together.
Unfortunately, this complex history of Black-Jewish mutual inspiration and borrowing has become the stuff a conspiracy industry that pictures Jews as—in the words of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan—“the bloodsuckers of black people.” Farrakhan dusts off, and trots out, all the decrepit stereotypes of Jews as gouging ghetto merchants to apply them to Jewish sports and entertainment industry agents in this new era of Jerry Maguires.
Surprisingly, the lyrics (so to speak) for Farrakhan’s hateful chorus are being written by an influential coterie of academics, many of them Jewish, who use the latest in postmodern theories about race to give trendy respectability to age-old anti-Jewish defamations. Professor Jeffrey
Melnick is representative of this trend. In his book, The Right to Sing the Blues (1999), Melnick admits that “any chronicle of Jews making money out of African Americans . . . flirts uncomfortably with conventional anti-Semitic stereotypes,” yet he devotes page after page to repackaging anti-Semitic libels—from Richard Wagner’s Jews and Music to Henry Ford’s Dearborn Independent claiming that jazz was “Yiddish moron music” manufactured by Jews who “do not create; they take what others have done, give it a clever twist, and exploit it.” In a moment of ironic candor, Profess Michael P. Rogin—Melnick’s inspiration—admitted that he and his disciples may simply have find another way of “putting blackface on” in order to privilege their dubious interpretation attempting to discredit that Jews were African Americans’ partners for civil rights.
Following in Rogin’s footsteps, Professor Melnick writes that Jews “certainly were using the mask of blackness as part of a claim for their own whiteness, which was predicated on erasing or persecuting African Americans.” Jews were guilty of “the rip-off of African-American culture.”
“Jews [were] responsible for perverting ‘authentic’ African American music.” “[A] commercial taint . . . looms as the terrifying repressed of Black-Jewish relations” and resulted in “the Jewish takeover of popular music.” Indeed, “Jews had come to function as modern-day slaveholders.”
These and other sad but sick interpretations advanced by Melnick would have his readers believe that Jewish entertainers, with the approbation of their predominately Jewish audiences, hid behind black masks because that somehow protected them from “the widely believed strange sexuality of the Jewish man” and reduced the likelihood that they, too, would suffer the fate of lynching victim Leo Frank’s fate!
The purpose of this report is to return some sanity to a field of scholarly research that displays hysterical symptoms that it would take a Freud to do full justice. Its hope is that a balanced overview of Black-Jewish relations in song and on the stage and screen before, during, and after America’s “Jazz Age” will embolden others with the courage to give voice to the truth about what has become a dangerous ideological obsession as well as academic disgrace.
Read in full...