Author Archives: Michael Billig

Michael Billig

About Michael Billig

Michael Billig is professor of social sciences at Loughborough University.

Jews & Musical Theatre

Reprinted with permission from Rock ‘N’ Roll Jews (Five Leaves Publications).

The extent of the Jewish influence on American pop­ular music before the age of rock is seen clearly in the musical. This American art form attracted the atten­tion of the greatest songwriters of the pre-rock era: Jerome Kern, George and Ira Gershwin, Oscar Hammerstein, Richard Rogers, Lorenz Hart, Cole Porter, Alan Lerner and Frederick Loewe, not to mention Irv­ing Berlin. Between them, they wrote the songs for practically all the great musicals of the Thirties and For­ties. Nor should one forget Harold Arlen and Yip Har­burg, who wrote the songs for the greatest of the screen musicals, The Wizard of Oz.

With the exception of Cole Porter, all the above-named were Jewish. The tradition of the Jewish musical writer, in fact, continued into the rock era with Stephen Sondheim, Leonard Bernstein, and Lionel Bart.

Jewish Music?

Cole Porter was aware that he was working in a medium that was disproportionately Jewish. He once told Richard Rogers that he had discovered the secret for writ­ing hits: "I’ll write Jewish tunes," he claimed.Porter’s comment was echoed by Jerome Kern, who, unlike Porter, was himself Jewish. Apparently, Oscar Hammerstein once asked what sort of music Kern would be writing for a stage musical about the life of Marco Polo. Kern replied: "It’ll be good Jewish music."

In one sense the music wasn’t "Jewish music" and Porter’s tunes weren’t "Jewish tunes." The Jewish com­posers were not simply adapting the Yiddish tunes of the ghetto for an English-speaking audience. They were drawing on the wider musical traditions of America. As Jeffrey Melnick has argued in his important book, A Right To Sing The Blues, the Jewish songwriters were, above all, adapting the music of African Americans. First, they took inspiration from ragtime music and, later, from jazz.

Irving Berlin

Irving Berlin, in particular, was fascinated by the syn­copated rhythms of ragtime. His first huge success was "Alexander’s Ragtime Band" in 1911, which, in fact, proved to be Tin Pan Alley’s biggest hit up to that time. The pre­vious year, Berlin had written "Yiddle On Your Fiddle, Play Some Ragtime." It had been a novelty number–an early song with essentially the same message as Chuck Berry’s "Roll Over Beethoven." Move over, traditional music–something snappier is on the way. And the snap­pier stuff was coming from black music.

Rock ‘N’ Roll Jews

Reprinted with permission from Rock ‘N’ Roll Jews (Five Leaves Publications).

There is a hidden story about the central Jewish contribution [to rock music] waiting to be told. This is not a story of uncovering forgotten Jewish ancestors. There will be no revelations that Elvis or Little Richard had Jewish great-great-grandmothers. Even if such ancestry could be found, it would hardly be signifi­cant. After all, rock’n’roll was not created by forgotten, long dead, great-great-grandmothers.rock musician

Jews Behind the Scenes

Nor will the story of the overlooked Jewish contribu­tion depend upon a trawl through rock’s minor celebri­ties. In fact, the blank sheet could be partially filled with a respectable collection of reasonably well-known names. There could be Marc Bolan, Manfred Mann and Peter Green, who was Fleetwood Mac’s original, and arguably most talented, guitarist. We could then move forward to take in the Beastie Boys and Ian Broudie of the Lightning Seeds. And so on. But the resulting compilation would not be a premier division list. It would lack the founding per­formers–the Elvises, the Jerry Lees, the Chucks, not to mention the John, Paul, George, and Ringos.

However, searching for Jewish band-members from the early days to the present would not be the way to docu­ment the immense Jewish contribution to rock. In fact, if one concentrated upon the public performers, one would almost entirely miss the core of the Jewish contribution. At least in rock’s early days, that contribution lay behind the scenes, largely hidden from the public gaze.

Of course, managers and impresarios operate behind the scenes. In the world of show business, there have been Jewish managers aplenty. In fact, the very word “rock­’n’roll” itself was the creation of rock’s earliest and most famous promoter, Alan Freed. It is said that he even tried to copyright the term. However, a history of rock’s Jewish contribution which concentrated on management would tend to confirm the blank sheet of paper. The contribution would not be a creative one, but one which facilitates the creativity of others, who would be the real heroes of rock’s story. Indeed, even Freed’s claim to have linguistically invented “rock’n’roll” has been disputed.

Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan, the great songwriter and performer, was born Robert Allen Zimmerman. The son of Abraham and Beatty Zimmerman, he was born in Duluth, Minn., and spent much of his childhood in Hibbing, Minn., a poor mining town with a small Jewish population. Young Robert celebrated his bar mitzvah in Harding, but did not identify strongly or publicly with his Jewish identity. In his music, he presented himself, under the name Bob Dylan, as the voice of the typical mid-Western American. But as the following article shows, Dylan’s lyrics do on occasion show Jewish influences. Reprinted with permission from Rock ‘N’ Roll Jews (Five Leaves Publications).

jewish music quizDylan’s rock music from the mid 60s is arguably among the finest of his output. Certainly, it transformed the rock song. Henceforth, rock could have lyrics which could be compared with Keats and Shelley. Professors of literature dissected Dylan’s imagery and significance in ways which they have never done with Gershwin, Berlin, or Pomus. Some have searched for cryptic biblical, even kabalistic [mystical], allu­sions. No doubt they can be found, if the critic is imagina­tive enough. Whether they were intended by the author is another matter, for Dylan claims to write quickly with the words tumbling out, beyond his control.

Biblical Allusions

It is not difficult to find Jewish influences. The open­ing verse of “Highway Sixty One Revisited” irreverently retells the story of the binding of Isaac. God is telling Abraham to “kill me a son.” Abe is replying, “man You must be putting me on.” The joking familiarity with God–the imagining of an argument with the Almighty–is itself very Jewish, to be found in orthodox texts and in Broadway versions of Judaism, such as Fiddler on the Roof. Abraham is treated with familiarity in the song: He is ‘Abe,’ just as Dylan’s father, too, was called Abe.

Certainly, Dylan’s interests have included religion and spirituality. The songs on John Wesley Harding, such as “I Dreamed I Saw St Augustine,” contain biblical references. On this album, first released in 1967, Dylan is celebrating the old American west. John Wesley Hardin was a “Wild West” outlaw, a Robin Hood figure, supposedly stealing from the rich to give to the poor. The album contains the revealing “I Pity the Poor Immigrant.” The lyrics rage against “the immigrant,” who “uses all his power to do evil,” “falls in love with wealth,” “builds his town with blood,” and so on.