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.
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, 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.