Jews & Musical Theatre

Jews had a hand in writing nearly all the great musicals of the 1930s and '40s.

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Berlin's song, unlike Berry's, addressed a particular ethnic group: "Yid­dles" should start picking out the ragtime beat on their fid­dles. The enormous success of "Alexander's Ragtime Band," selling across ethnic divides, taught Berlin to address the whole of America, not just the Yiddles with their fiddles.

If Berlin borrowed African American rhythms and styles, then inevitably there were charges of plagiarism and exploitation. Scott Joplin, for one, thought that "Alexander's Rag Time Band" had been based on his own work, and he complained about receiving neither the recognition nor the financial remuneration. It was even rumored that Berlin kept "a little colored boy" in his basement to write his songs. With charges of exploitation came those of debasement. Berlin and others, it was said, were sentimentalizing ragtime, stripping it of its authen­ticity.

Was The Jazz Singer a Jazz Singer?

When, in the Twenties and Thirties, the craze for rag­time gave way to that for jazz, there were similar accusa­tions again. Al Jolson was the first big "pop" star of the jazz age. He was the son of a cantor. His hit "Swanee" was George Gershwin's first big success. The charges of senti­mentalizing and parodying African American music are easy to make in Jolson's case. Like many other Jewish vaudeville performers of that era, Jolson did not appear on stage as a Jew. He blacked up his face, playing in the tra­dition of minstrelsy singing ersatz "minstrel" songs.

Jolson's major film, the first "singing talkie," was called The Jazz Singer. Interestingly, in the film Jolson played a popular Jewish blackface singer, Jack Rubin, who became famous for his sentimental songs. Unusually, this film told a Jewish story. It portrayed the conflict between the old ways, depicted by Rubin's father, a traditional can­tor, and the new ways of America, represented by Rubin's Christian girlfriend. The message was essentially assimi­lationist. Despite the film's success, it was a one-off: The major companies backed away from producing other obvi­ously Jewish films. The film's title showed how the word "jazz" was becoming loosely used. It is highly debatable whether Jolson, or the character he played in the film, should properly be termed a "jazz singer."

Other Jewish composers and musicians, who had a deep-seated feel for jazz, would have certainly disputed Jolson's claims to be a jazz singer. Harold Arlen (nee Hyman Arluck), to a much greater extent than Irving Berlin, respected the black musical traditions from which he was borrowing. Indeed, Arlen specifically took pride in writing for black jazz singers at Harlem's Cotton Club, including most notably Cab Calloway.

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Michael Billig

Michael Billig is professor of social sciences at Loughborough University.