Rock 'N' Roll Jews

The Jewish contribution to the development of rock music

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Not surprisingly in a time of political and cultural change, the sounds of pop music developed. In this new era, the back-room composers lost their supreme niche as so many of the new singers were writing their own mater­ial. Indeed they were expected to do so. Pop was changing. A more educated, middle-class type of person was begin­ning to use rock as a means of expression. More complex, even poetic, lyrics were being written. Here again, there was a solid Jewish contribution. Foremost among the singer-songwriters of this era we find Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Lou Reed, and Leonard Cohen--all raised as Jews and all, indelibly, leaving a mark on their times.

What counts in all this are numbers. One notable figure proves little. The fact that Bob Dylan was Jewish does not in itself suggest anything about the relations between Jews and popular music. But the fact that Paul Simon, Lou Reed, and Leonard Cohen's names can also he added indicates that here might be something of more historical and cultural significance. It is the same with the names of composers and producers of rock's first decade.

One Jew writing hit songs might be of interest to fam­ily and the local Jewish press. Two Jews--and the pro­fessional anti-Semites start to get interested, suspecting a conspiracy. Three Jews--this might just be a sign of a wider cultural trend. In the case of rock's early history, the numbers involved are well beyond the level of chance.

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Michael Billig

Michael Billig is professor of social sciences at Loughborough University.