Jews, Race and Popular Music
Ravvin, Norman, Journal of Religion and Popular Culture
Jews, Race and Popular Music Jon Stratton, Jews, Race and Popular Music. Surrey: Ashgate, 2009. 238 pp. $99.95 USD (Hardcover) ISBN: 978 0 75466 804 6
In Jews, Race and Popular Music Jon Stratton tells a good story with academic rigour and care for detail. His true focus is the cultural arena where ideas of blackness, Jewishness and whiteness have overlapped, and his most telling chapters focus on the way that Jewish performers and composers positioned themselves in American music by adapting styles commonly understood as black. This phenomenon can be traced to the 1920s and 1930s when, in the American mainstream, Jews themselves were thought of as being racially "negroid." Stratton describes, with attentiveness to specific songs and vocal stylings, the shared characteristics of early torch singers, such as the Jewish Fanny Brice and Sophie Tucker, alongside figures like Mamie Smith and Ethel Waters. He conveys the kind of singing shared by these performers--emotionally expressive, robust, often making use of contralto and falsetto in ways that were considered "hot." As well, he examines the connotations of such singing for black and white audiences. (Aspects of this were not American at all, but brought from Paris by Florenz Ziegfeld, through his presentation of the French singer Mistinguett.) Further complicating this picture is the fact that the "great majority of torch songs" of the era were written by Jews. This latter point reflects the complicated way that musical forms were shared by Jewish and black singers and composers. It is probably too simple to say, as Stratton does, that Jews were "mediators" of blackness on its way to white audiences, when in fact, something more complete in terms of shared creative influence was in play.
Stratton's study avoids stereotypic arguments about what represents "authentic" black or Jewish art forms. But issues of authenticity arise in his chapter "Jews and Blues: The Jewish Involvement in the 1960s Blues Revival." Here Stratton draws a sharp distinction between the American folk revival of the early 1960s, whose resources he sees rising out of a recovery of white Appalachian songs and styles and the more rebellious effort on the part of young blues devotees to reinvigorate the black Chicago blues tradition. He attributes the desire after black styles and voicings to Jewish musicians' disillusionment with an incomplete and unsatisfying "whitening" of post-war Jewish life in the American suburbs. The blues, he argues, allowed Jewish musicians to express an "uncivility," which was offensive to the white middle class, and, as well, to assert what Stratton describes as a "new," if sublimated, "assertion of ethnic identity. …