A Right to Sing the Blues: African Americans, Jews, and American Popular Song

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9780674769762: A Right to Sing the Blues: African Americans, Jews, and American Popular Song

All too often an incident or accident, such as the eruption in Crown Heights with its legacy of bitterness and recrimination, thrusts Black-Jewish relations into the news. A volley of discussion follows, but little in the way of progress or enlightenment results--and this is how things will remain until we radically revise the way we think about the complex interactions between African Americans and Jews. A Right to Sing the Blues offers just such a revision.

"Black-Jewish relations," Jeffrey Melnick argues, has mostly been a way for American Jews to talk about their ambivalent racial status, a narrative collectively constructed at critical moments, when particular conflicts demand an explanation. Remarkably flexible, this narrative can organize diffuse materials into a coherent story that has a powerful hold on our imagination. Melnick elaborates this idea through an in-depth look at Jewish songwriters, composers, and perfomers who made "Black" music in the first few decades of this century. He shows how Jews such as George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Al Jolson, and others were able to portray their "natural" affinity for producing "Black" music as a product of their Jewishness while simultaneously depicting Jewishness as a stable white identity. Melnick also contends that this cultural activity competed directly with Harlem Renaissance attempts to define Blackness.

Moving beyond the narrow focus of advocacy group politics, this book complicates and enriches our understanding of the cultural terrain shared by African Americans and Jews.

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About the Author:

Jeffrey Melnick is Assistant Professor of American Studies at Babson College. He is coeditor of two forthcoming books: Race and the Modernist Artist and American Popular Music: A Twentieth-Century Reader.

Review:

Did Jews embrace the blackface masks and popular song of minstrel shows--the style, language, and nuance of black culture--as a means of establishing their own status as whites? Melnick answers that provocative question with this wide-angle view, through the lens of popular American music, of black-Jewish relationships. (Booklist, an "Editor's Choice 1999" selection)

In his complex and challenging book, A Right to Sing the Blues, Jeffrey Melnick seeks to interpret the narrative of 'Black-Jewish relations' within the context of the efforts of Jews in the American entertainment business to 'reorganize Jewishness as a species of whiteness'...Melnick's analysis is intriguing and provocative. (James C. Cobb Times Literary Supplement)

Links between blacks, Jews and American popular music are the focus in a title which examines Jewish songwriters, composers and performers who made black music popular in the first few decades of this century. The focus on shared experiences between Afro-Americans and Jews draws some important connections between ethnic groups often at odds with one another. (Bookwatch)

This is fascinating reading for those interested in music history, relationships between blacks and Jews, and American popular culture. (Vernon Ford Booklist)

At the core of this inventive and entertaining examination of black-Jewish relationships is Melnick's theory that Jews embraced the blackface masks and popular song of minstrel shows--the style, language, and nuance of black culture--as a means of establishing their own status as whites. (Booklist)

Melnick's well-researched book explores Black-Jewish relations through the lens of US popular music in the 'age of ragtime and jazz,' when Jews became consummate minstrel and vaudeville interpreters, Tin Pan Alley songsmiths, and song publishers...Melnick argues that Jews used their black musical forms for popular consumption and in the process to 'reorganize Jewishness as a species of whiteness.' (G. Averill Choice)

Melnick uses the music industry to examine closely the nature of [the] ambivalent relationship [between Jews and African Americans]. Focusing on Jewish Tin Pan Alley song writers and performers such as George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, and Al Jolson, Melnick explores how they balanced an affinity for black music with the conscious effort to show how they were transforming what was seen as a lower form of culture into something more palatable for mass white audiences. (Dan Bogey Library Journal)

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