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 performers 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.
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.
This is fascinating reading for those interested in music history, relationships between blacks and Jews, and American popular culture.
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.
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.
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.
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.’
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.
Melnick argues that we need to rethink the cultural narratives of ‘Black–Jewish relations’ and examine the ways in which these narratives tell stories about class and articulate concerns about masculinity and sexuality. In a compelling account of the music industry, in particular, and the culture industry, in general, he examines how Jews and African Americans were not just objects of a sexualized discourse around jazz and ragtime but how the musical world was a terrain in which they spoke to and about each other. A Right to Sing the Blues is an absolutely fascinating and original account of the role of Jewish cultural work in the production of African American culture.
A Right to Sing the Blues will be indispensable to any further discussion of ‘Black–Jewish relations,’ debunking many of the assumptions underlying that discussion in its past form and thus making possible far more productive ones. I learned a great deal from this book.
Jeff Melnick means to displace the narrative of a Black–Jewish political alliance as the central, mythicized way of understanding the relations between Blacks and Jews in the United States. He goes back instead to the central role of Jews vis-à-vis African Americans and African-American music in popular culture, and how, finally, Jews developed new identities as American Jews through their relation to real and imaginary African Americans and their music. Filled with terrific material that is unfailingly analyzed in a smart, lively, and often brilliant way, A Right to Sing the Blues is a major book on a major and timely subject. This volume is going to cause quite a stir.
- 288 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
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