Wednesday, November 22, 2006


Jody Rosen was a graduate student of Jewish History at University College London when he discovered and compiled a tad of early twentieth/late nineteenth century ephemera that parallels, and further complicates, an era of popular music that looms like...well... like blackface. That toxic style of music and entertainment from the primordial soup days of pop music that academia so loves to explore, albeit with tweezers at the end of a twelve foot pole, was called minstrel music. And it apparently stood aside another fierce pillar of racial prejudism: Jewish Minstrel shows. It's a strange testament to our great American culture. You know, the xenophobic one?

All the usual Vaudevillian suspects are here: Al Jolson of The Jazz Singer(whose parents were Jewish immigrants), Sophie Tucker (also a Jewish immigrant), Belle Baker, Fanny Brice (the Streisand's Funny Girl and daughter of, guess what?! Jewish immigrants), and countless other Jewish or non-Jewish actors and actresses. They would don their Jew apparel to appear like a Jewish man or Woman, with large nose and jutting ears, and play " a hodgepodge of Jewish stereotypes old and new, both a crafty grasper and a bumbling immigrant greenhorn" says Rosen in the liner notes.

Irving Berlin, the penner of "God Bless America" and "White Christmas," was the prince of Tin Pan Alley, and a Jew like many of the other Tin Pan Alley ragtimers. He wrote this shining piece of brilliance: "Cohen Owes Me 97 Dollars" about an old Jewish man that tries to collect all of the debts owed him before he dies. A real "Highway to the Danger Zone" of Jewish Minstrel music, a crowd favorite.

It is pretty well known that there were numerous black men and women performing in minstrel shows, but probably not to the same extent that there were white men (sometimes women) painting rouge lips, shining shoe-polish faces, spouting out a series of racially charged jokes on stage to not-shoe-polish-faced audiences. However, the racially charged Jewface (probably done less because shoe-polish was cheaper than prosthetic noses and beards) seems like it was ubiquitously written and performed by Jews themselves. Why?

Its a fascinating testament to the importance of the American music machine (versificator?) that Jews were making names for themselves while writing and performing prejudist songs about themselves.
It appears a moment of simultaneous self-parody and a declaration of a unified "here"-ness. Was it perhaps because of a unified lack of Jewish cultural identification with America that these new Americans felt the need to resort to self-parody, self-deprecation to survive? Its obvious that blackface minstrelsy was so much harder to forget because it was much more widespread, but how is it that "Jewface" has utterly escaped 99% of our radars until 2006?

These are, of course, rhetorical questions that I have neither the gall, nor the research to answer in my humble music blog. (Pittman, you're in the bullpen for this one)

However, after exploring the awesome Cylinder Preservation and Digitization Project based from UC Santa Barbara, I managed to find a couple of these for you to hear and ... enjoy?

When Mose With his Nose Leads the Band
This one is about a conductor named "Mose" who literally conducts a band with his humongous Jewish nose, because, you know, Jews have big noses. All of them.

My Friends, Morris and Max
Apparently Jews playing Pinochle is a stereotype that I have yet to use on a Jew. I can't wait.


Alex said...

I have no idea what to say about any of this. I read that Voice article about it earlier this afternoon and was left kinda speechless. Didn't Rosen put out a CD of "jewface" music? I understand he also wants it performed, which, again, I don't know what to do with.

Cap'n Guthrie said...

yeah, I guess I forgot to mention that. the jewface picture at the top of this entry is the cover of the CD if I understand it correctly.