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The Boston Phoenix Crossroad Blues

Jeffrey Melnick narrates a rich musical and ethnic history -- from a snide perspective.

By Chris Fujiwara

OCTOBER 25, 1999: 

A Right to Sing the Blues: African Americans, Jews, and American Popular Song by Jeffrey Melnick (Harvard University Press), 276 pages, $27.95.

Jeffrey Melnick tells us right off that he has a new approach to his volatile subject. He takes black-Jewish relations in the entertainment industry not as a "field of activity," but as a rhetorical construct, "a figure of speech, a way of talking about many things -- including, but not limited to, the relationship of African Americans and Jews." This promises a fairly sophisticated level of analysis. It's disappointing, therefore, that what Melnick's study turns up is largely the same old song of African-Americans getting ripped off by Jews, merely transposed to the register of "discourse." For all Melnick's complexity, he creates an impression of Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, and Harold Arlen -- three of America's greatest songwriters -- that's not far from Alain Locke's scurrilous characterization from 1936: "the Shylocks of Tin Pan Alley."

For a book of rhetorical analysis, A Right To Sing the Blues is surprisingly flatfooted in its own rhetorical strategies. Melnick tends to start with generalizations and abstractions, then proceed as if they had already been substantiated, merely alluding to historical data that he has neglected to provide. One of his key assertions is that "Jewish musicians . . . learned to use their access [as Jews] to African Americans and Black music as evidence of their racial health -- that is, of their whiteness." But Melnick never shows convincingly why a Jew would have greater "access" (a word he uses a lot, with increasingly sinister undertones) to black music than any other listener. He tells us over and over that Berlin anxiously sought to distance himself from African-Americans, but the composer's career and public statements, as adduced by Melnick, fail to support this claim. One of the book's refrains is that Gershwin used his Jewishness to bolster his credentials as an interpreter of African-American music; the few quotes Melnick offers to prove this point (mostly from Isaac Goldberg, Gershwin's biographer) don't justify the weight he puts on it.

A tactic Melnick uses repeatedly, and distastefully, is to diminish the stature and impugn the motives of Jewish composers through trivializing word choices. Rhapsody in Blue is not composed, but "concocted." Gershwin's field trip to South Carolina to research African-American music and folklore is a simple-minded "going native" inspired by an earlier "public relations move." Suggestions that Jewish religious tradition had an influence on second-generation Jewish-American composers are dismissed as a "savvy . . . rhetorical construct." Harold Arlen, who "would make much hay out of" his cantor father's musical style, is doling out "mystical-genetic" eyewash in citing it as an influence.

Melnick's snideness might go down easier if he offered any substantive aesthetic criticism of these men's work. But although he sees fit to tell us, for example, that "Gershwin's death at a youthful age no doubt contributed to the inflated proclamations made about his agile talents," musical analysis is apparently outside Melnick's purview. In a chapter that should be crucial to his argument, Melnick contributes nothing meaningful to the question of the similarities between Jewish liturgical music and African-American folk music. (He does hint that attempts to identify such similarities may be part of a quasi-conspiratorial project to justify Jews' theft of black music.) In his one attempt at musicological analysis -- a tortured discussion of a quotation from "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child" in Gershwin's "Summertime" -- Melnick shows a telling ignorance of the function of quotation in music. According to him, "Gershwin's inventive positioning makes it seem as if the African American spiritual is a product of his own lullaby" by which the composer assumes "a Blacker-than-thou Blackness." By the same logic, a jazz soloist who quotes from "Donna Lee" can be accused of trying to steal credit from Charlie Parker.

The book has its strengths. Melnick's study of the history of Jewish blackface performance is fascinating, if incoherent. He's good at questioning the use of such concepts as folk, nation, and authenticity in the discourse about African-American music. He writes incisively about how the concept of "spontaneity" has functioned to allow whites to "depreciate African American music as a primitive folk expression, while also enabling African Americans to mark off the boundaries which, ostensibly, will protect their cultural stuff from theft." For many readers, the book will be valuable simply as an introduction to an endlessly rich and important area of social, ethnic, and musical history. It's too bad the author has such an ax to grind.

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