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Reviewed by:
  • A Right to Sing the Blues: African Americans, Jews, and American Popular Song
  • Vernon J. Williams Jr.
A Right to Sing the Blues: African Americans, Jews, and American Popular Song, by Jeffrey Melnick. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999. 277 pp. $27.95.

The beliefs and values of peoples play a significant role in determining the course of history, for the way events are interpreted is often a result of the particular religious or social beliefs held sacred by a people. People react in terms of what they perceive to be true, and often no amount of debunking—however artful—can change these perceptions. In light of this phenomenon, this reviewer finds Jeffrey Melnick’s demythologizing [End Page 175] of Black-Jewish relations in his A Right to Sing the Blues: African Americans, Jews, and American Popular Song to be disturbing, yet interesting.

On a general level, Melnick’s beautifully written and often humorous polemic is an attempt to demythologize or interrogate—to use his terms—the “popular rhetorical formation” of “‘Black-Jewish relations.’” This rhetorical formation, which the author states cogently, “has privileged racial-historical analogy over class disparity,” is “a romantic tale told about the relative unimportance of class status in melting pot America” (p. 10). Melnick, who recognizes the significance of mythologies as ideals, admits that this Black-Jewish “myth holds out the utopian (post-class or trans-class) possibilities of liberal democracy” (p. 10). And he concedes that from the turn of the twentieth century until the 1950s, the myth was sufficiently malleable to explain “the relationship of these two groups [Blacks and Jews] as natural and abiding” (p. 10). He notes, however, that since the 1950s the disparities in power—both economic and cultural—between Blacks and Jews have turned this mythology into what is tantamount to a bad marriage.

Perhaps more controversial is Melnick’s contention that the relations between Blacks and Jews have been masculinist in their orientations. He argues unequivocally that a focus on women would have been “deal-breaking”—primarily because such a mythology would involve issues of miscegenation and domestic labor relations. In short, the author demonstrates convincingly that the mythology has “generally taken place between representatives of male-dominated secular and religious organizations who ... understood the subject matter to be themselves” (p. 11).

On a specific level, this book is a case study of Black and Jewish musicians and writers. Melnick investigates how Jews in the music business during the years between 1890 and 1935 “used their privileged positions to make a number of clear arguments about their status as Jews, and did so particularly by situating themselves at the center of what most people understood to be “‘Black music’” (p. 14). He buttresses this argument by reconstructing the concrete and symbolic interaction between such Jewish musicians and writers as Ira Berlin, Jerome Kern, Al Jolson, Harold Arlen, George Gershwin, Eddie Cantor, and Sophie Tucker, and African Americans such as Fats Waller, Scott Joplin, Andy Razaf, and James Weldon Johnson. From those interactions came the myth that the “Jewish elevation (or, for some, exploitation) of African-American-derived materials explained American popular music of the early twentieth century” (p. 58). Melnick thinks most Jewish musicians and writers “were able to advertise their Black roots with absolute confidence that they would not personally be taken for anything but white” (p. 136).

Having exposed what he thinks to be the “‘true’” nature of Black-Jewish relations, Melnick goes on to argue that these relations are neither epistemological nor ontological, but rhetorical. Thus, he concludes that the mythology “threatens to deviate too far from lived experience to continue to have meaning in a progressive context” (p. 206) [End Page 176] and, as a result, must be reoriented.

I have one reservation in reference to this excellent book: The cynicism that pervades this work and the absence of suggestions of how to reorient Black-Jewish relations to my mind raises serious doubts about whether the relationship—as Melnick has characterized it—continues to have meaning.

Vernon J. Williams Jr.
Professor of History and American Studies
Purdue University

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pp. 175-177
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