- There Was a Fire: Jews, Music, and the American Dream by Ben Sidran
Ben Sidran’s self-published book There Was a Fire (his publisher, Nardis, is Sidran backwards) presents the dilemma of subjecting an artist-cum-scholar to academic review. Sidran has extensive experience in the American popular music business, having produced and recorded numerous albums, worked in several musical genres, obtained a PhD in 1970, and released the “Jewish jazz” album Life’s a Lesson in 1993. Such background could have produced an interesting contribution to the emerging literature on Jews in the recording industry. Sidran’s choice to overextend his ambitions into a broad history of Jews in American music, however, offers little of scholarly value. Short on primary research and long on secondhand anecdotes, this [End Page 131] sermonic book and accompanying lecture CD (recorded at Los Angeles’s Skirball Cultural Center in January 2006) rehashes rather than enlightens.
In telling his story, Sidran largely repackages the secondary literature he knows—biographies, journalistic accounts, and some historical scholarship—to emphasize Jews’ presence in and contributions to the American music industry. The resulting look-at-all-the-Jews safari presents American popular music as if it emerged from a largely homogenous Jewish communal experience in America. Jews, to Sidran, dominated everything from Tin Pan Alley to the Brill Building to Payola through the common trope of seeking acceptance—a perspective he emphasizes further on the CD. He consequently covers most of the major figures expected of Jews in popular music surveys, including Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Harold Arlen, Bob Dylan, Simon & Garfunkel, Steely Dan, and the Beastie Boys, with a number of lesser known songwriters and music executives added to the mix.
Sidran follows a common technique in popular music writing by providing a torrent of details on his topic, reflecting an intimacy with the subject and insider knowledge of the music scene. But in this case those details ultimately serve a moral argument: Sidran calls on today’s Jews to reconnect with their communal roots in what he sees as a time of existential crisis. And perhaps predictably for someone of his generation, rap, hip-hop, and new technology take the fall for weakening a previously strong social and moral fabric. (As with most other topics in this book, his claim ignores decades of nuanced scholarly discussion, from Tricia Rose’s fundamental 1994 study Black Noise onward.) This technique can give the reader a feeling of immediacy; yet rather than scrutinizing his material, Sidran largely takes it at face value, carefully assembling facts from other books into a self-affirming claim for the place of Jewish identity in modern America, complete with proper apologetics (Jews may have exploited African Americans in the 1940s, for example, but everyone was exploiting everyone at the time [142–43]). Determined to show Jews’ “influence” in the pop music industry, he peppers the text with unsupported generalizations, such as “all the stories in the Bible were once magical songs” (6), “to have the story support the music [in musical theater] was a very Jewish concept” (51), “the Jews didn’t put the danger into the music [of the 1950s]; they gave that danger a context and a story” (166), “[the] resolution of apparent opposites . . . is directly connected to the classic Jewish experience” (198), and several unexplained references to artists’ “Talmudic” actions.
These details lead to flights of fantasy, reproduced truism, and occasionally outright error. At the start of both his book and lecture, for example, [End Page 132] Sidran claims that Jews, at about 2% of the American population, are responsible for about 80% of America’s popular music—and then readily admits that he made up the figure (11). He calls cantillation symbols “talmim” rather than “te’amim” (9) and oddly attributes the Ramones’ use of Nazi imagery to Stockholm Syndrome (230). Several names of figures he doesn’t know personally are misspelled (Fiddler on the Roof creators Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick become “Bach” and “Harneck” , for example). His citations can be careless and incomplete...