A Right to Sing the Blues

Jeffrey Melnick, an assistant professor of American Studies at Babson College, confronts the traditional belief that, until the social upheavals of the 1960’s, African Americans and Jews were unified by a shared history of the Exodus story of the Old Testament and their oppression as ethnic minorities. Arguing against this simplistic explanation, Melnick demonstrates how Jewish performers and composers used Broadway and Tin Pan Alley to establish a White ethnic identity using Black folk material. Jews, Melnick argues, whether through complicity with Black culture, or exploitation of it, were able to achieve social acceptance and establish their masculine sexual power through this world of music. His scholarly analysis is rooted in a thorough knowledge of American cultural history and supported by copious endnotes.

Readers less familiar with cultural theory, however, will find this material interesting. Such performers as Eddie Cantor and Al Jolson adapted the blackface minstrel tradition to their own purposes to succeed in films in ways that Black performers could not. George Gershwin journeyed to South Carolina where he adopted a Black lifestyle and appearance, attempting to establish his ethnic credentials as the composer of Porgy and Bess by becoming a “white Negro.” A popular myth about Irving Berlin’s “little colored boy,” who was rumored to be his inspiration, references the master-slave relationship and sexual issues that further complicate the history of Black-Jewish relationships.

Jeffrey Melnick’s style in A Right to Sing the Blues: African Americans, Jews, and American Popular Song is clear and readable and presents original insights into the troubled history of these ethnic relationships. He believes that these popular myths must be confronted before issues between African Americans and Jews can be intelligently discussed.