Jewish influences on 20th-century American music

By Robert Gluck/JNS.org 

Click photo to download. Caption: A publicity photo of Irving Berlin taken in 1906. Credit: Life magazine images via Wikimedia Commons.

Discuss these names—Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Benny Goodman—with author/musician Ben Sidran, and you will understand how being Jewish, the Jews’ hunger to fit in, and their ease at doing so helped shape both the core of their identity and many of America’s greatest songs. 

“Jews in America were able to access a popular imagination because they were, in some ways, experts at being outsiders wanting to be accepted. They had a long tradition of this. A lot of people have speculated that this kind of alienation is a key component to the Jewish identity, and without it, the Jewish identity might well be in jeopardy,” Sidran, author of “There Was A Fire: Jews, Music and the American Dream,” tells JNS.org. 

Experts cite Irving Berlin, born Israel Baline in Russia in 1888 before being raised on New York City’s Lower East Side, as the first major Jewish songwriter to influence the American songbook. Berlin rejuvenated music from the bottom up, according to Sidran. 

“An important part of the story is the connection of the Jewish tradition to the popular tradition,” Sidran says. “The initial connection was with the Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment period of 18-19th century Europe), the popular Yiddish writers in the Pale of Settlement, and how important it was. The Jewish community recognized early on the importance of having the liturgical, spiritual and historical information translated into Yiddish, into the popular language, not just in Hebrew, so that it became a synthesis between the higher aspirations of a culture and the everyday life of the culture. This is one of the things that continues today.”

Berlin published his first song, “Marie from Sunny Italy,” in 1907 and in 1911 had his first major international hit, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” which sparked an international dance craze in places as far away as his native Russia. Known for writing music and lyrics in the American vernacular (uncomplicated, simple, and direct), Berlin’s aim was to reach the heart of the average American, who he saw as the real soul of the country.

During his 60-year career, Berlin wrote an estimated 1,500 songs, as well as the scores for 19 Broadway shows and 18 Hollywood films. “There’s No Business like Show Business” and “White Christmas” are among his most famous songs, and his work has been sung and recorded by such renowned artists as Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, Billie Holiday, and Ella Fitzgerald. 

Click photo to download. Caption: Musician Ben Sidran, author of “There Was A Fire: Jews, Music and the American Dream,” performs in France in 2011. Sidran spoke with JNS.org about Jewish influences on 20th-century American music. Credit: Courtesy of Ben Sidran.

“Only 19 years old, just five years after moving out of the family apartment and onto the streets, Irving Berlin became not just a legitimate American songwriter, but a role model for many future songwriters,” Sidran says. “A man who could neither read nor write music, but who spoke the people’s English.” 

Berlin’s father was a cantor, and according to Laurence Bergreen, author of “As Thousands Cheer: The Life of Irving Berlin,” it was singing in synagogue with his father that gave Berlin his musical background. Bergreen notes that Jerome Kern said that Berlin “had no place in American music, he was American music.”

“I take that to mean that [Berlin] wrote on so many themes, personal and patriotic, and in so many styles--Jewish, Irish, Italian, romantic, patriotic, Russian, [and] ragtime--that his words and music were deeply imbued in all of American popular music,” Bergreen tells JNS.org.

Bergreen says Berlin, like other immigrant songwriters, especially Jewish and Irish, became an adept copycat.

“He could sound like almost any ethnic group you could name,” Bergreen says. “That is revealing of his immigrant origins, and his artistically fruitful search for a musical and a personal identity in the New World. When you compare and contrast his original name, Israel Baline, with the name he took as an adult, Irving Berlin, a transformation but not a disguise, you can see in capsule form how he grew into the artist and icon he became. But throughout his life, he thought of himself, and his friends knew him as, ‘Izzy Baline.’” 

Composer George Gershwin called Berlin “the greatest songwriter that has ever lived.” Gershwin himself, according to Sidran, was a “gifted musician who wanted to be part of the Jewish composers in the transitional period, and even considered composing for the Yiddish theater.”  

Born Jacob Gershovitz in Brooklyn in 1898, Gershwin began playing piano at age 12. He grew up in nearly 30 different apartments, from Harlem to Coney Island. At age 15, he quit school to work as a professional musician. 

Gershwin’s compositions spanned both popular and classical genres, and his most popular melodies are widely known. Among his best-known works are the orchestral compositions “Rhapsody in Blue,” “An American in Paris,” and the opera “Porgy and Bess.” Berlin and Gershwin would pave the way for many other Jewish musical greats, including Jerome Kern, Benny Goodman, and Bob Dylan.

Kern, a composer of musical theater, wrote 700 songs used in more than 100 stage works, including the songs from the hit musical “Show Boat.” He collaborated with other Jewish artists—Oscar Hammerstein II, Ira Gershwin, and E.Y. Harburg.

“‘Show Boat’ was the jewel in the crown of many Jewish composers interested in writing the American opera,” Sidran says. 

Born in Chicago, the ninth of 12 children of poor Jewish immigrants from the Russian empire, Benny Goodman became a strong clarinetist at an early age and started playing professionally in bands.

“Goodman looked like an accountant, but he was America’s first rock star because he could swing,” Sidran says. “His popular songs helped create the dance craze.”

Goodman is remembered for his August 21, 1935 gig at the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles, where fans, primed by radio airplay of his tunes to hear him in person, broke into wild applause. News reports spread word of the enthusiastic dancing and exciting new music. The “Jitterbug” appeared as a new dance craze, and radio broadcasts carried the band’s performances across the nation. 

Two decades later, a famed song that was written by Jews would inspire Bob Dylan’s career.

“Bob grew up listening to his transistor radio and once said it was Elvis Presley singing ‘Hound Dog’ in 1956 that made him want to be a performer,” Sidran says. “He said it was the performance and it didn’t matter who wrote the song. But of course the song wasn’t just there. It was written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, a couple of Jewish kids carrying on the tradition that went back to Gershwin and Berlin, constructing songs out of the raw cultural materials at hand.”

What is behind Jewish success in making songs? A major factor is what Sidran calls “contextualizing.”

“If you go back into the basic Jewish tradition, the Jews are more interested in the question than the answer,” he says. “This constant questioning is a way of contextualizing, not only the information you’re seeking, but the Jewish life. It’s how you live your life. If you read Torah, Jews are constantly arguing with God and they’re not getting an answer. They’re getting a discussion of which they’re a part. This is a core example of contextualizing. Things are connected. In particular reading the Talmud, the ongoing discussion is so important.”

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Posted on December 8, 2013 and filed under Arts, Features, U.S..