Our tradition teaches:
W.C. Handy received the Blue Note in Memphis,
And passed it on to Satchmo, a man of New Orleans,
And he passed it on to Berlin,
And Berlin to Jolson,
And Jolson laid it on the first of the pairs, George and Ira,
Who took the A train to Harlem
And traded licks with the jazzmen of the Duke,
Who khappt to the jive:
'It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing.'
Well, obviously, our tradition doesn't teach this at all. But maybe it should. Let me explain.
Everybody knows that New Orleans gave birth to jazz and the blues. But the Jewish angle to this story is often mistold, or ignored entirely. Perhaps now, as the people of New Orleans recover from their recent catastrophe, American Jews might remember how much we owe to New Orleans, not only in the past, but even now.
It's easy to forget that in every turn-of-the-century urban ghetto in America, Jewish immigrants found the music born in New Orleans a constant counterpoint to their lives. Jewish proletarians heard it in the seductive nightlife of uptown clubs, where it percolated its invitations to America out of open doors; teenaged Jewish truants dipped into it in afternoon vaudeville shows.
Soon they discovered that the mournful minor key of the synagogue's cantorial tradition made sweet harmony with that weeping Blue Note forged in southern cotton fields; and that the raucous klezmer tradition, with its keening horns and violins, caressed the bawdy rags of Scott Joplin.
Who at this distance can say for sure whether the cackling clarinet that begins the Overture to Gershwin's 'Rhapsody in Blue' had its birth in a Hassidic wedding in Vitebsk or in some humid Storyville bordello?
No need to choose. By 1933, Harlem's Cab Calloway had shown the answer is 'both/and,' turning his signature 'hi-dee-hi-dee-ho' into an evocative scat of Ashkenazi cantorial virtuosity in his Yiddish number, 'Utt-a-zay.'
Some Jews made a buck in the business; Jolson for sure, and guys like Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg, who struck paydirt with The Wizard of Oz. But for each of these, there were dozens of anonymous Jewish 'Tin Pan Alley' hacks who barely made a dime. Think of Shalom Secunda, the schlemazel who sold 'Bei Mir Bistu Sheyn' for bupkes, only to see it bust the 1937 pop charts for the Andrews Sisters, and ate his heart out for the rest of his bitter life!
Beyond New Orleans, in the frozen north of Chicago in the '40s, the music picked up electricity and an urban beat. It evolved, under Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, and Little Richard, into the core of early '50s rock 'n' roll.
Jewish boys from Brooklyn, like Doc Pomus (Jerome Felder) and his buddy, Mort Schuman, penned hits for the greatest: Big Joe Turner ('Boogie Woogie Country Girl'), Ray Charles ('Lonely Avenue'), the Coasters ('Youngblood'), and ' my personal favorite ' the Drifters' 'Save the Last Dance for Me.'
A string of Jewish song-writing partnerships with law-firm names'Felder & Schuman, Lieber & Stoller, Goffin & King, Bacharach & David'dominated the American pop radio bands throughout the '50s and early '60s. Of course, that is, until the total transformation of the music under ' you guessed it ' Robert Zimmerman, brought this 'Age of the Pairs' to its end.
Like Jolson, who submerged his Jewishness under blackface to sing Gershwin's 'Sewanee' or Berlin's 'Alexander's Ragtime Band,' this Bar Mitzvah boy from Minnesota (don't you just want to pinch those chubby cheeks he sported on his debut album of 1961!) made the top by re-inventing himself as an American original.
Snagging the name of an Irish poet, and affecting an accent spoken by no living being, 'Bob Dylan' blended the Okie nasality of Woody Guthrie with the down-home drawl of Leadbelly. The results? A voice so authentically American that it would be copied by a generation of suburban garage bands, pretending to be cotton pickin' musical cow pokes.
No doubt ' from Jolson to Dylan ' the legacy of New Orleans has enabled Jews to play a defining role in American popular culture. But perhaps New Orleans' greatest gift to American Jews is only now bearing fruit. The tradition of Jews expressing their Americanness in jazz and the blues has, it seems, begun to carry the burden of Jewish cultural renewal in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
It started tamely in the late '60s. An early symptom was Leonard Cohen's brilliant transformation of the High Holiday Unetaneh Tokef prayer in 'Who By Fire.' Cohen's bittersweet struggle with the religious dimension of his Jewishness continues into even his recent CDs. But the last three decades have seen far more affirmative celebrations of Jewishness framed in the musical idioms born in New Orleans.
A very short list: Shlomo ('He'd Be Nowhere Without Gatemouth Brown's Guitar') Carlebach; the Shlock Rock shlemiels who transformed Chuck Berry's frantic Fender into 'That Old Time Torah Scroll'; Black Hattitude, whose CD of 1994 achieved the unimaginable feat of exploring the longings of the Haredi yeshiva bocher in rap rhythms; and ' God bless him! ' Matisyahu, the Lubavitcher ba'al teshuvah who has transformed reggae into a virtuoso expression of Hassidic longing for the indivisible unity of all being.
Sure, in the scale of Jewish cultural history, New Orleans is no Jerusalem. But, when talk turns to Jewish music, its gotta be up there with Seville, Berlin, Odessa and Salonika! As we contemplate the destruction of New Orleans, perhaps American Jews in particular should feel a particular obligation to be in the front lines of the effort of salvation.
Speaking of Bob Dylan, stay tuned next issue for a review of No Direction Home: The Soundtrack, his seventh in the bootleg series.