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A Right to Sing the Blues: African Americans, Jews, and American Popular Song / Edition 1

A Right to Sing the Blues: African Americans, Jews, and American Popular Song / Edition 1

by Jeffrey Melnick


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All too often an incident or accident, such as the eruption in Crown Heights with its legacy of bitterness and recrimination, thrusts Black-Jewish relations into the news. A volley of discussion follows, but little in the way of progress or enlightenment results—and this is how things will remain until we radically revise the way we think about the complex interactions between African Americans and Jews. A Right to Sing the Blues offers just such a revision.

"Black-Jewish relations," Jeffrey Melnick argues, has mostly been a way for American Jews to talk about their ambivalent racial status, a narrative collectively constructed at critical moments, when particular conflicts demand an explanation. Remarkably flexible, this narrative can organize diffuse materials into a coherent story that has a powerful hold on our imagination. Melnick elaborates this idea through an in-depth look at Jewish songwriters, composers, and perfomers who made "Black" music in the first few decades of this century. He shows how Jews such as George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Al Jolson, and others were able to portray their "natural" affinity for producing "Black" music as a product of their Jewishness while simultaneously depicting Jewishness as a stable white identity. Melnick also contends that this cultural activity competed directly with Harlem Renaissance attempts to define Blackness.

Moving beyond the narrow focus of advocacy group politics, this book complicates and enriches our understanding of the cultural terrain shared by African Americans and Jews.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780674005662
Publisher: Harvard
Publication date: 03/16/2001
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Jeffrey Melnick is Associate Professor of American Studies at University of Massachusetts Boston.

Table of Contents

Introduction: The Languages of Black-Jewish Relations

"Yiddle on Your Fiddle": The Culture of Black-Jewish Relations

"I Used to Be Color Blind": The Racialness of Jewish Men

"Swanee Ripples": From Blackface to White Negro

"Lift Ev'ry Voice": African American Music and the Nation

"Melancholy Blues": Making Jews Sacred in African American Music

Epilogue: The Lasting Power of "Black-Jewish Relations"



What People are Saying About This

George Hutchinson

A Right to Sing the Blues will be indispensable to any further discussion of 'Black-Jewish relations,' debunking many of the assumptions underlying that discussion in its past form and thus making possible far more productive ones. I learned a great deal from this book.
George Hutchinson, author of The Harlem Renaissance in Black and White

Michael P. Rogin

Jeff Melnick means to displace the narrative of a Black-Jewish political alliance as the central, mythicized way of understanding the relations between Blacks and Jews in the United States. He goes back instead to the central role of Jews vis-à-vis African Americans and African-American music in popular culture, and how, finally, Jews developed new identities as American Jews through their relation to real and imaginary African Americans and their music. Filled with terrific material that is unfailingly analyzed in a smart, lively, and often brilliant way, A Right to Sing the Blues is a major book on a major and timely subject. This volume is going to cause quite a stir.
Michael P. Rogin, author of Blackface, White Noise

Hazel V. Carby

Melnick argues that we need to rethink the cultural narratives of 'Black-Jewish relations' and examine the ways in which these narratives tell stories about class and articulate concerns about masculinity and sexuality. In a compelling account of the music industry, in particular, and the culture industry, in general, he examines how Jews and African Americans were not just objects of a sexualized discourse around jazz and ragtime but how the musical world was a terrain in which they spoke to and about each other. A Right to Sing the Blues is an absolutely fascinating and original account of the role of Jewish cultural work in the production of African American culture.
Hazel V. Carby, author of Race Men

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