Jablonski, Marek (Michael)


(vi) Popular music: Tin Pan Alley and Broadway



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(vi) Popular music: Tin Pan Alley and Broadway.


Life in Russia was harsh for Jews in the latter half of the 19th century. From 1869 onwards they were emigrating at the rate of about 4000 every year. Following the assassination of the relatively liberal Tsar Aleksandr II and the accession of the less benevolent Aleksandr III, pogroms and draconian new legislation became for many the last straw. The provision of cheap transport to the USA, the prospect of freedom and the ‘promise’ of a good income in the goldene medine (Yiddish: ‘golden land’) were irresistible to poor and frightened Jews. The fact that many had to suffer the pain of separation from their families in the ‘old country’, and were forced to function as little more than slave labourers in the sweatshops of New York's Lower East Side, did not inhibit endless waves of desperate emigrants from seeking a new life.

By 1900, about half a million east European Jewish refugees had arrived in North America, and of the one and a quarter million who reached the USA between 1900 and 1924, the vast majority remained in New York, their port of entry. The culture shock was overwhelming for these mainly Orthodox Jews coming into daily contact with the vast and varied minority groups that comprised the city's population, then as today.

Gradually, however, they and their children began to take an active part in the cultural life of the metropolis. Many, having been cantors or traditional folksingers, gravitated towards the Yiddish theatres on the Lower East Side for their entertainment. Two of the most famous songs of the inter-war period were Jack Yellen's ‘A yiddishe mame’ (1925) – as immortalized by Sophie Tucker – and Sholom Secunda's ‘Bay mir bistu sheyn’ (1933) – made famous by the Barry Sisters. These and many others like them had a deep impact upon American popular taste at large. But gradually the fascination that some Jews felt for the unfamiliar cultures on their doorstep led them to investigate different ethnic, social and religious themes. The most clearly identifiable pre-existing musical traditions were those of the English settlers from the 17th century, the Irish from the 18th, the black Americans from the 18th and 19th, and the Italians from the 19th. The two main creative outlets for assimilated Jewish composers were Tin Pan Alley and the Broadway musical.

Since about 1885, New York had been the focal point for the popular music industry. A new generation of ambitious publishers made energetic use of the latest techniques in market research to select the most commercially viable music and to bring it to the attention of an enthusiastic public. ‘Tin Pan Alley’ was situated on West 28th Street between Fifth Avenue and Broadway. Crowded buildings housed hundreds of offices, each with its own ill-tuned piano. The owner of a particularly well-known emporium favoured the sound of piano strings wound in silver paper – hence the name of the district. In the heyday of printed sheet music, thousands of songs were produced in a steady stream; and by 1900 about 100 composers could boast sales of a million copies each.

Before 1910 the Tin Pan Alley idiom was prevalent, but thereafter a small number of talented composers dominated the scene with long series of songs in individual and immediately recognizable styles. Although a few of Irving Berlin's earliest songs (c1909–12) contain Jewish references, some of his best-known pieces show the influence of the wider world (White Christmas and Easter Parade). This may be seen as a metaphor for the general ethos adopted by most Tin Pan Alley composers, who wanted to be identified as American rather then Jewish. Many both espoused and rejected the heritage of their birth, on the one hand following the Jewish observance of important life-cycle events, and on the other marrying a non-Jewish spouse. Very few of their songs expressed a Jewish content, whereas many reflected a Jewish context: the home, the family and emigration from the native homeland.

The composers who became successful on Tin Pan Alley also wrote musicals for Broadway. Similarities in family background and experience allowed for many creative partnerships: composers worked closely with lyricists, librettists, directors, orchestrators, choreographers, set designers, stage technicians, actors and musicians. Although Harold Arlen, Irving Berlin and Kurt Weill were the sons of cantors, they and many other such as Leonard Bernstein, Oscar Hammerstein, Jerome Kern, Richard Rodgers and Sigmund Romberg, preferred black American, Puerto Rican, Mid-West, Scottish, French, Siamese, Chinese, Malaysian and Polynesian scenarios and musical material – in thoroughly westernized guises – as vehicles for their exploration of issues such as urban violence, class struggle and the American Dream. However, research into George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess has revealed the presence in ‘It ain't necessarily so’ of certain Ashkenazi prayer motifs used during the traditional barekhu blessing before and after the chanting of the Bible. And phrases resembling those of the synagogal adonai malakh mode may be detected, for example, in ‘Porgy, I's your woman now’. Since Gershwin served his apprenticeship with the important Yiddish theatre composers Abraham Goldfaden and Joseph Rumshinsky at the National Theater on Second Avenue (see above, §IV, 2(iii) (b)), it is hardly surprising that youthful impressions and influences should have found their way into several of his mature works. However, a projected operetta for the Yiddish theatre in collaboration with Sholom Secunda, and a proposed opera on the subject of The Dybbuk for the New York Metropolitan Opera, never reached fruition.

Traditional Jewish modal structures and linguistic forms are also to be found throughout Jerry Bock's Fiddler on the Roof (1964), one of the few Broadway musicals to confront specifically Jewish issues. This work is based on a set of short stories by the celebrated Yiddish author Sholom Aleichem. The Mixolydian flavour of the opening theme of ‘If I were a rich man’ and the ambiguity between major and minor 3rds throughout the song recall the salient characteristics of the adonai malakh mode, and the use of certain repeated syllables reflects a practice typical of the hasidic Jews.

The close relationships between the improvisational elements in jazz and in the cantorial recitative, between the syncopated rhythms of jazz and klezmer music, and between the ethos of subjugation to be found in black American and Jewish lyrics alike, all point to an immediate affinity linking the traditions that the east European immigrants brought with them and those they found on arrival.

In the 1920s Tin Pan Alley expanded in two directions: in its original form, to 42nd and 50th Streets in New York; and, with the development of the film industry, to Hollywood. The first film to be produced with a continuous soundtrack was The Jazz Singer (1927). It featured Al Jolson, the son of an immigrant Lithuanian rabbi and cantor, and the music included many traditional Jewish cantorial recitatives. The Jewish presence in the music of the film studio has been preserved by numerous composers, notably, Erich Walter Korngold in the early part of the 20th century and Maurice Jarre in more recent times.

From simple beginnings the structure, melody and harmony of Tin Pan Alley songs became more and more complex: superimposed upon triads were 7ths and 9ths, added 2nd and 6ths, augmented and diminished chords, remote modulations and elements drawn from the classical and jazz composers of the time. The genre possessed a resilience that enabled it to survive the Wall Street Crash and two World Wars. Contemporary artists such as Bob Dylan, and Simon and Garfunkel are among the many direct heirs of the Jewish popular music tradition.



Jewish music


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