Anyone who has ever watched a silent film or an old cartoon knows that the soundtrack is a vital component of the story. A few bars of a melody could indicate anything from where the action was occurring to a character’s physical or emotional state, with the tune itself frequently serving as a punchline. While this might seem harmless enough if the joke being made was that a character had fallen in love or was a bit tipsy, what happens when the musical snippets are being used to reference or mock a particular ethnic group, as was often the case in the early 20th century? This was the key issue addressed by Associate Professor of Music Daniel Goldmark in a lecture delivered last Friday afternoon.
The lecture, entitled “Musical Stereotyping: American Jewry in Early 20th Century Mass Media,” was part of a colloquium series presented by the English Department, and addressed the role of music in creating or perpetuating Jewish stereotypes from the 1890s through the 1930s by focusing on topics both specific—how a seven-note musical phrase became the media’s go-to musical indicator of Jewishness—and broad—the development of Tin Pan Alley as an industry, and the pop cultural depiction of various other ethnic groups in music, either alone or in relation to one another.
In the modern era, where copyright enforcement is rampant, sheet music sales are non-existent and accusations of racism usually destroy a performer’s career, it becomes all the more fascinating to study the infancy of the music industry. One of the highlights of Dr. Goldmark’s multimedia lecture was seeing the sheet music covers and lyrics to many of the songs he discussed, as well as hearing recordings of some of them (Who could’ve guessed there were so many songs written about Jewish cowboys?). The lecturer himself even gave a vocal-and-banjolele performance of a song at one point.
During that era, there were multifarious songs published on assorted stereotypical themes as music publishers desperately searched for a new hit, for if one publisher had found success with a song about, say, an Irish-Jewish wedding, the rest were content to piggyback on its success by coming out with suspiciously similar substitutes. Even composers and lyricists who are well-regarded today did their share of ethnic joke songs.
One interesting revelation of the lecture was that Irving Berlin, of “White Christmas” fame, wrote a wide variety of songs on every nationality imaginable in his earlier days in the business; the fact that he was Jewish himself didn’t stop him from penning a ditty entitled “Cohen Owes Me 97 Dollars.” More alarming still was the revelation that Berlin may have unintentionally plagiarized the melody to “God Bless America” from an older song called “When Mose With His Nose Leads the Band.”
While the larger cultural context was helpful to keep in mind, it was in the examination of minutiae where Goldmark most clearly demonstrated how stereotypes could grow so pervasive as to be mistaken for authentic representation. Thanks to the nearly non-existent copyright laws at the turn of the last century, songs from Europe could be published in the United States without authorization from their creators.
One such song, entitled “Khosn, Kale Mazl Tov,” had been a wedding song from a Yiddish theatrical production in the 1890s. Upon reaching America a few years later, it was widely reproduced and became popular enough that it began to be incorporated into other songs, or used in musical scores for silent films with Jewish themes. The original context of the composition was soon lost as its popularity skyrocketed and it became associated with Judaism in the culture at large. Even in recent years, this musical cliché still had enough cultural ubiquity about it to be billed as a “traditional Hebrew wedding song” in songbooks, despite being barely over a century old. It’s a phenomenon perhaps comparable to the musical link that the “snake charmer song” has to the middle or far east in popular culture; that melody dates to the 1890s as well.
The original songwriter wouldn’t have made a penny from the tune’s proliferation, and yet, in America, many Jewish songwriters and others appeared to feel few qualms about exploiting it and similar musical stereotypes. It is admittedly a rather complex situation, but it was clearly and engagingly explained by the lecturer, and it certainly left a lot of food for thought long after the discussion had ended.