I was sure Ben Sidran's new book, There was a Fire: Jews, Music and the American Dream, was going to be over my head. The title intimidated me, like the titles of PBS documentaries (the ones that have colons in them).
Of course, I forgot that the University of Sussex-educated musicologist is first, foremost and forever...a hipster. While the Madison music stalwart's deeply researched new work gets highfalutin in stretches, mostly it's funny, insightful, surprising and provocative. Just like its author.
Sidran does something important in these 315 pages. He cuts away stereotypes, myths and misunderstandings that have corrupted the truth behind how Jews and America became one and the same, via popular music.
He begins by sharing doubt about the Jewish rituals of his own upbringing, even questioning the meaningfulness of his own bar mitzvah. Yet the beat of the language, the cadence of the cantor, the sheer performance of it all, captured him and kept him in music all his life. The same happened to a generation.
Although the beginning is personal, the book gets global in a hurry. It's the story of people who turned the challenge of coping as outsiders into a self-propelled deliverance to an inside track.
The first large wave of Jews into America did anything necessary to become American. This may sound like it trivializes being Jewish. Sidran is careful to explain that Jews' hunger to fit in, and their ease at it, are at the core of Jewish identity.
Jews became capitol-C citizens quickly after arriving here. They died on both sides of the Civil War. The Confederate attorney general and President Jefferson Davis' principle aide, Judah P. Benjamin, was a Jew. One of the most popular classical music composers of the mid-19th century, Louis Gottschalk, was a Jew. As was Sitting Bull's interpreter in the 1870s, Julius Meyer.
Sidran uses these examples to illustrate the range of the Jewish presence in early American life. Music - its making and marketing - is shown to be a natural extension of Jewish American enterprise. So much so that Sidran proves Jews did nothing less than "create the songs that America has used to sing itself into existence."
New York was the starting point. By 1910 there were over a half-million Jewish people on Manhattan's Lower East Side. "These dirt-poor mystics, hustlers, dreamers, tumblers, tailors, klezmers, doctors, luftmenschen (intellectuals), rabbis and schlemiels all arrived with their beards and their Yiddish, their music and their learning - and their feel for social justice."
The invention of the sewing machine happened at this time. It let Jews work at home, with no need to work for others. Repair and tailoring were called a "pennies business," literally piecemeal work. But it led to Jews' being able to buy their own retail shops.
Jewish immersion in fashion led to entertainment. The earliest motion pictures could only be seen through the viewfinders of nickelodeon machines, amusements disdained by the WASP majority as low-class fads. Jews purchased the machines and placed them in their clothing shops. Soon they were making more profit from movies than from clothing sales - as much as $700 per day.
One nickelodeon led to owning whole entertainment centers, which led to making films. That led to yet another migration, this time to Hollywood, where, by 1925, the top five studios in the world were "all run by men who had grown up within a few hundred miles of Warsaw."
Like nickelodeons, the selling of songs, whether to stage shows or publishing houses, was a pennies business. Songs became merchandise. Industrious songwriters and businessmen worked their way to owning publishing houses by saving the profits of song sales. Quickly enough, Sidran tells, choosing a life of music, letters or design became a normal, not exceptional, path to take for young Jewish Americans.
The book's early lessons on Jewish commerce and creativity lead to inevitable, fascinating examples of modern-day pioneering. You like outdoor music festivals? Give thanks to Max Yasgur and Woodstock. Dig you some folk rock? Hats off to Bobby Zimmerman. Jam band music? Peace and love to Phish's Michael Gordon. How about a little punk? Praise be to Erdélyi Tamás, aka Tommy Ramone, a short Jewish kid born in Hungary who used punk's fury to find meaning and peace after losing most of his family to the Holocaust.
Sidran obviously took great pleasure in writing this work, a job that was many years in the making. The result is like a great jazz tune: tight and well-charted, with plenty of room to swing.