Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Jody Rosen will be at Town Hall (Seattle) Thursday night (tonight!), talking about early 20th century minstrel-pop that made fun of Jews, what he has called Jewface, by analogy with “blackface,” in a CD compilation he has produced. One of many questions I’d like to ask Jody -- I assume that “Jewface” is his coinage -- is whether “Hebe song,” another term for the phenomenon, by analogy with “coon song,” is a latterday coinage as well.

His thinking on the emotional rationale for “Jews making fun of Jews” is captivating, persuasive, and resonant, and has shifted my thought processes about this stuff. In brief: making fun of unassimilated immigrants, as the songs by and large do, was an assimilationist strategy. This dynamic has played itself out repeatedly as different immigrant groups have come to the U.S.

Something I noticed that I might not have if it hadn’t been for Jody’s work: Barbra Streisand’s two Top 40 hits in the 1960s were related to the work of one of the great purveyors of Hebe songs in the 1910s and ‘20s: Fanny Brice. “Second Hand Rose” -- a mild Hebe song -- had been a big hit for Brice 44 years before it hit for Streisand, and “People” comes from Funny Girl, the musical about Brice’s life, and is sung in her character.

Like their contemporary coon songs -- and like a lot of the “fine” art of the time -- the Hebe songs can be offensive. I’m looking forward to hearing Jody navigate through these emotional minefields.

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