Friday, December 24, 2010

100 Jewish Songs

You Questioned Our 100 Greatest Jewish Songs - by Dan Klein; Tablet Magazine
The author responds to the volume of coments about his interesting list of the top 100 Jewish songs.  He writes in part:
Why are there so many secular/Ashkenazi/American songs? 
...As for the inclusion of so many secular pop songs: I stand by all those choices. Look, people, the fact is, in historical terms—in terms of impact, influence, and global reach—American popular music is one of the greatest artistic achievements in the history of civilization. That sounds bombastic, but it’s true. What other art has reached more people, in more places, than pop and jazz and soul and rock & roll and hip-hop? (Maybe Hollywood movies—another Jewish invention.) Jews have played a disproportionate role in pop music, in both its creative and commercial spheres. I wanted the list to acknowledge that achievement.
What’s more, as I argue in the list, many of these so-called “secular” pop songs aren’t especially secular. I called “Over the Rainbow” a Jewish exilic prayer. That’s the way I hear it. Many of the pop songs on the list are, to my ears, manifestly Jewish, and not just because they’re written and performed by Jews. Listen to the Gershwin’s “Summertime”—its bluesy intervals are the same that you hear in dozens of Jewish liturgical melodies. This is true of many of Harold Arlen’s great songs, too. One of the signal accomplishments of Jews in pop music is the way they’ve smuggled Jewish culture, Jewish musical tropes, Jewish themes, into the mainstream—a stealth Semiticization of American culture.
If a non-Jew writes a Jewish themed song, shouldn’t they be included?
Yes, of course. There are a couple of examples on the list of Jewish-themed songs by non-Jews. (Madonna’s “Ray of Light” is one.) Woody Guthrie’s “Hanukkah Dance” was supposed to be on the list. It was left off because of a production error on my part. (Ooops!) There’s a long tradition of pop philosemitism, the most famous practitioner being Cole Porter, who once said he’d discovered the secret to musical greatness: “write Jewish tunes.” Porter’s “Jewish tunes” are among his most famous—songs like “Night and Day,” with its Orientalist “Jewish” sound, those brooding minor keys. I thought long and hard about including some reggae and ska—songs with biblical themes like Bob Marley’s “Exodus” or the Melodians’ “Rivers of Babylon” or Desmond Dekker’s “Israelites.” But I was concerned about construing Rastafarianism as some kind of bastardized crypto-Jewish tradition: those songs are Christian songs, Rasta songs, not Jewish songs.
The lines are not so easy to draw.  What makes a song a Jewish song?   The Jewish authorship of Christmas songs qualifies them for inclusion!?  Enough!  Regardless, all of this makes for great listening!

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