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Under the matzos tree

Posted by Matt Shaer  November 6, 2006 03:15 PM

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An interesting music post from Joshua Glenn, by way of the Brainiac blog:

Way back in 2002, shortly after the Ideas section was launched, I interviewed Brookline native Jody Rosen -- now firmly entrenched in Brooklyn, he's a music critic for The Nation and for Slate -- about his then-new book, White Christmas, a fascinating account of how a Jewish songwriter composed what quickly became America's most popular Christmas song. And last year, in another Ideas item, I quoted Rosen's blistering response to an offhand remark that NYT columnist David Brooks made about French rap. I also followed his blog, The Anachronist, which was dedicated to early-early pop music, until he stopped updating it.

Now Rosen is back on my radar with the release of Jewface, a compilation of vaudeville-era Jewish novelty songs (songs largely written by Jewish composers, including Irving Berlin, published by Jewish-owned Tin Pan Alley music firms, and performed by Jewish vaudevillians before cheering Jewish audiences) -- from 1905-1922 that he has collected over the years on wax cylinders and 78s. (The label is Reboot Stereophonic.) This is minstrelsy, Jewish-style: or "coarse ethnic lampoon as ethnic in-group entertainment," as Rosen has put it.

jewface.jpg

In the preceding paragraph, I purposely left out the adjective between "a" and "compilation" because any adjective used here would have to be a thoroughly dialectical one. Like "Borat," this collection is creepy-yet-hilarious, fascinating-yet-depressing, great-yet-terrible. "Perhaps the Most Offensive Album Ever Made," trumpets the CD cover -- and a couple of the song titles alone -- "When Mose With His Nose Leads The Band," "Cohen Owes Me 97 Dollars" -- make one tend to agree. But like many cultural phenomena that attract and repel simultaneously, I find "Jewface" enchanting; I'm obsessed with it.

Decide for yourself: Take a listen to Ada Jones's 1908 tune "Under the Matzos Tree," here.

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