Professor Jonathan Karp, Director of the American Jewish Historical Society in New York City, spoke at McGill University about the relationship between Jewish entrepreneurs and black performers in the music business in the 1940s and 1950s. Prof. Karp discussed businessmen such as Leonard Chess, (born Lezjor Czuz in Poland in 1917), who managed musicians like Muddy Waters and Etta James.
Shtetl correspondent Ricky Kreitner interviewed Karp after his talk entitled “Brokering a Rock ‘n’ Roll International: Jewish Record Men in the US and UK.”
Shtetl: You seemed to blame the end of the black-Jewish alliance in the 1960s in the United States on the rise of black nationalism.
What about the other side of the argument, that the Jewish move to the mainstream was responsible for the rift?
JK: There are a lot of factors. The Six Day War is very important. It sparks a new inwardness among American Jews, who find themselves no longer needing to find surrogates for their own political and ideological aspirations, but can now focus on Jewishness itself. You can even look at Jewish activism on the left as in some cases a way of escaping Jewishness by identifying with broader, universal causes of social justice. It goes along with the whole tendency in American culture in the late 60s and early 70s toward finding roots. So there are a lot of different causes for the breakdown in black-Jewish relations, but what I tried to emphasize in the lecture was this class complementarity, this interlocking of class functions, that is no longer tenable after the rise of black nationalism.
Shtetl: And after the 1967 war, not only do the Jews look inward, but blacks in America also try to re-form themselves as exclusively sympathetic to other oppressed coloured peoples around the world.
JK: Totally. And it’s already spoken of in Malcolm X’s biography. He looks at Israel and says, “That’s what we have to be like. We have to be militant, and Jewish people have finally learned to look after their own, and we have to follow their example.” That’s a typical black nationalist attitude toward Jews – this ambivalence. “We have to emulate them but we also have to eliminate them, because their solidarity is at our expense.” But you’re right, after ’67 there’s a black identification with pan-Africanism, the Arab peoples as an oppressed peoples, who are victims of European-Jewish colonization.
Shtetl: You talked about how the Jews, who had previously dominated the independent labels in rock ‘n roll, rhythm ‘n blues, and what before that was called “race music” had come to dominate the new corporate structures of society by the end of the 1950s.
How is that related to the general move of Jews toward the societal mainstream, and then to that breach in black-Jewish relations?
JK: It reflects the upward mobility of Jews, reaching a new echelon of affluence and prosperity by the 1960s, whereas earlier corporate culture had excluded Jews for the most part, at least informally. There were quotas and stigmas about Jews advancing to the highest heights. By the 1960s, the music business – which had always had a strong Jewish presence – enabled Jews to reinvent themselves as corporate types.
Shtetl: You differentiated between two different types of Jewish entrepreneurs in the pop music industry. There were those in it just for the business, and then those who were record collectors, who scoured used furniture stores for early jazz or blues records, who were basically aficionados of what everyone else was then considering music made by black people for black people.
Why were those Jews so interested in that music before it went big in the 1950s?
JK: We have to be careful. Not all Jews were attracted to black culture, and many non-Jews were attracted to black culture. These Jewish aficionados loved old blues music or old jazz for many reasons, but one reason was that if you’re from an ethnic immigrant background, then your overwhelming drive is to become part of this mainstream society. But you see parts of this society that are unattractive to you – there’s racism, there’s a kind of crudeness or coarseness that doesn’t sit well with you. And you’re looking for an alternative way to claim membership without identifying yourself with the people that you’re not attracted to.
I think for many Jews, blackness provided that. Blackness could be construed as something that is authentically American. The cultural connection to Africa had been for the most part severed. Blacks created a culture through spontaneous generation on American soil. So you can see black culture as the true American culture, and why children of left-wing Jewish immigrants would gravitate to black culture as an alternative route to Americanization.
Shtetl: You also talked about how black musicians often seemed to consent to their own exploitation by Jewish record industry managers and label owners.
JK: I’m reluctant to say black musicians were consenting to their own exploitation, though I think in some cases there’s a fatalism, saying: “They’re really good at that, we’re not so good at that, we’re good at something else, so let things take their course.” Then there’s another way, you see this in B.B. King’s autobiography: “Jews are really good at business, blacks aren’t good at business. Does that mean I should consent to my own exploitation? No. I should learn from Jews. But does that mean I should learn from them and hate them? No. I should respect them and simply respect that they’re doing what business people have to do in order to survive, and that’s the name of the game, and let’s get realistic.”
Shtetl: How did this “enforced complementarity” between blacks and Jews in the record business – the de facto segregation of blacks as musicians and Jews as businessmen – ultimately lead to social change?
JK: The roles that blacks had to play meant that they were the goose that laid the golden egg. And the golden egg really was a golden egg, and it took off in unexpected ways, and became even more money-making than anyone had expected. And that meant that black music entered into the mainstream. Sometimes blacks reaped the benefits of this, look at Ray Charles or Sam Cooke. This also created opportunities for white musicians to imitate black music and reap the benefits of other people’s talents and achievements. It changed the culture, made it more open to black influences. Even though blacks continued to be exploited – even though this was in some cases an intensified form of exploitation – nevertheless by 1963 or 1964 black music was a major part of American popular music culture. So there really was a breakdown in segregationist attitudes and policies, for a while at least. Music – by hook or by crook – was a part of that progress.
Shtetl: You said in your talk that you can’t account for Bob Dylan sociologically. Can you please try?
JK: I think you can account for him as part of a small-town Jewish world, that’s very different from Queens, for instance. But what I mean is that certain kinds of genius can’t be explained through context. He stands apart. And you can’t account for that through any kind of “he came from this community or that one, he came from this background and socioeconomic structure,” anything like that.
Shtetl: Did you honestly expect to come to Quebec and not receive a question from the audience about the relevance of your topic to Quebec in general and Celine Dion in particular?
JK: It’s forever to my shame that I came ill-prepared with knowledge of Quebecois folk music history and the Jewish contribution to it.
Shtetl: You mentioned in your talk that the Jewish Rock ‘n Roll entrepreneur Don Arden (born in 1926 as Harry Levy and known in England as “The Al Capone of Pop”) claimed in his autobiography to have committed murders, arson, robberies, and more. He also says he had a daughter Sharon who married the lead singer of Black Sabbath, one of the bands he managed.
How do you expect readers of Shtetl Magazine to recover from the revelation that Sharon Osborne is Jewish?
JK: Haha, at least she’s half-Jewish, and we know which half is the important half. We see her father’s influence.
Ricky Kreitner is a student in philosophy and Jewish studies at McGill University. He is fascinated by black-Jewish relations in the United States, Montreal Jewish history, and Bob Dylan.