52 Examples of Jewish-American Sheet Music from the Early 20th Century. A collection of English-language sheet music, ca. 4-8 pp. each, in orig. color illus. wrrps., most published in New York, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, or Los Angeles, ca. 1900-1920. (47699)
“Under the Matzo Tree: A Ghetto Love Song,” “Yiddle on your Fiddle Play Some Rag Time,” and “At Abe Kabbible’s Kabaret,” aren’t the songs that made legends of Jewish-American composers and lyricists like Irving Berlin, George Gershwin and Jerome Kern. Their celebrated contributions to the history of American popular music and modern styles of ragtime, jazz and blues for vaudeville, musical theater, radio, and eventually film have eclipsed their modest beginnings as song-pluggers and composers churning out campy sheet music titles like these for parlor room entertainments and novelty acts in New York City’s raffish Tin Pan Alley.
The present collection reveals an oft-overlooked aspect of both the Jewish-American immigrant experience and the inherent biases of early pop music, through prejudicial comic novelty songs that were an important part of the Tin Pan Alley catalogue. The provocative racial politics of ragtime’s origins in African-American music traditions and its popularization through strongly racist “coon songs” are reflected in examples here, including reference to “Amateur Minstrelsy” in songs such as “My Yiddisha Mammy.” However, the frequently crude and heavy-handed titles represent common negative stereotypes about Jews (and other immigrant groups) that may not have been experienced as offensively as they are today. The melodramatic imagery of the illustrated wrappers and schmaltzy lyrics also dramatize Jewish efforts to assimilate while maintaining aspects of their cultural and religious identity, and the limits of these efforts in a context of conventional public racism and discrimination.
The golden age of Tin Pan Alley coincided with the heyday of ragtime, before the rise of the phonograph and radio, when printed sheet music intended for the home or amateur singers and bands was the chief format for distributing and disseminating popular music.
The precipitous successes of ragtime and foxtrot and their accompanying dance crazes created a vast demand for new melodies and syncopated rhythms. In response, a huge number of publishers specializing in musical entertainments, dance music, and romantic ballads emerged, hiring teams of lyricists and composers to write for so-called “song-pluggers” like Gershwin who demonstrated the music in public performances, familiarizing their audience with the most recent tunes and genres.
The illustrated covers, like the music, were often by commercial graphic artists and firms who specialized in designs specifically for the large format wrappers. They incorporated a range of easily recognized period design styles and photographs of the well-known song pluggers to enhance their appeal. Despite the basic limits of the form, a small number of inventive, sophisticated designers and illustrators emerged to produce an astonishing portion of the total covers. Included in this collection are important Art Nouveau-influenced examples by Starmer (William and Frederick Starmer), and designs and illustrations by E.H. Pfeiffer, Gene Buck, John Frew, Andre C. de Takacs, Henri LaMothe, and Leo Hershfield.
Noted and ubiquitous publishers represented in this group include Jerome H. Remnck, Witmark and Sons, Harry and Albert Von Tilzer and Leo Feist, and the titles above feature well-known Jewish performers like Eddie Cantor, Fanny Brice, and Joe and Ben Welch, who performed under stage names that masked their Jewish identity.
Altogether the collection captures a rich but fleeting moment in American visual, musical and lyrical vernacular — a time when carefully targeted audiences embraced otherwise difficult stereotypes for the sake of a spin about the floor in the arms of a Yiddish cowboy or queen.
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