May 11, 2010
Bagels, Bongos and Josh Kun
If USC professor Josh Kun had his way, the Jewish people might not be known as “the People of the Book” but rather “the People of the Record.”
“Jews on Vinyl,” curated by Kun and Roger Bennett, of the Charles and Andrea Bronfman Foundation, is the new exhibition at the Skirball Cultural Center, where you can seat yourself on a midcentury-modern couch and tap your feet to Irving Fields’ 1959 recording “Bagels and Bongos”; grin while listening to a wide spectrum of albums — from Herbie Mann’s “Push Push” to Barbra Streisand’s “Superman”; comedy albums by Sophie Tucker, Myron Cohen and Lenny Bruce; Leo Fuchs’ “Shalom Pardner”; or even the Barry Sisters singing their Yiddish rendition of “My Way.”
The exhibition, which ran in San Francisco for almost a year, is based on Kun and Bennett’s 2008 book “And You Shall Know Us by the Trail of Our Vinyl” (Crown Publishing).
“When most people think of Jewish music in America, there are some very specific things they think about,” said Kun, a founding member of the Idelsohn Society for Musical Preservation, alluding to cantorial and klezmer music, which he deemed hugely important. “But, that is a small slice of the Jewish musical story in the United States,” he added.
In curating “Vinyl” and the upcoming Idelsohn release “Black Sabbath,” an anthology of black artists singing songs that are explicitly Jewish, and which attempts to “understand Jewish music as a resource for blackness,” or a planned collection of “Hava Nagila” covers, Kun, 38, is pursuing his passion — investigating music at the intersection of race, identity and popular culture.
“Our conversations [at Idelsohn] do not revolve around irony and kitsch value,” Kun said recently. “They revolve 100 percent [around] love and a deep, manic, hungry curiosity for more knowledge about what we don’t know.”
Kun grew up in West Los Angeles in what he describes as “a very music-loving household — not music playing but music listening.” His father was a big fan of folk music, particularly of The Weavers (featuring Pete Seeger). From The Weavers, Kun learned that “music was always internationalist, came in all sorts of different languages. It was inherently political, and it was about history and community, and it was about a way of thinking about life and society.”
As a high school student at the private Harvard School (prior to its merger with Westlake), Kun started writing a music column — and has pretty much been doing so ever since.
“Music was always the way I experienced things. [It is] the first thing I go to, to figure things out, to figure myself out, to figure out the world, to interact with history.”
Kun went to Duke University as an undergraduate, and then to University of California, Berkeley, where he earned his doctorate in ethnic studies. He was inspired by the writings of Greil Marcus (“Mystery Train,” “Lipstick Traces”) to “look really hard at the relationship between American identity and music and questions of race and ethic identity.”
In his thesis, which became his first book, “Audiotopia” (University of California Press), Kun took up, as he put it, “Walt Whitman’s call of ‘I hear America singing’ to ask, ‘What is America singing?’ and ‘Who’s listening?’ and ‘What are the voices being heard and talked about?’ ”
One night, while watching “The Tonight Show,” host Jay Leno introduced the African American jazz artist Don Byron, who played music by Mickey Katz. Afterward, Leno referred to Katz’s music, Kun recalls, as “bar mitzvah music,” but Byron insisted it was “radical ethnic music.” That Byron knew this music and saw it as radical, and Kun did not, started Kun on a journey of exploration.
Kun eventually got to know Katz’s widow and sons, Ronald Katz and Joel Grey (yes, the actor). He was responsible for republishing Katz’s autobiography and began to give lectures on Katz and his music. It was Kun’s gateway into Jewish music.
At the same time, Kun’s thesis adviser, Waldo Martin, pushed him to “take seriously the role of Jews in the drama of American race and music” and to include Katz in his dissertation, which, until then, had been primarily devoted to black and Latino issues. More importantly, Martin also urged Kun to consider his own “positionality as a white Jew writing about this stuff.”
He discovered artists such as The Barton Brothers (vaudevillians who mixed Yiddish comedy and edgy klezmer), Menashe Skolnick (once called the great-grandfather of all Catskills comics) and “godfadduh” of Jewish parody Allan Sherman. He haunted the record bins, looking in “the dreaded Judaica” sections. He helped the Magnes Museum in Berkeley organize and digitize its large collection of Jewish music.