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.
As Kun dug deeper into Jewish recordings, he was surprised to find “all this Latin music.” He started collecting Latin Jewish recordings, primarily but not exclusively New York-based Jewish-Latin exchanges from the 1930s through the 1960s. “That became my hunt.”
How did Latin and Jewish music cross-pollinate? There are several theories. One has to do with Sephardic heritage, Latin by definition. Another has to do with what musician Steve Bernstein has called “the Gulf Coast theory,” concerning the Jewish retirement disapora and the similarities of the rhythmic signatures between the horah and Latin music.
Kun, for his part, believes that “it’s really about population contact and culture.” Or, as he put it, “We have to look at the ways that Jews and Latinos were bumping up against each other, both speaking English and non-English languages, and both making music inspired by the mainstream and outside of it.” For this you would have to look to East Harlem, both Spanish Harlem and Jewish Harlem and, of course, to the Catskills, where mambo mania took hold — refusing to put Jewish music — or Baby — in a corner!
“One of the stories,” Kun said, “is that the guys who would buy the liquor [for the Catskills Jewish resorts] would go to Cuba and Puerto Rico, and they would hear all this [Latin] music and say, ‘We’ve got to bring this back.’”
Kun was not alone in his enthusiasm for these hybrid music discoveries. “I met three wonderful guys: Roger Bennett, David Katznelson [of Birdman Records, among many other music labels and projects], and Courtney Holt [president of MySpace Music]. “When we met, we bonded over our love of music and our interest in rethinking Jewish American music.”
The Rosetta Stone was the discovery of Fields’ “Bagels and Bongos,” a collection of mambo tunes based on Yiddish classics — or, as Bennett and Kun call it, “The White Album of the Jewish Latin Craze.”
In 2005, they formed Reboot Stereophonic, a record label to reissue records they thought were important, many of which were forgotten or had never been released on CD. Over the last few years, they issued several genre-expanding recordings, from “Jewface,” an anthology of transgressive vaudeville songs about Jews, to Gershon Kingsley’s “God Is a Moog,” a collection of Jewish liturgical Moog experiments, to Fred Katz’s Buddhist/kabbalist “Folk Songs for Far Out Folk.”
However, as the music industry began to change over the last few years, they decided they didn’t want to be a record label. They decided to re-form as the Idelsohn Society for Musical Preservation (named for Abraham Zevi Idelsohn, the legendary musicologist and writer of “Hava Nagila”). Which means that they will still put out records but will also be “a digital site that can function as the hub for Jewish archival musical thinking,” as well as a place for archives to find new audiences; a revamped Web site is planned to launch later this year.
The publication of “And You Shall Know Us by the Trail of Our Vinyl” can be seen as a manifesto for the breadth of Jewish music that Kun and the Idelsohn Society are trying to preserve: cantorial albums; Yiddish songs; comedy albums in English, Yiddish and Yinglish; Mickey Katz; records about the Holocaust, the struggle to free Soviet Jews; even Israeli disco fever. It is a declaration of all the ways in which Jews contributed to and sought to become part of the American melting pot — a conversation about the places where cultures clashed and melded. It is also plea to mail in your own cherished, eccentric and “lost” albums to be rediscovered and reclaimed. As the Idelsohn Society is wont to proclaim, “History sounds different when you listen to it.”
Last summer, Idelsohn staged a live Latin Jewish music event outdoors at Lincoln Center in New York that attracted a large and diverse crowd — the old and the young, Jew and non-Jew, a veritable cross section of ages, ethnic backgrounds and sensibilities.
In the same vein, this summer, the Skirball Cultural Center, along with the Idelsohn Society, will stage a “Jews on Vinyl” live event Aug. 19.
Until then, you can go to the Skirball and enjoy a freilach cha-cha. And if you see Kun or Bennett, quote Juan Calle and His Latin Lantzmen: “Mazel Tov, Mis Amigos.”
Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he’s an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears here regularly, and his blog can be found at jewishjournal.com.