MAY 18, 2001 | current issue | back issues | subscribe |

Al Jolson's Fans Hail the Once and Future King

The Singer's Faithful Gather To Uncover the True Artist Under the Burnt Cork


Al Jolson was once acclaimed as the "King of Broadway" and the century's greatest entertainer. His reputation has been tarnished since the cultural tribunals of the 1960s decreed that all blackface performers, beginning with the "Mammy Singer" himself, were offensive. But there are at least 1,100 people who will never accept this verdict: the members of the International Al Jolson Society, who will celebrate the group's 51st anniversary with an unapologetic three-day tribute to Jolson's life and legacy, which begins today at the JFK Holiday Inn in New York City.

Not surprisingly, support for Jolson is strongest among Jews, who take pride in the fact that the son of a cantor could have become Broadway's biggest star and, despite all the criticism of his work, a legendary figure in American popular culture. In fact, Jolson's attitude toward his Jewish heritage will be the topic of a May 18 lecture by Dr. Marc Leavey, the Jolson Society's Webmaster. A non-observant Jew, Jolson seldom attended synagogue and did not follow traditional Jewish custom, according to Dr. Leavey.

Nonetheless, the singer's religious background manifested itself in secular ways. Although he never really played a Jewish role again after "The Jazz Singer" (Warner, 1927), his next five movies all have Jewish references, a phrase or image that Dr. Leavey calls "a wink to the Jews in the audience that says, 'I'm one of you.'" For example, a Yiddish newspaper is glimpsed during a blackface musical number in "Wonder Bar" (1934). In addition, in the early 1930s Jolson recorded the Yiddish song "A Chazend'l Ohf Shabbes."

One common theory about Jolson is that the 1945 death of his father, Moshe Yoelson, made it possible for him to "plunge back into his Jewishness," as Dr. Leavey put it. A cold, censorious man, Cantor Yoelson always denied paternal approval to his son, who had yearned for it since the death of his devoted mother, Naomi, when he was 8. Within a few years of his father's death, the entertainer, who had never previously been active in Zionist causes, co-authored and recorded "Israel," an anthem for the new Jewish state, and raised millions of dollars for Holocaust survivors and other Jewish causes through radio shows dedicated to "my people and their plight."

On the whole, however, Jolson's life reveals a decided ambivalence toward Judaism. All four of his wives were gentiles, and he was never romantically linked with a Jewish woman. He showed scant interest in Jewish history and culture and for a time belonged to a country club that had only one Jewish member him. Thus, Jolson rejected the father who had rejected him.

Furthermore, as the world remembers, Jolson's life was the basis for the most famous story of Jewish assimilation ever written, Samson Raphaelson's "The Jazz Singer." In the late 1920s, the entire world watched young Jakie Rabinowitz desert "five generations of cantors" to enter show business. When we first meet the adult Jakie, he has changed his name to Jack Robin and is sacrilegiously devouring what appears to be a plate of ham (or sausage) and eggs. His love interest and all of his colleagues in the entertainment business appear to be Christians.

Although the climactic struggle between Jack's singing career and his filial-Judaic duty temporarily ends with the victory of the latter, the film leaves us with the certainty of Jack's Broadway stardom and the likelihood that he will never attend another Yom Kippur service, let alone conduct one.

It is fortunate that no one holds Jolson accountable for violating Jewish dietary laws; the stigma he bears is tough enough to combat and gives cultural historians an excuse to fall back on disparaging platitudes or to simply ignore him. Jolson was only "a Lithuanian Jew blackface minstrel encouraging his mother to love him," journalist David Thomson wrote in "A Biographical Dictionary of Film" (Knopf, 1994), while Ric Burns's bloated 10-hour PBS series on New York omits Jolson completely, even in a segment exploring the entrance of black musical idioms and performers into the municipal consciousness during the 1920s.

Along with Irving Berlin, George Gershwin and Jerome Kern, Jolson was a major catalyst in that process. Since 1906, Jolson had been absorbing black elements into his work: hip-shaking dance moves, an almost evangelical vocal intensity, joyous interjections, interpolated syllables. These he fused with the slurring, wailing cadences of the synagogue, melodious Broadway balladry of the day and even some Irish ingredients to create a seminal performance style that made him the highest paid, most influential singer of his time.

The most oft-noted paradox of Jolson's career is that it was only when he hid under burnt cork that his greatness became visible. Out of Plautus by way of Beaumarchais, he created a Figaro-like black servant named Gus who, though nominally subordinate to the white characters, was actually the prime mover behind the show's action. Gus was maniacally funny, mercurial, crafty and soulful a true underdog hero.

Is it a coincidence that after a decade of Jolson's racial proselytizing, America was finally ready for "Shuffle Along," the landmark all-black 1921 musical? Possibly. What we can be fairly certain of, though, is that the success of "The Jazz Singer" is what motivated notoriously risk-averse Hollywood to begin casting Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Ethel Waters and other black entertainers in movies.

Moreover, black Americans of Jolson's era (he died in 1950) seem to have understood that his blackface act was not intended to insult or ridicule them but to proclaim, however naively, his kinship with them. They flooded into Harlem's Lafayette Theater to see "The Jazz Singer" and wept openly when Jolson sang "Mammy." The black press treated him respectfully, and black contemporaries such as Waters, Cab Calloway, Eubie Blake and Alberta Hunter spoke of him favorably in their autobiographies and reminiscences.

The affinity of Jews for black culture and their abhorrence of racial oppression has been much discussed, yet we still hear the familiar cant often from Jewish critics and scholars that Berlin, Jolson and the others "appropriated" the black man's music and were guilty of "exploiting" him. The first allegation illogically equates artistic influence with cultural vandalism, overlooking the role that eclecticism and synthesis play in creativity. The second assumes that the interaction of blacks and Jews had only minimal benefits for African-Americans, when in fact it made many of them into well-paid, international celebrities. Calloway's professional standing jumped significantly when he was hired to co-star with Jolson in "The Singing Kid." Waters tells us that Berlin's "As Thousands Cheer," for which he wrote her an anti-lynching song, made her "the highest-paid woman performer on Broadway."

Under the circumstances, members of the Jolson Society have good reason to regard themselves as an embattled minority with a just cause. Nonetheless, if waiting for any large-scale reappraisal of Jolson's work seems a bit like waiting for the Robert E. Lee, the singer does have some vigorous defenders, among them music critic Gary Giddins, film critic Pauline Kael (who admires Jolson's 1933 film "Hallelujah, I'm a Bum") and even African-American commentator Stanley Crouch, who generously accepts the bracketing of blacks and Jews in "The Jazz Singer" as twin exponents of a "tragicomic sensibility."

With all the abuse it's taken ("maudlin," "creaky," "vulgar"), "The Jazz Singer" still placed 90th on the American Film Institute's "100 Best American Films" list, suggesting that more people enjoy Jolson's virile, roughhewn baritone and gale-force personality than care to admit it. Those of us who do can put on any one of Jolson's 85 hit songs and easily imagine him as he was, still reigning over Broadway, still sitting on top of the world.

Mr. Moss is the author of three books on film and has written on popular culture for The New York Times, New York magazine and Commonweal.

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