Al Jolson Home Page|The Man|Biographies|Tikkun Article by Stephen Mo Hanan

Tikkun Magazine
A Bimonthly Jewish Critique of Politics, Culture & Society
Sept/Oct 1998 Issue

Al Jolson

The Soul Beneath the Mask

Stephen Mo Hanan
n Al Jolson's hands, and on his countenance, blackface was not so much a travesty as a loan. He borrowed from the African American culture he encountered at the turn of the century a mixture of daring and poignancy that went on to make him the foremost live entertainer of his era, the first superstar of the twentieth century. No other white man, certainly no Jew, had ever used blackface makeup as more than a theatrical convention which today seems blatantly offensive. For Jolson, the makeup was a mask with which he created a unique multi-ethnic persona, a hybrid of shtetl and plantation which permanently altered the popular culture of white Christian America.
The opportunity to consider Jolson in depth came to me recently as a consequence of playing him in a one-person show. The play obliges the actor to don blackface at the end of the first act (removing it during intermission); but before giving an account of that remarkable experience I would like to ponder some of the insights rising from my study of Jolson's career.
The man whom critic Gilbert Seldes in 1923 called "the concentration of our national health and gaiety" was born Asa Yoelson in 1886 in a small Lithuanian village, and came to America eight years later. He was the youngest of four children; his father had emigrated when Asa was only four and eventually sent for the family with money earned as cantor of a Washington, D.C. congregation. Within a year of their arrival, little Asa's doting mother died, a trauma that scarred him for life while giving birth to the most profound expressions of his art. A stranger to his father, and thousands of miles from home, Jolson retreated into a private world where ultimately he discovered kinship with the African American, emancipated but still not free.
Although completely irreligious as an adult, Jolson made no secret of his origins, and was in fact the first open Jew to be celebrated by the American masses. But he aspired to something more, and his youthful rebellion against his father's Orthodoxy led him to the teeming, mongrel street life of his Washington neighborhood. In the final

Jolson was the first open Jew to be
celebrated by the American masses.

years of the nineteenth century, popular music was a key catalyst in the American melting pot. Jolson's native musical intelligence, already honed in the cantorial tradition, began to soak up indiscriminately the styles and tunes of other immigrant cultures and the dances of the Negro boys he watched, yearning to assimilate them into something new and authentically American. Like most immigrant children, American was what he wanted to be.
In the knockabout culture of turn-of-the-century vaudeville, ethnic stereotyping played two contradictory roles. While on the one hand making fun of every ethnically recognizable outsider in terms of their "characteristic" behavioral traits or linguistic errors, it also established those ethnicities -- Italian, Irish, Jewish, Polish, Scandinavian or Greek -- in the emerging American mosaic. The exception to this vaudevillian melting pot was, of course, the African, who in the segregated theaters of the time, was depicted at one remove. White performers blacked up, but never the reverse. The first African American star, Jolson's celebrated contemporary Bert Williams, was light-skinned and performed in blackface. The bizarre conventions of skin prejudice that have so blighted American culture allowed authentic Asians to perform on mainstream stages (even after their immigration was banned), but not authentic blacks.

Minstrel shows featuring whites in blackface had been popular in America since the 1840s. By the time Jolson joined one in 1908, they were purveying predictable music of heavily nostalgic Civil War lineage. Jolson had heard jazz, blues and ragtime in 1905 in New Orleans, but the minstrel show wouldn't let him sing any. He quit, and began to perform solo the kind of music he liked. Hiding behind a mask which conceals all but the eyes and mouth (as performers in Commedia dell' Arte had done for centuries before the American slave trade), Jolson was able to access emotions never before seen on any vaudeville stage. He expressed depths of longing and lamentation that drew equally upon his orphaned childhood, the melismatic sighs of the synagogue, and the soulfulness of a black music few whites had yet encountered. He electrified audiences with a raffish, flagrant sexuality that at the time would have been threatening in a black performer and scandalous in a white one. His funky rhythm and below-the-waist gyrations (not seen again from any white male till the advent of Elvis) were harbingers of the sexual liberation of the new urban era. Jolson was a rock star before the dawn of rock music, challenging the squeamishness on which racism so heavily depends.
Jolson was not a man to waste a single moment in reflection that he could otherwise spend at the racetrack. His artistry was intuitive and spontaneous, and the alchemy by which the "Litvak" bonded with the "schvartze" in his psyche was unlikely to have cost him thought. But its depth drew laughter, tears, and ovations from audiences in every corner of the country, and revolutionized America's musical taste. Instrumental in the careers of George Gershwin and Irving Berlin, Jolson was not the only Jew to mediate early jazz and ragtime for white audiences, but he was the first. For generations, slaves in the American South had turned the biblical story of Israel's bondage and exodus into a rich and compelling musical literature, unique in world history. Music that pulsated with suffering and hope mirrored the black community's experience but stirred few white souls, until, like energy building in a thundercloud, it galvanized Jolson. This immigrant Jew felt the analogy, sparked the metaphor, and drew a lightning bolt onto the very stage he sang on. Today we may see his mediation as ironic, but in its time it truly shook the earth.
Nor was it only the color line Jolson crossed. He sang several songs in a female persona, re-recording "I'm Just Wild About Harry" as late as the Forties, singing "The heavenly blisses of his kisses fill me with ecstasy" without a hint of
Stephen Mo Hanan is an actor and writer living in New York City. He has contributed often to this magazine, as well as to New Age Journal, The Sun, and the Washington Post.
embarrassment or camp. Dissolving racial categories seems to have given his performing self a fluidity that blurred gender boundaries as well. Jolson had several close gay associates, and didn't shrink from effeminate moves if they helped him convey insouciance. But he also took his female persona seriously. The earnest sincerity he brings to the baby girl voicing "Hello Central, Give Me No Man's Land" is so tender, so compelling that this transparently mawkish song becomes a sublime and pathetic depiction of a child innocent of both war and technology. It is hard to imagine any male pop singer other than Jolson even attempting it.
It is easy (and not completely unfounded) to condemn Jolson for appropriating elements of a minority culture that he exploited for personal gain. But it is also true that he rendered those elements palatable to a majority that was historically unprepared to incorporate them first-hand. Jolson may have profited from American racial attitudes, but he didn't invent them, and in fact helped to transform them. Within a decade of Jolson's eminence, African American artists like Armstrong, Ellington, Fats Waller, and Ethel Waters gained mainstream acceptance as never before. Noble Sissle, a lifelong friend, attended Jolson's funeral as official rep of the Negro Actors' Guild. He was the bridge, however unlikely, over which they entered popular culture.
In spite of how often I'd watched Jolson blacking up on film, I was unprepared for how it affected me the first time I tried it myself. The director and I had contemplated using a dark purple instead of black, as if that would be less offensive. But once I bit the bullet, the nature of the transformation was astonishing. By altering the hue of my skin to a jet black which, in Seldes' words, "is so little negroid that it goes well with diversions in Yiddish accents," I became a different person. It was tempting to play out every tasteless Stepin Fetchit mannerism imaginable, as if to drive those demons out of my psyche. But then deeper psychic contents began to emerge: more power in my eyes, gestures more direct and eloquent, a physical grace and ease located in an altered body awareness.
Every actor knows that masks always facilitate this sort of thing. But under these circumstances, I began to feel that what we call race is also just a kind of mask, of no more ultimate consequence, despite the mountain of evil built on its frame, than accent or hair color. If economic oppression could disappear tomorrow, it would be obvious that nothing perpetuates racism so much as the concept of race itself. By reproducing essential qualities of African American soul, not stereotypically but with a depth that linked them to his own personal roots, Jolson demonstrated publically that skin color need be no barrier to shared human feeling. Like the body itself, it is a temporary attribute of spirit.

Reprinted with permission from Tikkun: A Bimonthly Jewish Critique of Politics, Culture & Society.

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