Conversations on Studying Abroad

Playing the Same Tune

Jul 23, 2019 1:40:00 PM / by Dr. Michael Woolf

"Thoughts on Education Abroad" is a monthly column written by CAPA The Global Education Network's Deputy President and Chief Academic Officer Dr. Michael Woolf.


In this month's column, Dr. Mike Woolf describes the connection and relationships between the Jewish and Black communities with music—specifically jazz music. He also shares numerous historic examples of how music represents the empathy found in each community, as well as the controversies that marginalize minorities and their shared experiences.

First Thoughts

Back in September 2018 I wrote a short rather tentative, even nervous piece on the relationships between Jews and Black Americans. In many ways it was a form of introspection and a way of trying to get at what bothered me about the paradoxical narratives that have shaped relationships simultaneously characterized by empathy, a curious intimacy, and alienation.

I’d also touched upon this topic fleetingly and by implication in a piece I’d written on one of my particular interests, jazz. There was an interconnection and resonance between these topics that I sensed rather than identified in any analytical manner.

Since then, I’ve had the privilege of presenting on Jewish and Black relationships with Dr. Keshia Abraham, Director of Strategic Initiatives at CIEE, and Dr Jonathan Kaplan, Vice Provost at the Rothberg International School, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Their wisdom, open and creative thinking were inspirational and has been the catalyst for a desire to further explore our histories.

All of this rather ponderous tale explains why I wanted to start to explore the ways in which Jews and Black Americans interact in jazz and other American popular music.

Buskers on Las Ramblas

I had a European model in my head. Klezmer is a Yiddish term that loosely means musical instrument. In Eastern Europe, since the late 18th century, it has described a style of music that melds Turkish, Roma, and traditional Jewish styles. In the 20th century, American jazz cadences were also influential in shaping the way in which Klezmer music blended diverse influences into an energetic, passionate, and haunting musical style. I first heard it played live in a cafe in Krakow in the heart of what had been the Jewish ghetto. Klezmer offers an example of how music might reflect the intersection of identities. It also demonstrates that a study of music may offer different ways of examining national and international realities.

The arts exemplify the ways in which barriers between countries and peoples are porous. There are no walls between creativity. That reality led me to ask the question of how Jewish and Black America interacted through music. As Keisha and Jonathan taught me, we sometimes need to look beyond the obvious and spread across borders of nation and discipline. So, I asked what tunes are we playing and are they the same tunes?

The Case of Asa Yoelson

Musical productions are, of course, symptomatic of time and place and need to be filtered through contemporaneous intention rather than contemporary judgement. There is, nevertheless, something profoundly disturbing about watching Al Jolson perform (born Asa Yoelson, in 1886 in Lithuania, died 1950 in San Francisco). Jolson was known as “the king of blackface”: a musical tradition of white performers wearing black make up and enacting Black stereotypes.[1]

However, distasteful that persona might be to us today, Jolson was, ironically an early crusader for the rights of African Americans in show business. In the film, The Jazz Singer (1927), he sings in blackface. Instead of causing outrage from Black commentators, it was widely praised, described, for example, in a Harlem newspaper, The Amsterdam News, as “one of the greatest pictures ever produced,” and that, furthermore, “Every colored performer is proud of him.”

Jolson had a long track record of advocating for civil rights, and, ironically in our perceptions perhaps, was seen as a pioneer who opened up opportunities for Black performers:

Jolson helped pave the way for the success of such legends as Louis Armstrong, Ethyl Waters, Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway. As the St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture stated, “Almost single-handedly, Jolson helped to introduce African-American musical innovations like jazz, ragtime, and the blues to white audiences.” Famed African-American jazz singer Clarence Henry noted of Jolson, “Jolson? I loved him. I think he did wonders for the blacks and glorified entertainment.” [2]

Al Jolson in blackface should, nevertheless, be seen as an historical aberration, shaped by his time. He also reflects the danger of exporting contemporary judgements without qualification into a past wherein values and behaviors were radically distinct from our own. It would be wrong to cast Jolson as a racist villain. Instead, in intention and outcome he paved the way for Black performers to achieve fame and success. The paradox is that he did it in blackface.

The Case of Paul Robeson and Abel Meerpol

The house I live in,
My neighbors white and black,
The people who just came here,
Or from generations back;
The town hall and the soapbox,
The torch of liberty,
A home for all God's children;
That's America to me.
—Abel Meerpol

Music offers multiple ways in which the interactions have been shaped by intimacy and empathy rather than parody:

One of our English musicians who became very successful in the US and beyond, blind pianist George Shearing, joked about it [race]: apparently, when it was pointed out to him that his quintet sometimes containing … black musicians, ( John Levy on double-bass , Denzil Best on drums and Chuck Wayne on guitar), was unusually diverse, he cried “What ? Nobody told me that!” [3]

There are numerous examples of Jewish popular composers and musicians directly writing and performing with a deep empathy for Black experience. George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess (1935),[4] though conditioned by its time and in places arguably stereotypical and condescending, was nevertheless an expression of Jewish empathy for Black experience. Showboat (1927) written by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein contained the song Old Man River made famous by Paul Robeson.

Robeson represented the kinds of empathy that resonated within Jewish and American musical relationships. As well as being an important civil rights activist, Robeson was a great musical figure who is deeply associated with Old Man River. The Mississippi offers a metaphorical counterpoint to Black struggles:

You and me
We sweat and strain
Body all aching
And wracked with pain
Tote that barge
Lift that bale
Get a little drunk
And you land in jail
I gets weary
Sick of trying
I'm tired of living
Feared of dying
But ol' man river
He's rolling along

Robeson rewrote these lyrics to reflect an active rather than passive representation. Thus, “Get a little drunk” becomes “You show a little grit” and “I'm tired of living/Feared of dying” becomes “ I must keep fightin'/Until I'm dyin'.” Robeson’s reaction to Showboat and Old Man River was always ambiguous but in altering Hammerstein’s lyrics he transformed a stereotypical passivity into a political activism, a declaration of intent.

Robeson adaptation caused Hammerstein some irritation, but they shared a friendship and political commitment to radical causes. Hammerstein’s original lyrics present the Black man as stoic and passive; Robeson’s alterations reflect a rejection of that stereotype. Nevertheless, Hammerstein wrote out of sense of deep empathy and Robeson transformed that into a civil rights message. Both were of their time but shared a political and moral commitment to social justice. Hammerstein’s intent was to represent real people suffering the circumstances of injustice.

Robeson also extended the interaction between Black and Jewish consciousness singing spirituals that drew heavily on biblical sources. He recorded and performed a number of songs in Yiddish and Hebrew[5] including the Chassidic Chant of Levi Isaac of Berditschev, a version of the Kaddish. He also frequently sang The Partisan Song (Partizaner Lied) in both Yiddish and English. It was written in 1943 by Hirsh Glick (1922-1944), a young Jewish inmate of the Vilna Ghetto and victim of the Holocaust, to commemorate the resistance to the Nazis in the Warsaw Ghetto. The song has become representative of Jewish resistance and expresses a counter to the idea of passivity in the face of Nazi persecution. As in the revisions to Old Man River, Robeson subverts stereotypical notions of passivity in the face of persecution of both Black and Jews.

As an artist, civil rights activist, cosmopolitan, and anti-fascist, Robeson’s work existed at an intersection between Jewish and Black consciousness, marked by intimacy and empathy, a sense of common experience, and purpose.

Robeson also performed The House I Live In written by the Jewish poet and lyricist, Lewis Allen, whose real name was Abel Meerpol (1903-1986). Meerpol’s life was extraordinary in many ways. For 17 years he taught at Dewitt Clinton High School, a public high school in the Bronx, attended incidentally by the poet Countee Cullen and James Baldwin. He was an activist, and for many years a member of the Communist party. He adopted the children of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, alleged spies who were executed in 1953. He was also the author of probably the most poignant and powerful song that highlighted the tragedies of lynching, Strange Fruit, made famous in the almost unbearably moving performances of Billie Holiday:

Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
Pastoral scene of the gallant South,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh,
And the sudden smell of burning flesh!
Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for a tree to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.

Meerpol’s song reflects an interaction between Jews and Blacks that is politically sensitive, and symptomatic of a profound affinity, built around a consciousness of common suffering.

It also exists at the centre of misdirections. Billie Holiday claimed in her autobiography that she was partly responsible for the lyrics. The rabid anti-Semite, Khaill Abdul Muhammad, has repeatedly cited it in speeches assailing American racism (seemingly unaware that it was written by a Jew). As late as 1999 at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, the song was represented as part of a celebration of Black composers. The reality is that Billie Holiday had no part in writing the lyrics. The song she first recorded in 1939 uses an unedited and unaltered version of the lyrics written by Meerpol in 1937. Since then, the lyrics of Strange Fruit have not been changed by any performer.

The jazz world offers other examples of affinities between Jews and Black Americans, as described by Charles Hersch.[6] The jazz impresario Norman Ganz (1918–2001) was committed to the view that “Jazz is truly the music of democratic America.” Hersch records the anti-segregationist principles of other less well-known figures such as Morris Levy and Billy Berg arguing that “Jewishness has an affinity for hybridity.”

Benny Goodman (1909–1986) was the first jazz musician to break segregationist practices by hiring the Black pianist Teddy Wilson (1912–1986) in 1935 and, a year later, vibraphonist Lionel Hampton (1908–2002). The Jewish clarinet player and writer, Artie Shaw (1910-2004), born Arthur Jacob Arshawsky, was another who hired Black musicians and refused to play before segregated audiences.

This is not to say that all things in music were noble and enlightened, but it does demonstrate that there is a narrative of interconnection that is rooted in empathy and expressed in action. There is a sense of special intimacy between Black Americans and Jews to be found in political affinity and creative alliances. These musical interactions serve as an example of relationships that challenge narratives of alienation.


There is something deeply archaic in clinging to rigid notions of bifurcation when identities in other contexts have become fluid and mutable. The default distinction in the US remains about race and I understand why. However, we also need to be aware that identity is shaped by external dynamics and is also a matter of performance and inheritance, subject to analysis and alteration.

In the current environment, there is growing reassertion of prejudice, re-emergent anti-Semitism. There is an alternative narrative which expresses a sense of shared experience based on persecution and marginalization: a demonstration of how consciousness of injustice may be raised when diverse peoples play the same tune.


[1] The tradition had a remarkable longevity. The Black and White Minstrel Show ran on British television for 20 years from 1958 to 1978 when objections on grounds of racism led to its closure. Nevertheless, a stage version ran for a further 10 years.
[2] See the following as examples of African-American endorsements of Al Jolson: http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2014/10/al-jolson-hero-villian / https://www.ferris.edu/HTMLS/news/jimcrow/links/essays/jolson.htm
[3] Robert Wyatt, Beneath the Underdog - A Paradox of Jazz and Racism: https://www.strongcomet.com/wyatt/beneath-the-underdog/ 
[4] Lyrics by DuBose Heyward and Ira Gershwin.
[5] See Jonathan Karp, “Performing Black-Jewish Symbiosis: The "Hassidic Chant" of Paul Robeson”, American Jewish History, Vol. 91, No. 1, Jews and Performance (March 2003), pp. 53-81.
[6] Charles Hersch, Jews and Jazz: Improvising Ethnicity, Routledge, New York, 2017.


Thanks Mike!

CAPA_Michael Woolf Headshot

Dr. Mike Woolf is the Deputy President for Strategic Development here at CAPA. His unique role at CAPA takes him around the world to conferences as a frequent presenter and attendee. He serves on a number of boards and committees, including the Curriculum Committee of the Forum on Education Abroad, the Editorial Boards of Frontiers and the Journal of Studies in International Education, EAIE’s Knowledge Development Task Force, and Braun Stiftung für Internationalen Austausch. He has written widely and has published extensively on international education and cultural studies. Most recently, he published work aimed at critically reviewing the core assumptions of study abroad. 'Thoughts on Education Abroad' is a monthly column of short essays sharing his thoughts and expertise on the subject.


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