Sunday, July 11, 2010

More Rhythm & Jews

Just a brief followup to yesterday's post on Rhythm & Jews.

By the way, the very term "Rhythm & Blues" was coined by one of the owners of Atlantic Records, Jerry Wexler, when employed as a writer for Billboard in the late '40s or early '50s. Up to that time, it had been condescendingly referred to as "race music" -- as if the white cyphers who produced such dreck as How Much is That Puppy in the Window -- #1 on the pop charts in 1953 -- didn't belong to a race.

I actually had the opportunity to meet Wexler, since he retired to Sarasota, where he became good friends with my in-laws. He and my father-in-law were very much cut from the same page, as both were hi-IQ Jewish atheists from Washington Heights who fell in love with "race music" as teens.

I wonder if there is something aside from business acumen that drew this particular generation of Jews -- many of whom were the children of first generation European immigrants -- to cosmo-American music? In his Capitalism and the Jews, Muller only gets into the cultural traits that made for entrepreneurial success, but not any traits that might have specifically contributed to a passionate musical negrophilia.

And for most of them, it was a passion, not just a business. Here, let me dig out Wexler's autobiography. Ah, here it is: To Bob & Leslie -- Warmest Regards to two dyed-in-the-wool fans of our music. The reason I bring this up is that for most of these people, I think the musical attraction was quasi-religious, even though they were generally apostates of their own faith (and often even ashamed of it).

I know that this is very much what it was like for me as a kid. When I first heard the Beatles, it was like a bolt of reality in a sea of bullshit. School made no sense to me. The Beatles made immediate, visceral sense. And I don't just mean that in any primitive way, or the subject wouldn't be worth discussing.

Interesting. Here is a description of Wexler's reaction to hearing Bing Crosby in the 1930s, while still in his teens: "He was my guru. Bing sent me into a state of voluptuous euphoria. He spoke to me.... I levitated on his melodies.... he set me thinking about the mysteries of music and love." In 1977, "when the news of Bing's death came on the car radio, I pulled over and wept."

Here's a later example of hearing a certain trumpet solo which "put me into a trance.... Time stood still." He also talks about how he and his friends became "a new cult of record collectors, relentless in the pursuit of our Grail."

Again, this was an atheist who claimed to have no interest in religion, and yet, the feelings he is describing certainly have a quasi-religious sensibility. While he says that such experiences set him thinking about "the mysteries of music and love," I don't think he got very far in that area, because these types of powerfully transcendent experiences are experiences of the transcendent.

That being the case, one must follow them back up to their source, which is the whole basis of the "mystery." In a spiritual context, "mystery" is not just the absence of knowledge but an ontologically real characteristic of O. It is a mode of knowledge, not a deficiency.

But Wexler never made the connection. Indeed, "I can't remember a time when I wasn't a doubter. Never -- not for a hot minute -- have I believed in God.... I glory in disbelief. Disbelief, at least for me, is a source of strength."

But in the very next paragraph he says, "My feelings for literature, art, movies, food, and wine are all invested with spirit. Above all, it's in my feeling for music. Music has brought me joy; it has given me a beat and a groove, and sent me down righteous roads."

Excuse me, but WTF?, if you'll pardon the French. Here is a person who has the experience, but leaves it isolated, disconnected from any higher reality. He has a word for it -- "spirit" -- but what could the word possibly mean to a materialist who glories in disbelief? Just a meaningless brain state, I suppose.

I'm no psychologist -- no, wait, I am -- but perhaps this was a factor: his idealized mother "was a great reader, a diligent student of Freud, Marx, and Lenin. She was a freethinker, a liberal [!], a woman who instigated her own liberation sixty years before the movement began." With her friends she would "drink endless cups of coffee and and argue over Lenin and Trotsky. It's a pretty good bet she was a card-carrying member of the Party."

Sounds like he was as liberated as his mother. But from what? Maybe from the promised land back to Egypt.


In the background, my beloved record collection. On the walls, some of my musical heroes. In the foreground, my knee. In between, Madonna & Child. Come to think of it, I got rhythm / I got music / I got my girl / Who could ask for anything more?


anon said...

He has a word for it -- "spirit" -- but what could the word possibly mean to a materialist who glories in disbelief?

You are being confused by your word choice of "materialism". I think I've said this before, but it's a bad term, since it too easily implies a universe made up of nothing but dead stuff. Atheists like your friend don't view the world like that, clearly. They believe in something called "spirit" but also beleive that it's part of the natural world, not some emanation of a central supernatural governing authority.

So "naturalism" is a better term if you want to honestly try to grasp the beliefs of someone who thinks differently.

Gagdad Bob said...


Gandalin said...

Dear Bob,

Today's and yesterday's postings contain many interesting observations which deserve extended consideration and follow-up. Please allow this note to serve as a place-holder until I have more time this evening.

1) The prominence of Jews in the "race record" business and in the early motion-picture business may have something to do with the fact that both were probably regarded by most more mainstream Americans as fringe activities of dubious value and limited potential. That created the breathing-space in which the Jewish entrepreneurs could operate.

2) As a tangential aside - some recent research which I will dig up later casts at least some doubt on the relationship between Protestantism and capitalism which is found in exaggerated form in readers of Max Weber. A comparison of the economies of Catholic and Protestant German commercial cities in the first century or two after the reformation suggests that it may be that the development of capitalism is more of a German phenomenon than a Protestant phenomenon. The comparative absence of dynamic capitalist development in Romance-language countries may have to do with something besides Catholicism.

3) That being said, the fact that Jews all around the Mediterranean and up and down the Rhine and other major European rivers shared a language and a long history of civil jurisprudence, sharing essentially all of the essential contractual understandings necessary to sustain trade, undoubtedly enabled them to contribute to European economic development. If Henri Pirenne is right, and I think he is, the economic collapse of Western Europe was not caused by the collapse of imperial Roman institutions, but by the collapse of Mediterranean trade after the conquest of the Levant and North Africa by the jihad.

4) Wexler's passion for American music is a manifestation of the Jewish immigrant's desperate search for acceptance. His and his parents' generation's complete rejection of traditional Jewish culture undoubtedly left the Jewish soul with a huge emptiness, which Wexler filled with music. Music indeed is the language of the soul, and can be the purest expression of all that is the most spiritual but also the basest and grossest aspects of human life.

I think what Wexler and others have found in the best of the blues, was a music that expressed the angelic spirituality (vertical) and the sub-bestial (horizontal) at the same time: i.e., it expressed the conundrum of a human incarnation, as Pascal (I think) said, qui veut faire l'ange fait la bete.


Jack said...

I've found it interesting that my first introduction to a "gospel" influenced music came through decidedly non-spiritual channels. Janis Joplin comes to mind. This may be somewhat symbolic of the turn in cultural towards the (often unacknowledged) contradictions of "horizontal liberation".

Music, of course, has played a huge role in this. From the Romantics onward any structure one doesn't like is increasing deemed as "oppressive". Rock music is Dionysian, often to the extreme. Sometimes, say with Punk music, the requirement to actually cultivate musical skills or even bother to be in tune, becomes "oppressive".

I wonder though if there is a sweet spot between the Dionysian and the Apollonian that was sort of "accidentally" hit upon during the age of giants (c.1927-1970).

Monk said "Jazz is Freedom" but I believe it is freedom to the degree that you have absorbed and integrated the necessary structures to be free (learn the rules so you can forget them). A point that was sometimes missed by proponents of "liberation".

It's hard to get across to many on the left that this "liberation" they cherish is utterly DEPENDENT on the structures they wish to liberate themselves from. My town is filled with such trust-fund buddhas.

Musically, a figure like John Cage can be seen as a tipping point. Not that he didn't do interesting things. But his use of Zen and chance operations was primarily to legitimize liberation from all horizontal and musical limitations--there was little or no actual spiritual impulse there.

The irony is that to many of these confused humans, even pointing the contradictions out is seen as "oppressive"--besides it's rare that many have cultivated the requisite intellectual skills necessary to sort it out.

For me the question is how to refocus on that "sweet spot" between structure and true musical freedom...

Gagdad Bob said...


I was hoping you'd chime in!

Regarding the idea that music "can be the purest expression of all that is the most spiritual but also the basest and grossest aspects of human life," that is certainly critical to understanding people such as Wexler and my father-in-law.

In the case of Wexler, he was quite self-consciously intellectual, so that his writing always comes off as somewhat pompous and artificial. It is as if there is a kind of gap, or absence of integration, between the higher and lower, so that the lower is confused with the higher. Which is why he could never "distill" the higher from the lower, but remained a kind of vulgar, earthy man, just like my father-in-law. I have found this to be the case of many Jewish apostates, perhaps because Judaism is such a worldly religion that emphasizes the pleasures of food, sex, family, and everything else, while elevating them. But remove the higher from that, and you end up with a kind of hedonistic epicurianism, I suppose you'd call it, in which the sacred and profane are mixed instead of kept separate.

And that's not kosher!

Gandalin said...


I do have to run, but I will be back later, I promise!

You may know, that the traditional Jewish (Aramaic) term for an apostate or an unbeliever is an "apikoros," i.e. an Epicurean.



Gagdad Bob said...

Come to think of it, it's more than a little ironic, for it is a very Jewish sentiment to suggest that My feelings for literature, art, movies, food, and wine are all invested with spirit.

julie said...

(On a girly tangent, Leslie - I love that skirt!)

Gagdad Bob said...

Yes, as usual, I'm a little underdressed.

ge said...

but if your choice were between a steady diet of say '50 cent' vs 'Doggy in the Window' pop?...
[i was always more a fan of


Susannah said...

Julie said what I was thinking. Leslie looks beautiful! What a room full of blessings.

Susannah said...

ge, that's my mom's musical era. She told me she and her mother used to go into hysterics over Little Blue Man.

Gagdad Bob said...


Oh man, that is lame. Like basketball before the jump shot.

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

"In a spiritual context, "mystery" is not just the absence of knowledge but an ontologically real characteristic of O. It is a mode of knowledge, not a deficiency."

You mean it's a feature? :^)
And the best part is, it protects itelf.

Come to think of it, perhaps that's one reason suckular atheists hate God so much (which is irrational in its own right) because they can't reduce the mystery to banality like everything else in their life.
Sure, they always try but it only makes them look more foolish.

Dianne said...

GB - you have a lovely family. That knee's kinda creepy tho. :)

ge said...

agreed, those songs arent so 'good'
but at least they are not 'evil'
ala 'Rangsta Gap'

Gagdad Bob said...

Yeah -- like my knees. Maybe not so great, but not evil either.

Dianne said...

I concede your knees are not evil. :)

You were saying that the atmosphere (socialist) in the UK regarding music years ago, only a few music companies who decided who got famous and what people listend to, doesn't it look the same in the US now?

I don't want to think that our days of being innovative are over, especially for someone like Jack's sake.

In the writing world, we kind of had/have the same problem. But now there may be hope for authors who didin't get accepted by one of the great publishing houses. Online publication and Kindle, etc...

Van said...

“That being the case, one must follow them back up to their source, which is the whole basis of the "mystery." In a spiritual context, "mystery" is not just the absence of knowledge but an ontologically real characteristic of O. It is a mode of knowledge, not a deficiency.”

That is an interesting idea, mystery as a mode of knowledge… yes! and yes?

Lots of directions to follow that thread….

Van said...

Great pics!
Putting it in the context of some of the tunes, you might say they're the B'ee's knees.


Dianne said...

Here's an idea.

You could start your own "American Idol" kind of thing on the internet.

Solicit new material. Set it up as a once a weekend night kind of "nightclub." And let the listeners, guest forums vote.

For those who win, we send their song around the internet to all our frinds and links. And promote a "youtube" video.

Gagdad Bob said...


Good question about the current record biz in the US. Actually, things had really changed by the mid-'70s, by which time the majors had gotten involved in rock in a big way, and proceeded to shut out the smaller labels. This is, in a word, why music started to blow after the mid-'70s.

I just read a good book on the subject, Hit Men: Power Brokers and Fast Money Inside the Music Business". It shows how corrupt the whole business became, basically because the majors could pay off the radio stations to play their stuff (through middle-men, to make it legal), while the independents couldn't afford to. This is what essentially spawned the alternative/college scene in the '80s and early '90s, as a reaction...

Dianne said...

Now that we know all that, and have alternatives, can we do something about it?

Bob's "Concrete Slab," BYOB - no driving required.

Original music only.

Dianne said...

Say what you will about PF - this is not amateurish.

I know our musical interests vary.

And this is not about race music - just music.

Jack said...

Many of the songwriters I know are now using private investors to fund their recordings. Some have done with a degree of success with it. If nothing else it allows them to put out a higher quality product.

Hardly anybody talks about "getting signed" anymore. I've shared a bill with an artist who was signed to a larger "indie" type label over the past year.

They do his booking, hook him up supporting more established artists so that's good, but it just seems like there are more fingers in the pie now. I am friends with the keyboardist in his band...who is still getting paid next to nothing.

One possible outcome from all this could be vibrant micro-scenes that are more about high-level amateurism (in the original sense of the word meaning one who does it out of love) than the "big break".

But that's just a might not settle out for a while.

Dianne said...

Just to tick GB off - I'm posting this.

David Gilmore was HOT in his young days.

Steve Provizer said...

A nice treat to arrive at this blog...Some years ago, I reviewed books about Jews in American popular music for the "Forward" (what else could you review for them?)

In retrospect-and in the light of what I've read here in this blog-I notice that popular writing on this subject puts "observance" at the center of the analysis (not that writers consciously make this choice).

A nod to the musical-spiritual nexus may sometimes be made by referencing the melisma of the cantorial tradition-Harold Arlen, as a cantor's son, is the archetypal example.

Then, using the 'outsider' slant as a connecting device between jews and blacks, the contention is that, with both jews and blacks, a life in popular music means a life moving away from church and synagogue. This story is repeated over and over.

The idea of secular music fulfilling a spiritual need is oddly unexplored territory, even 45 years after "A Love Supreme."

Dianne said...

Flick yur bic! :)

Susannah said...

Re the youtube discussion...I can't tell how how many times I've been inspired to do an Amazon download by a YouTube video.

Right now, being immersed in trad. music, I almost *have* to download tunes and listen, listen, listen...because it's the only way to "get" the tunes from the inside. The sheet music just doesn't do the trick. It gets me up and rolling, but good musicians put in variations that breathe life into the notes.

So I've often gone straight from YouTube to Amazon, then used a slow-downer software to parse out ornamentation ideas.

Just noting that it's an encouragement to seek out the music, rather than a hindrance to sales.

Susannah said...

In fact, I went and ordered that famous Brady/Irvine CD from Amazon afters watching his Arthur MacBride performance a few dozen times. )

debass said...

Bruce Lundvall, who was CEO of Blue Note for 25 years, does a show on Sirius channel 72 on Friday's at 6:00 Eastern. He tells stories and plays music from artists he signed. It's a great show to get some of the human interest of some great players.
You don't need a big studio to make quality recordings anymore. You can make them in your living room. You can do all the tracks yourself.
How do you end up with a million dollars playing jazz? Start with 2 million. I don't do it for the money.

Gagdad Bob said...

Indeed. All of the classic Blue Notes in the 1950s and '60s were made in Rudy Van Gelder's living room.

Gandalin said...

Dear Bob,

Here are a few more thoughts, although I don't think I have much more to add to what I jotted down before.

1) The major mystery, of course, which seems to baffle all observes, and which you have wondered about before, is why so many Jews are absorbed in leftism, and so loyal to leftism. After all, the two major European atheistic socialist regimes of the 20th century killed more Jews in a few decades than all of the many varieties of Christian persecutors managed to kill in almost two millenia.

2) I think the answer is simpler than it seems, although it may be very unsatisfying, philosophically.

3) To tie it in with your weekend musicale, I think the answer is another facet of the observation that Jews were so involved in the early motion picture industry and in the "race" recording industry.

4) Although Jews participated in the public life of the ancient world (the commander of the Legion that burned the Second Temple was an Alexandrian Jew from a prominent family, who may have also become Prefect of the Praetorian Guard) -- from sometime around the Crusades until the Enlightenment, Jews were isolated in militarily enforced ghettos, and maintained a cultural and intellectual life almost entirely divorced from the European world around them. Perhaps that overstates the case, but even if Jews did know something of the cultural life around them, they were absolutely cut off from the political life of the empires in which they lived.

5) Only with the Enlightenment were Jews in Europe granted any of the usual rights of citizenship in places where they had lived, in many cases, since Roman times. It was at this time that Jews in Europe first began to participate in public life, in politics.

6) Now one of the main elements of Enlightenment politics was an anti-clerical, anti-monarchical, generally antinomian socialism, similar in some ways to the knee-jerk leftism that so many "secular" Jews espouse today as a substitute for their own authentic spiritual and political heritage. However, you will not find very many Jews involved in the events of the French Revolution. It would take another generation or two for very many Jews to become secularized enough to fully participate in European politics.

7) At the same time, another political current that sprang forth in the period following the enlightenment was Nationalism. The nation-states of Europe were being put together, often by warfare, in the XIXth century. First France, and then Germany, became Nations, with a national consciousness and a national State government. From the Nationalist movements, Jews were generally excluded. Even when these movements, as in Bismarck's Germany, were generally anti-clerical. Jews were also excluded from the political life of the Austrian Empire (although they found much greater acceptance in the Kingdom of Hungary).

- more below --

Gandalin said...

8) So it was natural for increasingly secular Jews to be drawn towards non-nationalist, or anti-nationalist leftist movements.

9) More to the point perhaps, increasingly secular Jews began to look to the leftist movement, rather than their own spiritual tradition, for the solution to their continuing oppression. The Party replaced the Messiah in their thinking.

10) Essentially they flocked to whatever Party would have them. The Social Democratic Party of Russia welcomed them, and they flocked to its banner. Particularly the banner of its Bolshevik faction. Jews were at first welcomed among Mussolini's new men, and the only reason that more Jews didn't participate in the National Socialist movement in Germany was its overt anti-Semitism. I say "more Jews" since as is well known, over 100,000 "mischlings" served in the Wehrmacht during WW2, and for example the Field Marshall who created the Luftwaffe was a full-blooded Jew, Erhard Milch, although quite evidently from a secular background.

11) Cut off from their own spiritual tradition, the secular Jews who joined the Communists treated its satanic tradition with the same care and attention their ancestors had devoted to the word of God. Little good it did them, of course. As Orlov quotes Henry Yagoda before his execution in the Lyubyanka, "From Stalin I deserved nothing but gratitude for my faithful service; from God I deserved the most severe punishment for having violated his commandments thousands of times. Now look where I am and judge for yourself: is there a God, or not..."

12) Thus the ancestral persistence and stubbornness, which enable the Jews to maintain their culture and spiritual tradition despite centuries of torture and oppression, serves now in their secular descendants to maintain their adherence to leftist movements whose essence is the replacement of the genuine ethical Messianism of the Jewish tradition, with a satanic utopianism.

13) One caveat to keep in mind, is that many if not most secular Jews in the United States today, many of whom are several generations away from Jewish culture and observance, have no idea what is and what isn't a part of the Jewish tradition. Most of them think that the Jewish tradition consists of little more than the platitudinous lies of the leftist catechism.

14) According to some sources, only 1/5 of the Jews who were enslaved in Egypt made the Exodus. That is why the penultimate plague was darkness -- the secular Jews of the time, who loved the fleshpots of Egypt more than God, were slain during 5 days of darkness, which covered the land so that their deaths would not discourage the faithful, encourage Pharaoh, or bring discredit to the Name of God. However, those sources assure us that this time, all of the Jews, even the secular leftists, will be saved. God's love is a many spendoured thing.

Enough for now.


Gagdad Bob said...


You know, I think Muller deals with most of the points you raise, but I'll have to get a little further into the book to make an educated comment... He seems to believe that the whole Jewish-socialist nexus is overplayed, partly because Jews are over-represented in any intellectual movement, whether left or right (e.g., Milton Friedman, Irving Kristal, Ayn Rand (!), von Mises, and so many other conservative classical liberals).

Another important factor is that, to the extent that the Republican party is identified as "Christian," that's going to repel a lot of Jews -- at least until they overcome their perfectly understandable suspiciousness, and realize that Christians are their closest allies.

And a third factor raised by Muller is that fact that Jews, because of their success at capitalism, have a particular incentive to avoid mass perceptions that challenge the very basis of capitalism. Therefore, most Jews are not really leftist, but just classic welfare state liberals...

One last point -- Muller points out that Jews may vote and talk one way, but that their "revealed preferences" are another thing entirely. Now that I think about it, all of my liberal Jewish friends and relatives talk a good game, but they behave like capitalists. That's a point that Dennis Prager often raises -- that many people who call themselves "liberal" have quite conservative values, based on the actual conduct of their lives.

To put it another way, you rarely see a true leftist-Jewish loser. Their mothers would never get over it.

Susannah said...

My current tune, Rolling in the Ryegrass, played by Micho Russell here, and Kieran Collins here, and Michael Eskin here. See what I mean? LOL! It's a gleaning process. What would we (who don't live in Co. Clare) do without the internet?

Susannah said...

"...that many people who call themselves "liberal" have quite conservative values, based on the actual conduct of their lives. "

Our guest and I were discussing this very thing re: the black Christian community. Odd thing, that.

Susannah said...

Transatlantic Sessions, another invaluable sampling of videos, also available for piecemeal download (the way those on a budget do it) at Amazon.

I sure hope YouTube doesn't take these down too soon...

ge said...

money monogamy monotheism:
jews in a nutshell
save the last dance for me
the doc pomus [president of musical united states] story
Stand By Me

Gandalin said...

Dear Bob,

The "revealed preferences" method is very powerful.

I am very well acquainted with two secular Jews who grew up in the depression, joining the Communist Party, USA, shortly after WW2 (remaining in until "Hungary.") One of them flew missions behind enemy lines for the OSS, by the way.

They describe themselves as "progressives" (the usual code word in their milieu for communist-sympathizing) faithfully read "The Nation," denounce the GOP, and espouse the general leftist line.

But if you ask them for their opinions, issue by issue, using a questionnaire such as the one that Dennis Prager recently published, their attitudes on individual questions are just about as solidly conservative as you can find.

They are conservatives, but don't know it. Their cognitive dissonance and self-deception are so strong, they think that their opinions and values are reflected in the leftist movement. However, the actual individual values by which they live are those of the Tea Party movement.

Go figure.

The other subject upon which you touch in your weekend musical posts, is separation.

Separation is absolutely the key to understanding the Jewish tradition. I think that is the key intellectual concept that underlies all of it. From the work of creation itself, the spiritual task is understood as a series of separations. Kedusha, holiness, means separation, and setting aside that which is set aside.

But that's a much longer discussion.



xlbrl said...

It is sad and ironic that Wexler's communist mother would consider herself a "free" thinker.