Jody Rosen is best known as the pop critic for Slate and the author of a history of the song “White Christmas,” but in 1994 he was just another grad student in London. “I thought I wanted to be an academic,” he says over lunch at a midtown Indian buffet, reflecting on the Jewish history degree he never finished. It was while beginning his dissertation—on Tin Pan Alley songwriting and its role in acculturating Jewish identity into the American mainstream—that Rosen found a piece of sheet music for a tune called “I Want to Be an Oy-Oy-Oyviator (A Yiddisha Plea).”
“I was astonished,” he says. “Lots is elided in the official version of Jewish history. I quickly realized this was a genre—blackface for Jews.”
Twelve years later, Rosen has compiled Jewface, which gathers 16 of these stereotype-flaunting curios, originally recorded between 1905 and 1924. As that time span indicates, these songs have little going on rhythmically that will surprise anyone—at their jauntiest you can cakewalk to them, but despite the occasional outbreak of syncopation, pokey brass-and-strings settings are the basic rule. Still, the timing of Rosen’s excavation is auspicious: Not only have academic minstrelsy studies been gaining traction for the past decade, labels like Archeophone and websites like UC Santa Barbara’s Cylinder Preservation and Digitization Project—which offers free MP3 downloads of thousands of restored pre-electric recordings—have been steadily introducing the oldest recorded pop (and other) music to curious new ears.
Out on the archival Jewish-pop label Reboot Stereophonic, which has also reissued the early electronic music of Gershon Kingsley, Jewface is enlightening even if you find yourself wincing at the broadness of a sprightly pair of tracks by Edward Meeker, “I’m a Yiddish Cowboy” (with its sub–Bugs Bunny “Woo-woo-woo” background “Indian” howls) and “That’s Yiddisha Love” (“First you find a lady that is smart in the head/Then you ask her pa how much you get if you wed”). Or at Collins and Harlan’s self-explanatory “When Mose With His Nose Leads the Band,” the rarest and most expensive item on the album—Rosen paid $110 for his copy of the cylinder.
Rosen owns around 70 Jewface records, and is considering assembling a second CD concentrating on comic monologues, maybe an entire disc of tracks about the infamously stingy landlord Cohen, represented here by Rhoda Bernard’s recording of the Irving Berlin–penned “Cohen Owes Me 97 Dollars.” “I have Cohen at King Tut’s tomb and Cohen on real estate,” says Rosen, who has also commissioned remixes of the material—a clunky funk version of Ada Jones’s “Under the Matzos Tree” by Adam Dorn, a/k/a Mocean Worker, has been completed. Rosen’s real goal, though, is a concert featuring new versions of Jewface numbers. “The vast majority of these songs were never recorded,” Rosen says. “I wonder what John Zorn thinks of this stuff? I’d love to hear Marc Ribot take a crack at ‘Cohen Owes Me 97 dollars.’ “