Being an expatriate isn't what it used to be. Modern telecommunications and the ubiquity of American culture contrive to make it easy for an American abroad to stay in touch with his homeland. I have lived in England for sixteen years, but most of the time it doesn't feel like I'm that far away. Then some event happens that makes me realize that I really have been gone a long time. Trying to do a piece about an aspect of race relations in America turned out to be one of those events.
I knew that while I was away, race had remained a fairly fraught issue in America. Not fraught in the sense I grew up with, demonstrating for equal rights for African-Americans, but fraught in a more neurotic way. With people looking, often in vain, for a language with which they could speak honestly to people of another race. Then there was the sense among African Americans of the post-civil rights generation that it wasn't worth the effort to integrate after all.
In 1993 I made my first extended visit to the U.S. since leaving. I traveled around the Midwest, a place I hadn't visited since graduating from college 20 years before. In Topeka, Kansas - I lived there immediately after graduation; don't ask why - I met a young African-American who was working for the city as head of public relations. We had a long chat about how Topeka had changed, then moved on to the subject of race. I found myself slightly flabbergasted listening to this middle class fellow who grew up in the city of Brown v. Board of Education talk about the value of segregation. His point was that black people were better off as a community when they were forced to be among themselves.
So I was not unaware that race could be a difficult subject. But I was certain that looking at relations between blacks and Jews, refracted through the prism of American popular song, would be a good way to go about it.
The idea for Jews and Blues came to me while I was at Auschwitz for National Public Radio, covering the solemn ceremonies marking the 50th anniversary of the death camp's "liberation". I recorded an elderly cantor, one of the few left in Poland, singing an impassioned Kaddish. A short time later I was listening to a recording of Mississippi Delta bluesman Skip James singing Hard Time Killin' Floor Blues, made in 1932. My mind made a cross- fade between James's moaning and the cantor's crying. It seemed to me I had found the musical kernel of what made the Jews and Blues connection: from Harold Arlen and George Gershwin writing standards that could so easily be blues-ed up or jazzed up by Ella Fitzgerald or Charlie Parker, to the electric blues stylings of Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley played by a bunch of Jewish guys backing a landsman singer/songwriter named Robert Zimmerman, aka Bob Dylan.
I decided to trace that musical and social history. My idea was to look at why, overwhelmingly, the history of American popular music over the last 100 years had been a story of Jewish and black interaction. What in the groups' respective musical traditions fit so well together, and what in their social interactions made this musical exchange possible. It seemed an innocent enough idea and one that could be spun out into a multi-part series. As there were plenty of people alive who had lived that history, I thought it would be an easy piece to pull together.
I was totally unprepared for the resistance I met. Feelings have been so badly damaged on both sides that the participants simply didn't want to talk. Spike Lee's grotesque portrayal of Jewish club owners in "Mo' Better Blues" hurt. Blanket charges of exploitation of black musicians by Jews hurt even more. One Jewish record producer, responsible for some of the most popular records of the last fifty years, told me he wouldn't be my "Jew." He said he didn't have to defend his work; he'd been attacked by Jesse Jackson and defended it then. I wasn't asking him to defend his work. It didn't matter, he wouldn't take part.
I called Artie Shaw, now in his nineties, sharp, tough and garrulous as he was when he was the swing era's sexiest bandleader. He was having none of my idea. "What is this 'Jews'?" he asked. "What about Tommy Dorsey, he wasn't Jewish." Yes, of course, there were key white figures in the music business who weren't Jewish. But let's face it; just because Jayson Williams and Larry Bird are white, it doesn't make describing the NBA as an overwhelmingly black league inaccurate. Most of the white people in the music business: composers, producers, publishers and agents were Jewish. Artie Shaw had some very interesting stories to tell about race in the music business. He told some of them to me on the phone. But in the end he wouldn't tell them to me on the record, on tape.
African Americans were equally reluctant, although, in the end, more persuadable. Amiri Baraka was an incredibly important person to interview. In 1963, as Leroi Jones, he wrote "Blues People", one of the great books of American cultural history. Two years later he took part in a notorious public debate at the Village Vanguard on Black Power, where he refused to accord to Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, two young Jews murdered in Mississippi the previous year, the same martyr status as James Chaney, a young black man killed with them. It was a harbinger of a break in relations between blacks and Jews that has led to many books of history being written. Baraka spoke to me about Blues music, but was clearly uncomfortable talking about the Black-Jewish relationship.
Despite the difficulties of getting participants to talk, we pressed ahead. We had too much good music and too many good insights from our other interviewees to give up. But the idea of a multi-part series had to be jettisoned, and that led to the inevitable deletion of important material. I suppose one shouldn't confess to one's problems in putting together a program. But my experience of making this documentary tells me that some people will listen to the finished product with acute racial sensitivity. I thought it would be a good idea to fess up to the problems I had along the way. In a perfect world, the piece you hear would be the one I imagined all those years ago listening to Skip James. But that's not the story I got.and you have to report what you find - not what you wish you had found.