A Jewish story
LITTLE DID WE know that the story of the LP is itself a Jewish story. The first commercial audio-playback machine, the gramophone, was invented by a German Jew, Emile Berliner, in the late 1800s. The first long-playing 33 1/3 RPM records were invented by Peter Carl Goldmark, a Hungarian Jewish immigrant who worked for the Columbia Broadcasting Systems. The Jewish head of Columbia Records, Edward Wallerstein, turned the LP into a commercial reality. The idea of adorning the LPs with cover art was the brainchild of Columbia’s first art director, Alex Steinweiss, the son of Latvian and Polish Jewish immigrants….
— From And You Shall Know Them by Their Vinyl
And You Shall Know Us By the Trail of Our Vinyl
December 18, 2008
At 38, Roger Bennett would seem a bit young to be living in the past. But with three books in the bank, he’s making nostalgia a cottage industry.
In Bar Mitzvah Disco, written with Jules Shell and Nick Kroll (Crown, 2005), he provides a collective “family album” — mostly from the 1970s and ’80s — of that rite of passage. In Camp Camp (Crown, 2008), he was at it again, with a similar style on another aspect of Jewish youth.
But his latest — And You Shall Know Us By the Trail of Our Vinyl: The Jewish Past as Told by the Records We have Loved and Lost, written with Josh Kun — promises to be his most ambitious and sentimental project yet.
Mixing photos of LPs (kids, ask your parents) classic and kitschy, Bennett captures four generations of Jewish culture through the artwork of recorded sound.
“It’s not nostalgia,” Bennett insisted in a telephone interview. “It’s a lost world and a way of telling American-Jewish history. It’s about music but it’s not about music at all.”
When Bennett was a child growing up in Liverpool, he inherited his mother’s record player and record collection. There was the normal stuff — The Mamas and the Papas, the Beatles — but there were two albums that were particularly stunning to him: Connie Francis Sings Jewish Favorites, the best-selling Jewish album of all time, and The Irving Fields Trio’s Bagels and Bongos, part of the Jewish-Latin craze of the 1960s.
Years later, Bennett and Kun decided to “save the last vinyl that no one really cared about anymore and piece it together for the book. It’s rather intoxicating once you get started,” Bennett said.
For eight years, the writers visited thrift stores and trolled eBay to find these treasures. They photographed the album covers and posted the results at www.idelsounds.com, a site dedicated, according to its mission statement, as prompting “a new conversation about the present by listening anew to the past. We will do this by unearthing lost classics from the archive, sounds that are languishing in thrift-store crates across the nation. The stories that accompany them have yet to be told: hybrid identities, eclectic communities, racial dialogue, and pioneering musical style. This is music that forces listeners to ask themselves who am I, what have I inherited, and what am I going to do about it?”
Soon visitors to the website started sending in their own records (as they did for similar sites for Bar Mitzvah Disco and Camp Camp. (Bennett and Kun also host a companion blog — www.trailofourvinyl.com — where they discuss their latest finds.)
Vinyl explores several genres of “Jewish” music, beginning with a collection of cantorial albums and ending with the Jewish folk explosion of the ’60s and ’70s. Other categories include the African-American affinity for the Jewish sound, Shabbat and holiday services, comedy and spoken word albums, party music, and music from and about Israel. Each chapter is prefaced with an essay on “What it sounds like” by contributors such as A.J. Jacobs, Norman Lear, and Shalom Auslander.
The prerequisite for consideration was that the record had to be 33 1/3 RPM and produced in the United States or Israel — “items that would have been in an everyday Jewish home,” Bennett said. “It was a totem of identity. It’s not like people would come home from work, pour themselves a Scotch, and listen to one of the Holocaust memorial albums, but it was an important reflection of identity that they would have them in their home.”
In fact, albums dealing with the Holocaust didn’t appear until the 1960s because it took a long time for America to come to terms with it publicly, he said. Once they did, they began to fuse the Shoa with the Russian Jewry movement. “It took 20 years to start talking about the Holocaust,” Bennett said, “but it went very quickly in the Soviet Jewry [era], that it was not going to happen again.”
My copy of Vinyl came with a CD version of The Barry Sisters’ 1973 record Our Way, which features Yiddish versions of such American hits as “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head,” “Cabaret,” and “My Way.”
Of the hundreds of albums from which to choose, why did Bennett and Kun select this one? Much of the book is about crossing musical boundaries, he said. “Jews playing Latin music, Latins playing Jewish music…. We wanted to show that even in 1973, there was still an audience for albums that take American pop hits and translate them into Yiddish.”
That target audience includes “anyone who has good taste,” Bennett said. “Obviously, it’s for the people who once loved the music — our grandparents who will enjoy seeing it again — but it’s also for people in their 20s and 30s. This is a lost history which is reviving. What the child rejects, the grandchild reclaims.”
Bennett said he was looking forward to hearing from the younger demographic. “That’s our goal: Jews who would never have really thought about any of these issues.
“Bar Mitzvah Disco and Camp Camp look at who we are and how we got to be this way; Vinyl looks at the dynamic of several generations.”
(Editor’s note: If you have old 33 1/3 albums that you no longer want or are a performer of one of the aforementioned genres with a story to share, contact Bennett at Rogeracbp@aol.com.)