Many books about American Jews and pop culture focus on quantity (wow, look at all the Jews in the music industry!) as they gawk at famous people. Ben Sidran, an accomplished musician and producer, has something very different in mind here. His well-researched history wants to get past that type of shallowness and understand why Jews have had such a considerable impact on all aspects of American music for decades. In discussing notables from Irving Berlin to Bob Dylan to Matisyahu, he’s not content to be a mere chronicler; Sidran wants to understand what aspects of Judaism have driven so many Jews to excel in the field of music. This is not an easy task, given that many pivotal figures have been dismissive of Judaism (the author himself is a skeptic). Still, Sidran finds his way, delving into how the religious traditions and the “otherness” of American Jews have inspired Jews both to create and to work with other outsiders, particularly African-Americans. He also finds Jewish aspects to the lives of some non-Jewish greats, including Louis Armstrong and Woody Guthrie; assesses how the music business has metamorphosed; and explores at length what it means to be “authentic.”
His work has its limits. He mostly misses out on punk (even jumping The Ramones ahead by several years) and by the time he gets to hip-hop, Sidran sounds grumpy. There are some fascinating figures (Phil Ochs, Joey Ramone, Richard Hell, the band Yo La Tengo) who would have seemingly fit right into his narrative, but he either mentions them briefly or not at all. And I would have liked to see what he could have done with the Jewish elements of the most spiritually charged rock band of today, Bruce Springsteen’s. (Springsteen is not Jewish but some of his inner circle is.) Nevertheless, this is a work dense with fascinating information and chock full of compelling ideas and connections. Bibliography, end notes, index.