How immigrants created America's mix tape

Nor without the influx of European Jewish immigrants, who raised families on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and elsewhere, early in the 20th century. The most celebrated of their offspring, George Gershwin, was born Jacob Gershwine, his scores to "Porgy and Bess," "Rhapsody in Blue" and other works merging black musical technique with Russian-Jewish melodic inflections.

But Gershwin was just one of a wave of Broadway and Hollywood tunesmiths who forged a musical theater decidedly more colloquial, breezy, snappy — more American, in other words — than its European operatic counterparts. Irving Berlin (born in Russia as Israel Baline), Harold Arlen (Hyman Arluck), Jule Styne (Julius Stein), Sammy Cahn (Samuel Cohen) and others similarly brought immigrant Jewish musical culture to the stage and screen, embracing elements of jazz and all-American swing along the way.

The great songwriter Cole Porter, born and raised in Indiana, acknowledged as much, telling Richard Rodgers that he had decided to start writing "Jewish tunes."

"I laughed at what I took to be a joke," Rodgers wrote. "But not only was Cole dead serious, he did exactly that. Just hum the melody that goes with 'Only you beneath the moon or under the sun' from 'Night and Day,' or any of 'Begin the Beguine' or 'Love for Sale' or 'My Heart Belongs to Daddy' or 'I Love Paris.' These minor-key melodies are unmistakably eastern Mediterranean. It is surely one of the ironies of the musical theater that despite the abundance of Jewish composers, the one who has written the most enduring 'Jewish' music should be an Episcopalian millionaire who was born on a farm in Peru, Ind."

And let's not forget the Hollywood composers who came here fleeing Nazism, such as Erich Wolfgang Korngold (scoring Errol Flynn swashbucklers such as "The Sea Hawk"), Franz Waxman ("Sunset Boulevard" and "Rebecca") and Friedrich Hollander ("Sabrina" and "The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T").

It's critical to understand, however, that the expat Jews and other Europeans who influenced American music were preceded and followed by waves of immigrants, all scraping their way up from tenements.

"The ghetto is the cradle, because the struggle is to get out of the ghetto," songwriter Cahn told Max Wilk in "They're Playing Our Song: The Truth Behind the Words and Music of Three Generations."

"In the beginning, the first waves, everything was Irish. The songs, the performers, comics — (Edward) Harrigan and (Tony) Hart, Eddie Foy, George M. Cohan, all Irish. Politicians, entertainers, writers, all Irish. …

"Next wave into the ghetto, Jewish. Same pattern emerges. Singers, performers — (Al) Jolson, (Joe) Weber and (Lew) Fields, comics, all Yiddish. Now it went to the Italians. Think hard — Italians. Performers — (Frank) Sinatra, Vic Damone, Tony Bennett, (Perry) Como. Politicians, writers, gangsters, prizefighters, all Italians, all struggling to get out of the ghetto."

That's how it always has been in American life and musical culture, the sounds of immigrants rushing forward, even in classical music. The rhythms of the Caribbean course through the work of America's first great composer, the Creole pianist Louis Moreau Gottschalk; jazz-age syncopations punctuate scores of Gershwin, Aaron Copland, William Schuman, Leonard Bernstein and many more.

The process came to a kind of apex in the enormous oeuvre of Duke Ellington, whose works defy categorization but embrace jazz, blues, gospel, spirituals and other facets of the immigrant experience.

"If you look at it like a stream, it's like the Mississippi River," says Gunther Schuller, the eminent American composer-scholar-author. "It just keeps spreading out. … It's what we've called the grand melting pot, and that's what it is. And you can't stop the melting."

Indeed, Afro-Cuban dance rhythms, Mexican mariachi music, South American tango and other traditions too numerous to name long have echoed in our music and continue to do so.

Why does it matter? Why should we understand that American music is predicated on the work of generations of immigrants?

"People say … we're in this post-racial period," says Monica Hairston, executive director of the Center for Black Music Research at Columbia College Chicago.

They say, "We're past all that, since we know that things like race and ethnic differences don't matter anymore. …

"It's really the opposite. I think it's really important we keep talking about it and remind everyone.

"It's not divisive. It's our story."

As our country assesses the value of immigrants, it's a story worth remembering.

Twitter @howardreich


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