The Yamikah Under the Cowboy Hat
The Manifestation of the Jewish Musicians’s Identity in Southern Music
At first I was lucky because I got double the amount of presents during the holiday season- the beautiful sea of red and green presents illuminated by eight flickering candles. Autumn meant eating apples and honey with Grandma Sandy in Riverdale, and Spring was when Grandma Jane would fly up from Ada, Oklahoma, chocolate bunnies in tow. Then it came time for my parents to decide, “What will my children believe?” I am a Jew, and my mom is a Christian. I am a Jew, and I have blonde hair and blue eyes. I am a Jew and I have never lived outside of the Bible Belt. In 2010, three years after I was officially converted to Judaism, I wrote this in my journal:
“Now three years later I’m not sure that I should have listened [to my parent’s] advice. Ever since my Bat Mitzvah I have distanced myself from the synagogue. It’s not that I don’t believe in God or I don’t appreciate what I learned all those years in Hebrew school, but when it comes down to it I just don’t feel very inspired by the religion… I am going through a process of realization: maybe Judaism just is not the right religion for me…”
Now, five years later, confident in my Jewish faith, I wonder if my identity as a Jew was drowned out by the dominant Christian voices of my Southern cultural upbringing. I have dedicated the majority of my collegiate research on the duality of Judaism and the American South. For example, in 2014 I co-wrote an essay on Jewish Professorship at the University of North Carolina, and the following semester I conducted two interviews with “Jewish Social Activist Working in the American South” for the Southern Oral History Program. This time around I have explored the experience and identity of a group of Jews who live, like myself, a life defined by conflicting dualities: They are Jews and they play and rely on the music industry of the American South.
My research specifically explored the identity and experience of Jewish musicians who grew up in the American South, or currently rely on the music industries of the South to support their career. Although the Jews involved in the revival of Folk and Old Time Music were key contributors to the cannon of Southern Music, I purposely excluded them from my subject pool. This allowed my research to focus solely on the identity of individuals who play the vernacular music of their culture, as opposed to Northern Jews who have acculturated Southern traditions. Over the past month I have conducted seven interviews with Jews and Christians who have personal knowledge towards the Jewish experience in Southern music. I utilized a wide spectrum of narratives thus facilitating a comprehensive and cohesive narrative of not just Jews in the South, but other members of the general Southern and Jewish communities as well. Although the interviews presented a variety of perspectives, the common threads were unmistakable:
Through analyzing the seven interviews in conjunction with literature on Anti-Semitism in the music industry, and literature on the general experience of Jews in the South, it is evident that the manifestation of Jewish identity in Southern Music has been defined by the Jewish community’s inherent “outsider” and “otherness” within the culture of the American South. This sense of Jewish vernacular outsiderness has influenced the rejection and masking of one’s own Jewish identity, and in some cases, removing themselves from the genre of Southern Music all together.
A Brief Exploration of Southern Jewish Identity
In addition to my own thoughts and
feelings, scholars agree that it is imperative to study southern Jewish history
separate from other Jewish communities in the United States. Historian, Gary
Zola, director of the Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish
Archives, believes we should study southern Jewish history because, it “demonstrates
that a viable, committed, and resolute Jewry can indeed endure even in the face
of ostensibly ominous societal conditions: assimilation, intermarriage, a
shrinking demography and so forth.“ For more than three hundred years, southern Jewish ethnic and religious
identity has been shaped by encounters with white and black Gentile cultures.
Even though they have been in the South for centuries, Historian George Tindall
categorizes Jews in the South with “outsider status” due to their immigration
heritage and isolation from the rest of the nation as Southerners.
Jewish “outsider status” and “assimilation” fostered major events, such as the emergence of Reform Judaism in America. The Reform Movement revised Jewish traditions and material culture to fit the “habits of modern civilization.” In the South, Jews “substituted English for Hebrew, introduced choirs and organ services, allowed mixed seating of men and women, and encouraged the rabbi to preach sermons, as did his Protestant colleagues.” Unlike Jews who lived in large cities in the North, southern Jews had a stronger connection to their sense of “southerness,” rather than their “Jewishness.”
In the Introduction to The Provincials: A Personal History of Jews in the South, Eli Evans comments on being raised in the South, “ I was touched by its passions and myths, by its language and literature, by the heartbeat of its music, by the rhythm of its seasons and the beauty of its land, by the menacing fear of violence, by the complexities of race and religion, by the intensity of its history and the turbulence of its politics… With such entanglements, a native son remains irredeemably and enduringly Southern.” This statement is particularly important because it highlights how significant the music of the South was to the developing identity of a southerner, Jewish and Gentile alike.
Leo Frank: The Face of Anti-Semitism
Although the majority of southern Jewish history presents a coherent narrative, the underlying racism and xenophobia that the region is built upon has come to define one of the most significant events in the history of the Jewish South: The 1915 lynching of Leo Frank. On August 25th, 1913, Leo Frank, a Jewish man in Atlanta was placed on trial and convicted of raping and murdering a thirteen-year-old girl, Mary Phagan, who worked for the National Pencil Company, which Frank managed. During the trial, Defense attorney Reuben Arnold argued that Frank was a victim of rampant anti-Semitism. Frank’s great misfortune in this case, Arnold said, is that he “comes from a race of people that have made money.” Arnold told jurors “if Frank hadn’t been a Jew he never would have been prosecuted.” On October 12, 1913, the New York Sun wrote on the trial, “The anti-Semitic feeling was the natural result of the belief that the Jews had banded to free Frank, innocent or guilty. The supposed solidarity of the Jews for Frank, even if he was guilty, caused a Gentile solidarity against him.” Frank’s Jewish identity and the southern resentment toward him ultimately lead to his death. Two years after he was put in prison, Leo Frank was kidnapped from Milledgeville, Georgia by the Knights of Mary Phagan, a revitalized Ku Klux Klan group of prominent men from Cobb County, Georgia, where Frank was transported to nearly 170 miles away, and publically lynched. In efforts to “heal old wounds,” in 1986 Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles granted Frank a Pardon for failing to “question his guilt or innocence” and “failing to bring his killers to justice.” The pardon was inspired in part by the 1982 testimony of eighty-three-year-old Alonzo Mann, who as an office boy had seen Jim Conley, a janitor at the Pencil Factory, carrying Mary Phagan’s body to the basement on the day of her death.
The beginning of the 20th, century also “reflected Americans’ interest in a burgeoning new genre—country music.” Although country music existed before the 1900’s, “the form came into being as a commercial enterprise in the 1920s.” Elements of early country music, often seen in contemporary works as well, featured “melancholy lyrics, a distinctive twang, and instruments such as the banjo to explore the problems and challenges of the day, including Prohibition, the effects of the Great Depression, and racial tensions.” An exemplary song of early country music is “Little Mary Phagan,” written by Fiddlin’ John Carson in 1915. “Little Mary Phagan,” despite the ending no longer being audible, reflects the sensationalist rhetoric and emotions that surrounded the Leo Frank case. Although this song was written before Leo Frank was cleared - very possibly before he was lynched, it was not recorded until 1925 ten years after Frank was murdered. The recording, sung by the high-pitched voice of Carson’s fifteen-year-old daughter, Rosa Lee Carson (better know as “Moonshine Kate”), further illuminates the commercialized story of a young girls innocence destroyed by “a Northern Jew.” Although the listener hears the details of the case, Frank’s guilt and “damnation,” along with his other fellow Jews living a life of “otherness,” has actually been pre-determined “in the courthouse in the sky.” Although Jewish subjects are anomalous in country music, the feelings and thoughts expressed in “Little Mary Phagan” still affect Jews in the South today.
The majority of my work consisted of a series of interviews that I personally conducted, both in person and over the phone, and a subsequent analysis of their dominant themes. My search for subjects began with an initial conversation with Professor William Ferris, who suggested a comprehensive list of individuals to contact. To my pleasant surprise, after each interview I was presented with a complete new list of individuals who could be helpful resources to my study of Jewish identity in southern music. In total I conducted seven interviews, two in person and five on the phone.http://artscenterlive.org/
Here is a list, and a brief description of each interviewee:
- Art Menius: The former Executive Director of the ArtsCenter in Carrboro, North Carolina. He was the first Executive Director of International Bluegrass Music Association and initial manager of Folk Alliance International. Menius worked full-time for MerleFest as sponsorship and marketing director from 1997 to 2007. He served as Director of Appalshop in Whitesburg, KY from 2007 to 2010. Menius graduated from The University of North Carolina with a MA in history.
- Mark Rubin: Born and raised in Stillwater, Oklahoma, Mark Rubin is a practicing Jew and a working musician of Southern music. Currently living in New Orleans, Rubin has dedicated his life to his love of music. Most well known as founding member of the Weirdo-Americana act Bad Livers, Rubin also performs klezmer music around the world, and has toured with Boban Markovic Orkestar and Frank London’s Klezmer Brass All Stars, and the Other Europeans Project. Rubin is also the Founding Director of the Folk Alliance International’s annual Winter Music Camp. This past summer he released his first solo album “Southern Discomfort."
- Barry Poss: In 1978, native Barry Poss founded Sugar Hill Records, the venerable independent label that has become synonymous with the best in American roots music. Thirty years later, the Sugar Hill catalog contains some of the finest bluegrass, folk, mountain blues, and country recordings ever produced. Originally from Ontario, Poss is now retired, and lives in Durham, North Carolina.
- Henry “Hank” Sopaznik: One of the leading founders of the klezmer revival, Sopaznik, has help lay the ground work for a new generation of Jewish and Yiddish artists. In 2002, Sapoznik co-produced the “Yiddish Radio Project” for NPR’s “All Things Considered.” He is also a published scholar best known for His 1999 book, “Klezmer!: Jewish Music From Old World to Our World.” Sapoznik is now the Director of the Mayrent Institute for Yiddish Culture at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
- Bob Carlin: Carlin, best known as a clawhammer style banjoist, is a three-time winner of the Frets Magazine readers poll, and has four Rounder albums and several instruction manuals and videos for the banjo. Carlin is also a producer for the music industry and traditional music researcher. Originally from New York City, Carlin is a practicing Jew, who now lives and works in Lexington, North Carolina.
- Bill and Bobbie Malone (group interview): Bill Malone, a former professor emeritus of history at Tulane University, is known for his cultural and historical studies of country music. A renowned scholar, Bill Malone is the author of the first and most complete history of the traditional American music genre, Country Music, U.S.A., as well as the author of a recent biography on Mike Seeger, Music from the True Vine: Mike Seeger’s Life and Musical Journey. Bill Malone hosts a weekly radio show, “Back to the Country”, on WORT–FM community radio in Madison, Wisconson. Bobbie Malone, wife of Bill Malone, is the former director of the Office of School Services, Wisconsin Historical Society, author and editor of books for young readers. Bobbie has also written and reviewed a number of articles on Southern Jewry. Bill and Bobbie live in Madison, Wisconsin where they are known as “Madison’s premier classic country duo.”
- Herb Belofsky: Belosky is a Jewish drummer who lives in Austin, Texas. Belosky is also credited as an engineer, group member, composer, technical support and vocalist on over seventeen albums. Belofsky is internationally known as the percussionist for the acoustic rock quartet, the Rainravens.
Since I was relying on the content of my interviews to provide a comprehensive analysis on the identity of Jews in Southern music, it was imperative for me to remain as objective as possible. I was able to conduct each interview in the style of an oral history because my topic of interest was very subjective and broad-ended. Instead of asking specific questions, I began each interview with statements and questions like, “Please tell me about your life growing up in the South” or “How has your religious identity affected your musical career?” or “Why do you play, or support music of the South?” These open-ended questions, allowed the interviewee to have control over the conversation, rather than feel restrained to discuss what they thought I wanted to hear. Due to the lack of previous literature on Jewish Identity in Southern Music, prior to conducting the interviews I truly had no clear direction or thesis to my research, however, with each conversation came a greater sense of the manifestation of Jewish identity in Southern music, thus helping me form my thesis.
Like the general history of southern Jews, the seven interviews revealed that the manifestation of Jewish identity in Southern Music is defined by the Jewish community’s inherent “outsider” and “otherness” within the vernacular culture of the American South. This sense of Jewish outsiderness has influenced the rejection and masking of one’s own Jewish identity, and in some cases, thus removing themselves from the genre of Southern Music and the South all together. Although each individual had their own story to tell, the overwhelming amount of shared narratives, emphasized the specific Jewish experience in Southern music.
The Vernacular of the Industry
“Vernacular music is the music of insiders, which includes taken for granted assumptions of knowingness and belonging, reinforced in friendships, language, etc. The cultural landscape is theirs! Jews on the other hand are historic outsiders. They do not share these taken for granted assumptions of belonging and they feel the differences as not-belonging, cultural outsiders if you will.” –Barry Poss
sense of outsiderness is subject to language, the traditions,
and physical appearance as well. From “comments as simple as praising Jesus at the
Country Music Awards” to colloquial Anti-Semitism, the language of the South presents
Jews as outsiders to the society.  The saying “Jew you down,” a common phrase used in the Southern music industry
of Nashville and Austin reflects the embedded ignorance towards Jews in the
South. To “Jew you down” refers to the stereotypical portrayal of Jews as cheap
and money obsessed. According to Herb Belofsky, most southerners “don’t realize
how painful or insulting [“Jew you down”] is” for it is “part of their
vocabulary.” Belofsky explains, “I don’t think of the person who says this as a
person I couldn’t be friends with” since it is so ingrained into colloquial
southern language. During our conversation, Bob Carlin recalled a story where
he was publically stereotyped due to his religious affiliations. Before a show,
a fellow musician joked to the audience, “Now Bob Carlin here, he doesn’t need
to be paid because he’s a Jew.” After the show Carlin approached this man to describe the offense he took to
that statement. However, due to the lingo of the South “He didn’t understand
why it wasn’t acceptable for him to say that.”
The pervasive Gentile traditions of the
South in contrast to Jewish traditions also pose as a major source of Jewish
outsiderness. In an article from the Jewish
Journal, Jewgrass adds a new song to the
South, the author David Solomon comments on the necessity of Christmas
albums in country music. In the article he comments on the inability of Jews to
sing about Jewish traditions, “Jewish songwriters might be able to write about
the little church on the hill, but they can’t sing about the little synagogue
down the street.” Mark Rubin goes as far to say, “If they don’t see you at church, they’re not
going to work with you.” Jews are also known to be “Lefties” or liberal in comparison to Southern
ideology. Some of these differing opinions stem directly from the traditions of
the Christian religion, such as anti-abortion laws.
The third manifestation of Jewish outsiderness is
experienced through physical appearance. If you scroll through Billboard’s Top Country Artist of 2014,
you will notice an overwhelming number of “Aryan” looking “hunks.” There is not a single artist, male or female, who “looks Jewish.” To be successful in mainstream country music
it is important to look a certain “Christian” way, regardless of how musically
gifted one may be.
In efforts to diminish their inevitable outsiderness, Jews involved in the Southern music industry actively choose to mask their “Jewishness.” One of the most common tactics of concealed Jewish identity is “the name change.” For example, country star Ramblin’ Jack Elliot is “not an Elliot at all,” and Alana James changed her name from Elana Fermerman when entering the southern music industry. When I asked Barry Poss on how he presented his Jewish identity in work environments, he was taken aback, “Did I hide it? No, but I did not present it.” Some artists and other members of the industry, instead of changing their name, simply exclude their Judaism from the public realm.” Rhiannon Giddens, the lead singer of the Grammy-winning country, blues and old-time music band Carolina Chocolate Drops, is “half Black and half Jewish.” Like Jews, Blacks are outsiders of the South, however, unlike Jews they cannot mask their race. Since the majority of Jews are Caucasian they are not able to “desert their lives to become something different.”
Ray Benson, lead singer and guitarist of Grammy Winning band Asleep at the Wheel, not only changed
his name from Ray Seifert, but also completely concealed his Jewish identity
when entering the world of southern music. In 2008, 35 years after moving to
Austin, Texas from his birthplace of Philadelphia, Benson publicly announced
his Jewish faith. In an interview with the Jewish
Journal Benson describes utilizing his height and “not looking like the stereotypical Jew” as a
way to conceal his Judaism, thus advancing in the country music industry. Although most Jews in the industry view Benson’s shifting identity as a “part
of assimilation” and the realities of “entertainment,” others find it “fucking pathetic.” 
Exclusion or a Genre of Their Own?
As one can assume, it is very difficult to make money in an industry where you are viewed as an outsider. Even if you are an excellent musician that just happens to be Jewish, it is evident that the Southern music industry, especially country music, is “exclusive” and “identifies with Christianity.” To financially survive through playing music, the majority of Jewish musicians in the South play traditional Jewish Klezmer music. The revival of Klezmer music would not have occurred without the very notion of Jewish outsiderness. Five out of the seven interviewees recounted the story of Henry Sapoznik and Tommy Jarrell, which indicates the cultural significance of the story. Henry Sapoznik, a young Jew from New York, came to Mt. Airy, North Carolina, to learn old-time banjo from a man named Tommy Jarrell. When Jarrell discovered that Sapoznik was a Jew interested in learning Southern music, Jarrell was very puzzled. In reaction Jarrell asked Sapoznik, “Why are you playing my music, don’t your people have any of their own?” This interaction highlights the clear labeling of Jews as the “other” in the South. Since Southerners had their own music, Jews were expected to have their own as well. Since then, Sapoznik has launched the klezmer revival, and continues to play the music today. Artist such as Mark Rubin, who unable to make money elsewhere in the music industry are forced into the klezmer music business.” During our conversation Rubin recalled a specific anecdote that emphasized the music businesses intolerance for Jews. In 1996 after “relocating to Nashville” for his “big break” Rubin announced to a group of friends that he was going to “try to make it on his own.” After a “painful silence” a friend commented, “Nashville’s already got a bass playing Jew.” Now, after twenty years of being forced to play the musical genre of “his people” Rubin has released his first solo album, Southern Discomfort, which features “the music he grew up listening to” in Oklahoma, not klezmer music.
Altogether I have determined three different outcomes of the manifestation
of the Jewish identity in the industry of southern music. The first and most sustaining route is to maintain and
present ones Jewish identity through traditional Jewish music, such as Klezmer music.
Although this is not the typical music of the South, many Jewish artists are
forced into this genre because it allows them to openly present their Jewish
identity and remain active in the southern music industry. The second path, is
for Jews to mask or reject their religious identity and become mainstream. By
concealing ones Judaism artists are able to seamlessly assimilate into the
southern music industry in genres dominated by Gentile culture. The third, and
most difficult option, is to resist the push-back from the industry. These artists choose
to reject societal norms by presenting their Jewish identity and perform
mainstream Southern music. Although this route is difficult, artists such as Mark Rubin, are making the leap to change the face
of Jews in southern Music.
In conclusion, the plight of Jewish musicians is reflective of the Jews’s “outsider status” in Southern society. Although anti-Semitism did not define the experience of Jews in the South, events such as the lynching of Leo Frank illuminated the underlying inequalities of Southern culture. In addition to being outsiders to the society, Southern Jewish musicians are also over shadowed in the history of music by the Northern Jewish pioneers of old time and folk revival. The stories and experiences of these musicians should not be silenced by their religion.
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