Book Review

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There Was a Fire: Jews, Music and the American Dream

By Ben Sidran

If you love music and are fascinated by the history of American music, this amazing book is a must read. Even for readers already aware of Jewish contributions to the American music scene, the profound shaping of American myths by Jewish immigrants and the immense role they played is detailed by Sidran, a musician in his own right as well as a historian and master storyteller. The myth of a sentimental, gentle old south, for example, found in popular songs like "Mammy," and "Swanee," revealed a longing for a safe and loving environment totally at odds with the tenements and recent shtetl lives of the immigrant songwriters, but authentic for them because that kind of safety was a shared dream. 

Sidran asks at the beginning of the book, how can we possibly understand twentieth century American popular music without understanding Jews' contribution to it?" And as it turns out, Jewish talent, creativity and values paired with intense will to succeed in their newly adopted land ended up impacting American thought and American identity in deeply complex and layered ways. From Tin Pan Alley to the current corporate dominance of what we listen to, Jewish voices continue to shape our collective sense of self. 

Sidran's history is long (605 pp) and densely packed with insider stories, facts and explanations but the back stories provided by the author make this book difficult to put down. And his joy at pointing out again and again and again the Jewishness of songwriters, performers, technicians, agents and industry honchos is barely concealed. He clearly gets a kick out of the sheer numbers of Jewish music people. 

This is a fascinating but highly academic work, thoroughly and impeccably researched. If you're looking for a stimulating and informative read, There Was a Fire is well worth your time. 

 Sisterhood gives this book: five stars

Sisterhood gives this book: five stars

-- Laura Schulman