Amy Winehouse, Bob Dylan and The Clash in Jewish Museum exhibition

Jukebox Jewkbox. Picture: Jewish Museum Hohenems/Dietmar Walser

Jukebox Jewkbox. Picture: Jewish Museum Hohenems/Dietmar Walser - Credit: Archant

Bridget Galton talks to historian Alan Dein about marking a ‘Jewish century’ in the record industry

An exhibition celebrating 100 years of Jewish contribution to the record industry arrives in Camden Town this month.

Jukebox Jewkbox! at the Jewish Museum will feature scores of record sleeves, recordings, and examples of early gramophones – a machine dreamed up by Jewish inventor Emil Berliner.

“There are some things that are well known, and some more surprising hidden stories which we hope to highlight,” says curator Joanne Rosenthal.

“It’s been well documented that Jews made an important contribution to music in North America and Europe, but we also look at Arab Jewish music, Israeli, Yiddish theatre music and records of Jewish comedy.”

Golders Green radio broadcaster, and music historian Alan Dein contributed some words for the catalogue and part of his extensive vinyl collection to the exhibition.

“As a music fan it’s really exciting to celebrate a Jewish century recorded on shellac - the old 78s - and vinyl,” he says.

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Jewish songwriters and performers featured include Bob Dylan, Marc Bolan, The Barry Sisters who sang in Yiddish, Israeli duo Esther and Abi, and Sophie Tucker who sang the standard My Yiddishe Momme.

But it also covers Jewish founded record labels like Oriel and Decca, producers and managers like Brian Epstein, and even the Dansette record player which sold thousands and was made by a Jewish firm of cabinet makers in Old Street.

“It covers an incredible amount of ground, not just music but comedy like Mickey Katz who boasted of playing for ‘weddings, Bar Mitzvah’s and Brisses’” says Dein.

“There’s recordings of poets like Allen Ginsberg as well as education records encouraging children to learn Yiddish, and propaganda for the creation of the state of Israel. Jewish music is very wide ranging and there is everything from amateur recordings of Kantors in synagogues to Klezmer music to folk to jazz to punk.”

The exhibition asks: ‘What is a Jewish song?’

“Is it because the writer or singer just happens to be Jewish?” asks Dein.

“The exhibition covers that difficult question and realises it’s a grey area.

“Some might ask why are the Ramones there? Two members were Jewish, their manager was Jewish and the environment they hung out in was Jewish, although some will argue otherwise.”

The Clash are included because guitarist Mick Jones has a Jewish background, Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren had a Jewish mother and grew up in Stoke Newington, and Blondie is there because “although you can’t get more Aryan than Debbie Harry, guitarist and main songwriter Chris Stein has a strong Jewish identity tied to New York’s radical underground movement.”

Dein argues the late Amy Winehouse who lived just a few streets from the museum in Albert Street justifies a mention.

“Even if the music doesn’t seem Jewish, the experience and identity of the people who made it has an influence.

“None of Amy’s records are Jewish but as a Jewish girl whose parents came from the East End a lot of her sensibility and interest in soul and Afro American music was part of a cultural movement.

“She’s an extension of a lot of singers who came before her.”

The interactive exhibition is both sonic and visual with plenty of headphones where visitors can: “listen to the music, look at the sleeves and get a real sense of the visual history and the sound of the Jewish century and an understanding of the Jewish diaspora.”

Dein adds: “There have been plenty of projects on American Jewish music but it’s really a worldwide phenomenon, a global music culture from Poland, Germany, Israel, South Africa, Australia.”

The Polish Jewish Jazz label Syrena Rekord which between 1904 and the invasion of Poland in 1939 produced 14,000 gramophone recordings before being destroyed by the Nazis is just one story.

Dance hall big bands in the 1930s like Bert Ambrose and Joe Loss were led and populated by young Jewish East End musicians for whom music was “a way of escape and doing something different and cosmopolitan,” says Dein.

Some like Bolan and Dylan changed their Jewish surnames Dein speculates because “it wasn’t fashionable to be Jewish or to show off your cultural background as it is today.”

Or in the case of composer Jacob Eberst, a Jewish immigrant who escaped to Paris, he who changed his name to Jacques Offenbach.

“The exhibition is incredibly fun, colourful, some of the sleeves have to be seen to be believed they are so kitsch.

“The Jewish connections with the record industry are everywhere, and this covers the whole gamut of the industry from the high end to privately produced recordings pressed by the synagogues,” says Dein.

Jukebox Jewkbox runs July 12 to October 16 and includes talks from artists, academics and workshops