Friday, August 1, 2008

Belle Barth: Uncensored

Pearlstein, Bernstein, Levitt, and Fink. Not a law firm, but a roll call of forbidden fruit, the “Nice Jewish Girls” who torture and taunt the Gentile bloodline of a young Loudon Wainwright III perhaps the most un-Jewish of all non-Jewish American singers. “Not Nordic names, I know,” he whines. It’s a short, odd ode to Country Day school boy-lust for the Other girls, the ones with the long names, the ones in the same tax bracket who hold out the mythical promise of exotic possibility somewhere deep in the suburbs. Jewish girls don’t usually get a good rap in pop culture– the wallet-draining, life-ruining, soul-stealing Jewish American Princess archetype has pretty much held Jewish women in a representational stranglehold for decades– and his song is no Jewish feminist anthem, but at least it’s momentarily celebratory. Plus, Wainwright comes off as the deprived and depaved one here. He may have the blue-blood, but they make his “juices flow” and by the song’s end, he sounds desperate for what he can’t have, like he’d do anything for them, like he’d stalk their Shabbas dinners, like he’d memorize Funny Girl, like he’d have a poster of Grace Adler on his dorm room wall (if she’d been invented yet). I’ve always wondered what would have happened if Wainwright had added Salzman to his Hebraic Hall of Fame– Annabelle Salzman to be exact. In the 50s and 60s, Salzman became the bawdy wonder Belle Barth, the gruff, potty-mouthed queen of a not-so-nice-Jewish-girls court that also included the likes of Pearl Williams and Patsy Abbott. Barth was a working-class trash-talker who worked nights in Miami Beach and Manhattan, sitting in front of the piano, singing about shmucks and oral sex, dishing insults at the insurance men in the front row. “If I embarrass you,” Barth liked to say, “Tell your friends.” Wainwright would have been on the next train back to Westchester.


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The late Belle Barth, Queen of the Borscht Belt and its Floridian outpost, released a whole series of what were euphemistically known as “adult party albums” in the early 1960s. They were, in essence, recorded collections of dirty jokes, as told by a woman who looked just like a nice Jewish housewife.

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