Monday, August 11, 2008

My Mammy, Your Mammy

I give up. Is Jack Robin becoming Al Jolson becoming Eddie Fisher? Or is Eddie Fisher becoming Jolson becoming the blacked up Jolson-as-Jack Robin in The Jazz Singer? Who’s ghosting who? Does blackface haunt the Jewish entertainer, or is blackface the Jewish entertainer’s inevitable, utlimate desitination? This RCA LP from 1968 (you can tell it’s from the 60s because the blackface is faded into the background and not paraded front and center) is a pretty remarkable testament to both the lingering influence of Jolson on American popular song and the lingering influence of blackface on American popular song. Fisher came up in the 50s after Jolson had already died, but they were both Russian Jewish products of immigrant parents who did some name changing (Yoelson became Jolson, Fisch became Fisher). Their voices speak to their different eras as jazz singers who didn’t really sing jazz, and Fisher’s Jolson tribute is wrapped in the kind of over-produced pop shmaltz that Jolson didn’t need (his booming, elastic voice had more hammy drama than any producer could conjure in a studio). Fisher sings nothing but Jolson staples here, but it’s his version of “My Mammy” recorded in the thick of the Civil Rights era that is hardest to swallow. Jolson sang it– infamously– in blackface, on one knee, to his immigrant yiddishe momme in The Jazz Singer, as part of his bid for white Americanism via racial masquerade. Fisher sings it in whiteface, as an American, for mammy nostalgia, right when African-Americans were overhauling the racial legacy that blackface minstrelsy symbolized. By the late 40s, it was even hard to find Jolson doing harcore mammy shtick. On this LP released just after Jolson died (just after he returned from entertaining Korean War troops).


MJB784533 said...

Is it my imagination, or did RCA use the wrong instrumental backing track on the Eddie Fisher recording?!! His voice is obviously overdubbed, and the instrumental behind him bears very little resemblance to the song he is singing. No wonder he left Victor!! By the way, you confused us by describing the Fisher album cover but showing only the Jolson cover. If I hadn't seen the Fisher cover in your book (with the ghostly images of Jolson hovering over Eddie like Jakie Robbin's father did in the film Jazz Singer) I would have wondered what you were talking about!

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