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America Once Loved a Blackface

Don Rose 13 February 2019 One Comment

The blackface scandal enveloping two Virginia Democrats calls to mind the fact that the most popular, imitated and revered entertainer of the first half of the 20th Century began his career in 1904 as “The blackface with the grand opera voice.”

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   Al Jolson’s voice may not have actually been grand-operatic, but it was distinctive and as instantly recognizable as his energetic, gesticulating delivery. He was an inspiration to many later vocalists, including Tony Bennett–obviously minus  blackface.

    Born in 1884 in Russia as Asa Yoelson, he  joined a minstrel act in 1905–as did George M. Cohan, another early icon–then went on to triumph as a million-selling recording artist, vaudeville, Broadway, radio and movie star,  with a blackface routine always part of his act. He later billed himself  as “The World’s Greatest Entertainer” finding little disagreement–and little if any shaming for the blackface.

    In 1927 he starred and sang in the first full-length talking picture, “The Jazz Singer,” launching the talkies. Wearing blackface he got down on one knee, reached out his arms and belted “My Ma-a-ammy,” an image that still lives, for better or worse. Long after his death in 1953 Jolson impersonators featured it in their routines–until many realized that even mimicking an old character in blackface was a painful insult to African Americans.

    By the 1980s, those two educated Virginians certainly should have understood that dressing in blackface as a rapper or Michael Jackson was offensive.

    “The Jazz Singer” was essentially Jolson’s own story: a Jewish boy breaks from his religious family to have a career as a jazz singer, but–spoiler–they ultimately reconcile. It was remade sans blackface in 1953 with Danny Thomas and 1980 with Neil Diamond in Jolson’s role.

     “The Jolson Story,” a 1946 biopic, starred Larry Parks in blackface, lip-synching to Jolson’s actual singing. One of the year’s biggest money-makers, it earned Parks a best-actor Academy Award nomination. The soundtrack album topped the charts as did several singles from it, leading to a 1949 film sequel, “Jolson Sings Again” with similar successes.

    Though he thought of himself as a jazz singer, his wide-ranging  repertoire of the era’s standards-to-be included sentimental slush such as “Sonny Boy” and “The Anniversary Song”(sorry, Thelonious) plus a host of Deep South nostalgia ditties from “Swanee” to “Waiting for the Robert E. Lee” to “Rockabye  Your Baby with a Dixie Melody,” replete with “colored” accent–while the real Deep South was ruled by Jim Crow and rampant lynchings.

    Jolson, however, was never accused of being a racist. To the contrary, apart from having numerous African American friends and admirers, he was an early civil rights advocate, pushing to include black actors on Broadway, promoting black musicians and working to make jazz and blues respectable arts for white audiences.

    I am sure African Americans were deeply offended by blackface during Jolson’s years, though I can’t find much in the way of public condemnation. Perhaps when Jim Crow ruled and lynchings abounded, the  insult of blackface was of lesser concern. But that’s no excuse for those Virginians, decades after MLK, Brown v. Board, the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts.

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Don Rose is a regular columnist for the Chicago Daily Observer

One Comment »

  • Stephen Eichler said:

    Thanks for the balanced treatment of Jolson, Mr. Rose- hard to find these days. What most people don’t know anymore is that Jolson, in spite of blackface, was no racist. His black character on Broadway, “Gus”, was the foreunner of tv’s “Benson” – the wiley black servant who was always solving problems for his white masters. Jolson used the character to poke fun at the notion of White Supremacy. I doubt that Jolson ever thought of his use of blackface as hurtful.

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