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American Music Lectures

©2008 Elliot Bassman. Used by permission.
© EB *

“Oh What A Charming City”:  New York City in Folk & Popular Song

We often associate American folk music with rural or regional music — but there’s a rich history of urban singing & songwriting as well.  New York City’s musical tradition extends from 18th- & 19th-century broadside ballads to Tin Pan Alley, Broadway, & the various “folk revivals” of the 20th century, & from street-corner “doo-wop” harmony singing & the Brill Building in the 1950s & 60s to the cutting-edge singer-songwriter offerings of the 80s, 90s, & today.  Listen to crime songs, transportation songs, housing songs, & other songs of life & love in the City — and consider how New York City songs reflect the sights & sounds, the rhythms & energy, & the peculiar problems & charms of urban living.
The Del Vikings

“They All Sang on the Corner”: The Roots of ‘Doo-Wop’ Rock ’n Roll

“In almost any ethnic neighborhood in the early 1950s, in housing project and school yard, there was that sound — on street corners under lamplight or moonlight, under boardwalks or elevated train lines, inside hallways and under stairwells.” Explore the components of the style of vocal group harmony singing that became known as “doo-wop” — “the forgotten third of rock ’n roll”; consider its musical, social, cultural, & religious roots; & hear how this music, in its innocence & quest for harmony, so beautifully conveyed the poetry of inner-city life. With examples from black, white, & integrated groups & from all five boroughs of New York City.

©2008 Elliot Bassman. Used by permission.
© EB *

American-Jewish Music & African-American Music: Shared Visions & Dreams

“America is not made up of separate, free-floating cultures, but rather of a constant interplay and exchange” (Ralph Ellison). American-Jewish music has incorporated African & African-American musical idioms — blues & jazz, reggae & world music, even gospel & rap — to express the exuberance & vitality of contemporary Jewish life; while Jewish texts & Jewish musical themes have spoken to Africans & African-Americans alike, who have enriched them musically & enhanced their message. Listen in on the ongoing musical conversation between blacks & Jews.

© Cherie Salerno.  Used by permission.
© CS ‡
“Melting Pot” or “Gorgeous Mosaic”?: Ethnic Music in the City

Consider how three ethnic groups — Irish Americans, African-Americans, & American Jews — have enriched our urban musical palette & our American songbag while adapting to an urban environment & the urban music business: with memorable & oft-used “folk” melodies; with pop songs — often mega-hits — that had their origin as the music of a specific ethnic community; & with exuberant new urban musical forms, like rhythm & blues & “doo-wop” rock ’n roll. We’ll listen to many familiar songs & learn about their unfamiliar origins — and consider the role of mass media in disseminating ethnic music.
©2008 Elliot Bassman. Used by permission.

From Hasidic to Folk Rock: Brooklyn & Jewish Music

Contemporary American-Jewish folk, popular, & religious music reflects a strong Hasidic influence as well as an eclectic range of indigenous American musical styles. Brooklyn religious communities & Brooklyn-born musicians have played conspicuous roles both in creating authentic Hasidic music & in generating so-called “neo-Hasidic” music out of diverse & exhilarating fusions of traditional Jewish music & American folk, rock, bluegrass, country, & jazz — along with world music & reggae.

Klezmer Kaos

Klezmer Music: From Old World to New World & Our World

“Klezmer music” was the instrumental music that traditionally accompanied Jewish weddings in Eastern Europe — and that immigrated to this country, along with the musicians who performed it, in the late 19th & early 20th centuries & has been further Americanized, & enlarged with a Yiddish vocal repertoire, since the 1970s. We’ll discuss classical & contemporary klezmer instruments & repertoire & listen to klezmer music — from rare European recordings to the stars of early-20th-century American klezmer & the new traditions being created in the klezmer revival today.

Statue of liberty The American-Jewish Immigrant Experience in Song

For Eastern European Jewish immigrants to this country, “America was both dream and reality, and in the manner of dreams a bundle of contradictions.” So: Readings & musical recordings — idealistic & disillusioned, hopeful & bitter — make up a journey in sound: from ships bound for America to the Statue of Liberty & Ellis Island & into the New World; from patriotic anthems to songs of the sweatshops; from lullabies & laments to rollicking songs of the Yiddish theater.
The Andrews Sisters

Jewish Music into the Mainstream: Jewish Themes in American Popular, Classical, & Folk Music

Throughout the past century, American-Jewish composers, & some non-Jewish musicians as well, have infused mainstream musical forms & styles — from popular song & musical theater to folk music & bluegrass; from classical music & jazz to reggae & world music — with Jewish passions & yearning as well as Jewish musical themes & motifs: with the sounds of Jewish chant & the texts of Jewish prayer.

Folkways “When Stealing Is (Sometimes) Legal”: The ‘Folk Process’ in Urban Music

What is a folk song? We often associate “folk music” with songs that are both ancient & rural, but many composed songs — often the products of various urban “folk revivals” — pass the “Is It Folk?” test as well, & become “created folk music.” We’ll consider how songs get transmitted & changed in the city, the role of the mass media, & how a “folk” song can become a “pop” song & vice versa. Plus: how city songs have served as organizing tools in the service of political & social change; how ethnic & religious music adapts to an urban environment; & how older melodies from diverse sources are frequently “borrowed” to create new “folk songs.” Along the way, listen to a rich palette of city songs from various decades.


New Wings for Our Prayers - Download Robert Cohen's lecture series brochure

Lecture/presentations — with exhilarating recorded musical illustrations — on the sources and variety of American-Jewish folk, popular, and liturgical music, in the 20th century and today.

Download brochure

Elliot Bassman - The Empire State
   © EB *

For information on my New York Council for the Humanities lectures on
New York City songs and American-Jewish music, view my lectures page on their website



For information about my Jewish music lectures, visit the Jewish Music Lectures pages.

* © Elliot Bassman. Used by permission.
‡ © Cherie Salerno. Used by permission.


ROBERT L. COHEN: WORDS & MUSIC

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