Paradoxically, the first recording by a classical artist to sell over one million copies was “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny,” the minstrel version of a folksong cut in 1916 by a Romanian Jewish soprano who knew bupkis about Old Virginny. As we learn from a cogent chapter in “The Arts of the Prima Donna in the Long Nineteenth Century,” Reba Fiersohn (1882-1938) who performed under the stage name Alma Gluck, made a hit in this unlikely repertoire, also recording such Southern-themed numbers as Stephen Foster’s “Old Black Joe.” The chapter’s author, Susan C. Cook, a University of Wisconsin music professor, analyzes Gluck’s chaste voice with sparse vibrato, which can be admired in a variety of CD reissues and MP3 downloads.
Cook places the songbird in the context of Jewish performers who employed blackface (including such vaudevillians as Al Jolson and Eddie Cantor), noting that “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny,” evokes “nostalgic loss, voiced by a devoted ex-slave who longs to rejoin his previous owners in the afterlife.” Cook adds: “Gluck’s participation in the mammy masquerade helped her to secure a place on the high-art stage as a foreign-born Jew… Gluck assimilated into normative American whiteness by donning and doffing the mammy mask, thereby singing from the position of the free-born and the ‘not-colored.’” These rationalizings do not explain the public’s ardent response to recordings by Gluck, whose audible empathy and tenderness separate her from the muggings of Jolson and Cantor.
On February 7, at New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage, a new publication from New York University Press, “Is Diss A System? A Milt Gross Comic Reader” edited by Ari Y. Kelman, will be presented. Gross (born in 1895) of Russian Jewish ancestry, drew comic strips of wild slapstick energy, following in the violence-for-laughs tradition of “The Katzenjammer Kids.” A self-consciously low comedian, Gross drew racist images of black people and was not all that flattering about Jews either.
Gross’s defiantly insensitive gift for visual anarchy got him jobs in Hollywood writing and directing short films like “Izzy Able the Detective” (1921) and “Jitterbug Follies” (1939; see below). Gross was even reportedly hired by Charlie Chaplin to invent sight gags for the silent film “The Circus.”