Commentary Magazine

Blues, Jews, and Money

Few forms of American music are considered to be as indigenous, authentic, and regional as blues, especially Mississippi Delta blues. Born on isolated plantations, refined and embellished on Chicago’s South and West Side ghettos, the influence of blues on popular music has been inestimable. Indeed, the quintessential rock ’n’ roll band, the Rolling Stones, took its name from an obscure single by Mississippi-born McKinley Morganfield—aka Muddy Waters—recorded for a small, family-owned business in Chicago called Chess Records.

A new documentary, Born in Chicago, stresses that the spread of blues was far from inevitable. It makes clear, as well, the key role American Jews played in preserving and promoting the blues, as well as using it as the basis for new musical innovations of their own.

The film tells the story of a group of postwar teenage Jewish suburbanites from Chicago’s North Shore—including keyboardist Barry Goldberg, guitarist Harvey Mandel, harmonica player Corky Siegel, and, most notably, guitarist Michael Bloomfield—who began to haunt the blues lounges of the South and West Sides. There, they developed relationships with old masters such as Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, as well as rising stars of the era, such as Junior Wells and Magic Sam. These boys ended up serving as a sort of blues diaspora, through such influential white and interracial groups as the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Canned Heat, and the Rolling Stones (with whom Mandel played briefly). Then there was Bob Dylan, née Zimmerman, from Hibbing, Minnesota. Bloomfield played in particularly electrifying and original ways on Dylan’s best work, most notably the still fresh album Highway 61 Revisited (the title is a reference to the main drag in the Mississippi Delta). Unlike Dylan, who pretended otherwise early in his career, the late Bloomfield was always forthcoming about his Jewishness; in the 1967 film Festival (about the Newport Folk Festival), he distinguished his own life from those of blues musicians by bringing up his bar mitzvah and comfortable upbringing.

Born in Chicago complements this focus on these specific musicians with the story of Chess Records, the family enterprise of the Polish-born brothers Leonard and Phil Chess. They recorded Waters and Wolf, Otis Rush, Etta James, Sonny Boy Williamson, Little Walter, and blues-influenced rock ’n’ roll pioneers Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley. Leonard Chess’s son Marshall—who hilariously recalls first meeting his New Trier High School classmate Mike Bloomfield when the latter complimented him on the style of his pants—serves as the film’s de facto narrator.

It’s worth considering why Jews have been so much involved in all this—in both business and the music itself. For the Chess Brothers were not the only Jewish owners of independent record labels specializing in what is today celebrated as American “roots music.” Art Rupe of Specialty Records recorded Little Richard and Sam Cooke; Syd Nathan of King Records recorded James Brown, as well as a host of country greats including George Jones on his companion label, Starday. (And both made some of the greatest gospel-music recordings.) The easy answer, of course, involves some common bond of injustice and oppression.

Marshall Chess himself offers a version of this view in a piece about the movie in the New York Times. “I think there’s something in the pain of the blues, something deep, that touches something ancient in Jewish DNA,” he said. “It’s not easy to put into words, maybe because it’s beyond words, but it’s a true thing. When I stand next to cantors, and they are really wailing, it opens that same thing, some similarity that connects. Etta James, now she could sing like a cantor.”

One can well understand why Chess would feel compelled to place his family’s staggering library of recorded music in that sort of context. But he leads us in a much more fruitful direction in the film itself, when he confesses that, as a young man, he had simply thought of Chess Records as a family enterprise. As he put it in a 2008 interview with the British music magazine Clash: “You know, if your dad owns a grocery store you know about apples and oranges as you’re growing up but in my case I was just around this music, I didn’t realize it was anything different or special, it was something I was used to and all the characters and people that were involved in it.”

His father and uncle, in other words, set out to make a living—and in the process captured and popularized what has come to be viewed as a significant American art form. There is much to ponder in this. In general, small businessmen like the Chess Brothers, haunting South Side dives for talent, are not among those—whether scientists, physicians, or writers—whom Jews have traditionally celebrated. Mordecai Richler captured well the disdain felt by the small-business Jew in his novel The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, in which the entrepreneur hero clashes with a more refined uncle who compares his hustling nephew unfavorably with his doctor-in-training brother; for his part, Duddy sees his uncle’s pretensions to socialism as part of a deep discomfort and embarrassment with open capitalist ambition.

And yet from the brew of wheeling, dealing, and making a buck came Chess Records. Without the benefit of grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, Chess managed to make records without which the “discovery” of the blues by upper-middle-class whites would not have been possible. The Chess Brothers were struggling to find economic value in what others overlooked. To do so—and this is crucial—they had to understand, deeply, a culture not their own. One can see them as anthropologists without portfolios—not only learning about blues but also finding ways to figure out who was good and who was not. They did this not to create critical distinctions but to make hit records.

Not surprisingly, one can find unattractive websites that denounce all this as Jewish exploitation of the suffering underclass. That is nonsense. What Chess Records and others did was to create value from what might otherwise have been obscure and overlooked. It turns out that the skills associated with trade—understanding products and markets—are far from unrelated to the methods of the scholar. It’s only a few short steps from junkman to antiques dealer to museum curator. Are the Chess Brothers utterly unrelated to Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, the Paris gallery owner among the first to recognize the importance of Cubism (and to buy Picassos)? Kahnweiler, a Mannheim-born German Jew, had been groomed for the family stock-exchange business. Picasso, neither well-known nor well-off when Kahnweiler discovered him, would observe, “What would have become of us if Kahnweiler hadn’t had a business sense?” It’s all a good deal higher-brow than Chess Records—but without the Chess Brothers, celebrated American musicians would have probably died broke and obscure, and the Rolling Stones would have had to find another name.

It is not a surprise that successful Jewish businessmen often become great collectors, at times specializing in the work of cultures not their own. Commerce can call on the same habits of mind required for the aesthetic appreciation. The Hare with Amber Eyes, Edmund de Waal’s bestselling memoir of Vienna’s Ephrussi family, centers on the fate of the family’s prized collection of 17th-century Japanese netsuke—tiny, sculptural belt-ties for traditional kimonos—in the wake of the Nazi occupation. To collect such objects in the first place, the Euphrussis had to value art and understand a culture that could hardly be less European, or less Jewish.

Indeed, one of the largest surviving collections of netsuke can be found today in the Jewish Museum in Cape Town, South Africa—a bequest to the museum of Isaac Kaplan, whose family founded the Cape Gate Fence and Wire Works to sell gates and benches in the polyglot Cape Town region. Kaplan, to improve his understanding of netsuke, learned to read and write Japanese. None of this would have been possible without selling fences to farmers, just as the preservation and popularization of blues music would not have been possible without a Jewish family wanting to make a buck on some vinyl.

About the Author

Howard Husock is vice president for policy research at the Manhattan Institute and a former documentary filmmaker whose work in public broadcasting won three Emmy Awards.

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